Over the last few days there has been a prodigious number of pixels conscripted to the task of talking about police, and law, and how things go wrong. I shall collect a few posts: on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, Cedar Sanderson and Amanda Green. Over at Vox Popoli, a discussion on the intrinsic danger of the law, complete with libertarian utopia in the comments. (Sigh.) And Armed and Dangerous has a contribution as well.
The details of exactly what happened to Eric Garner seem to change based on what point the commentator is wishing to make, but the basic structure of the incident seems to be that this man, a rather ordinary human being complete with faults (who among us is perfect?) and a habit of getting himself arrested for violating petty laws, ended up dead due to a “kinetic interaction” with the police. (Look, no guns this time. Perhaps what we really need is Police Control, not gun control.)
A lot of people have quite a lot of differing reactions to this chain of events. I’m still wishing that the media would choose an actual sainted martyr instead of a petty criminal for their cause of “delegitimize the government” – which is exactly what’s happening here. But perhaps that’s merely my own provincialism at work, and the fate of Eric Garner and other such unheroic petty criminals is exactly what we all should be talking about, rather than the instances of true innocents being persecuted. Innocents are hard to find, considering humanity’s imperfection; and smart people, by definition, are much much less likely to be caught – or if caught for white-collar crime, much less likely to end up in a physical altercation.
Given that smart people, if they choose to break the law, are less likely to get caught doing it by police in an aggressive standoff, and the majority of individuals in any given population is going to consist of those who are below average and average intelligence, the system of laws and street-level enforcement in any just society must be designed to deal with stupid people, that is, the low-IQ and those who are generally decently intelligent but are having Idiot Moments. (Smart people are a different problem; when they go really bad, they go to Wall Street or Washington, after all.)
Having an Idiot Moment in front of a police officer is a good way to get dead. This is a simple fact of life; cops are not omniscient, they have off days as well, even without considering the systemic, institutional problems involved in the ever-more-militarized police bureaucracy. Having an Idiot Moment in front of the armed, licensed-to-kill agents of the state is always going to be a potential Darwin Award event, even if we managed somehow to have a perfect world in which police officers are beloved friends of absolutely everyone in the community and never have Idiot Moments themselves.
One petty criminal, well known to the local constabulary as a scofflaw, in a world where petty crime often leads to escalating violent criminality, having an Idiot Moment while the cops are also having Idiot Moments (if one subscribes to the “they should have handled that better” position, which is a rather rich position to take for armchair theorists whose jobs never put them into contact with violent criminals) – combined with ill health on the part of the victim – and it’s all too clear that “what else can you reasonably expect?” applies, as far as short-term takeaways go. Protect yourself first, and don’t get into heated arguments with people who (a) already don’t like you for whatever reason, and (b) are used to using physical violence to back up their decisions. If Mr. Garner hadn’t died, would anyone have even cared if he’d been arrested for the nth time? Would the media have paid any attention to the problem of cops lying, ridiculous laws, etc. if there weren’t a dead body involved? Unfortunately, I very much doubt it.
And yet, there are problems, and those problems do need to be addressed. Cop Attitude is not healthy for society. A legal system full of petty regulations is not healthy for society. An enforcement system that endlessly arrests repeat offenders in a frustrating (for everyone!) cycle of uselessness is not good for society in oh so many ways. Media stories that like to focus on OMG raaaaacism! based on nothing more than the skin color of the people involved (the irony) are also not good for society, because an amorphous attitude of “institutional” racism is exactly like anthropogenic climate change: you can blame it for anything but there’s nothing practical that anybody can do about it that doesn’t involve killing millions for standing in the way of “progress.” Which might be “practical” but as a solution to the problem of human nature and human existence… well, let’s just say I prefer humanity to continue existing in an imperfect state rather than pile up corpses in pursuit of the Super-man. Let us continue to strive. (Certainly this preference has to do with my peculiar religion, which celebrates this month the incarnation of God into human nature, so that one man might actually be perfect, and yet still suffer the punishment due to wrongdoers so that imperfect humanity might be redeemed, and someday made perfect by Divine intervention. Which is the only way it’s ever going to happen.)
The angry response to such a tragedy is also to be expected. There is a certain amount of discussion that must be had about the specifics of it; whether or not the police department in question has institutional attitude problems that need to be addressed, whether or not the law that Mr. Garner was accused of breaking is a good one, what constitutes reasonable force and appropriate risk mitigation for both police officers and agitated citizens and whether or not the decisions made in the heat of that particular moment were wise or foolish. (From what I hear, everyone involved was having an Idiot Moment, but hindsight is 20/20.)
I happen to think that there is at least one problem that might be usefully addressed, without having to engage in 20/20 hindsight or casting blame about on all parties for collectively being utter morons, and though libertarian utopias amuse me, it happens to be one of the libertarian arguments.
Cops shouldn’t be able to use their position as cops to shield themselves from prosecution. In this country we have laws that apply when a person’s actions result in the death of another; murder, manslaughter, etc. And while I think the cries of “murder” are unhelpful hyperbole (since I do not think that the officers at the scene intended to kill Mr. Garner with malice aforethought: they could easily have offed him quietly elsewhere and elsewhen if that were the case) there is an argument to be made that the inadvertent death of Mr. Garner qualifies as some form of careless manslaughter. That the fact that it happened while the police officers were attempting to carry out what they no doubt saw as their sworn duties should not protect them from legal charges for negligence. I’m going with the “no titles of nobility” argument: that law enforcement should not themselves have immunity from the laws that they enforce.
The judicial system (and its supporters) like to say that if police did not have immunity, then the judicial system would be swamped with people suing officers for carrying out their duties. I’m not especially sympathetic to the judicial system in any case, and this sounds like some kind of whine about not wanting to do their jobs, to me. Surely there are other solutions to vexatious litigation than rendering a police badge a title of feudal authority and dividing people into nobles and serfs! (How much of the Cop Attitude stems from this protection from consequences of wrongdoing, I wonder?)
If causing an accidental death is something that an ordinary citizen will be brought to trial for doing, it seems to me that it would be very good for America that police officers should face the same fate, and not receive cover by claiming that is all part of the job. Self-defense is one thing, and indeed police officers have to use a slightly different mindset since it is their job to secure violent persons. But if in the course of securing a violent person, that person dies – well, there certainly needs to be an accounting. And the police bureaucracy is obviously not trusted to do that accounting, and I think that there are very good reasons why that is the case that don’t involve accusations of systemic racism.
It’s not illegitimate to look at this situation and say “What could Mr. Garner have done differently to avoid this situation from his end?” as a means of acting wisely oneself, but the whole problem of police engagement is that they will still be engaging with people acting foolishly even in a perfect world in which all police officers are paragons of righteousness and restraint! There is far too much collateral damage being done by police these days; in an age of SWAT raids on wrong addresses and shooting twelve-year-olds who are brandishing toy guns, police simply don’t have the social trust they need when something hairy happens and things go wrong.
That lack of trust is due to police actions, and only police action can earn it back.