The Biggest, Baddest Gang in Town
I live in Chicago, where police abuse is a disheartening daily reality, concentrated almost entirely in black communities, ruining lives, splitting up families. The white professionals I know live in good neighborhoods, ensconced either in downtown high-rises or out in the suburbs, safely away from the violence but hearing enough about it to casually blame it on gangs. But there’s one vicious street gang, flagging the color blue and in numbers higher than in any other major city, that no one wants to talk about.
The issue of police abuse is often framed in terms of a dichotomy that separates “good cops” on the one hand from “bad cops” on the other, thus reducing the question to how we address a supposedly few aberrant cases. Within this framework, police abuse is necessarily a marginal phenomenon, an infrequent occurrence caused by the especially violent proclivities of bad apples, but never reflecting the more general, inherent defect in police departments themselves. Tweak a few things here and there on the margins, the theory goes, and “problem solved.”
But police abuse actually has precious little to do with the unique character of any individual officer. Rather, it is a symptom of much larger structural deficiencies which create perverse incentive frameworks and allow officers to commit crimes with impunity, operating outside of the normal justice system that applies to the rest of us. Increasingly militarized and hostile toward their communities, American police departments as institutions are themselves the problem. The problem with policing cannot be reduced to good or bad cops any more than the problem with politics is merely a question of good or bad politicians.
Police departments do exactly what monopolies always do — abuse and cheat consumers and, in the words of Benjamin Tucker, “furnish poison instead of nutriment.” As monopolies, police departments are exempt by law from any competitive pressures, which are the only truly effective means of ensuring that they don’t exploit and harm their consumers, the communities they “protect and serve.” “[T]he State,” Tucker writes, “takes advantage of its monopoly of defence to furnish invasion instead of protection.” Its patrons pay for the privilege of their own enslavement.
Market anarchists believe that legitimate protection against crime is an important component of a free society. Police officers, however, commit far more crime than they have ever stopped, kill far more than they are killed, harrying our communities like a foreign, occupying force. Having armed our municipal officers to the teeth with hand-me-down United States military equipment, lifted them above all risk of accountability or indictment, and exalted their misdeeds as the brave feats of unsung and underappreciated heroes, we have virtually guaranteed continued savagery and malfeasance.
America’s pestilent culture of military worship and national security has spread and influenced the way that we perceive police officers, abrading what is supposed to be a venerable American tradition of respect for civil liberties. Now we simply expect to be intimidated, stopped, harassed, searched, and arrested without cause. We aren’t living in anything like a “free country” — indeed, we haven’t for some time now. The police are not our peaceful protectors, but barbarous tools of occupation and conquest, class instruments meant to keep an otherwise free people in line, heads down, asking no questions and doing as we’re told.