Libertarian police officers

When I graduate Chico State in two years, I’ll have Bachelors in both Philosophy and Criminal Justice and a certificate in teaching Critical Thinking and Logic. The political science degree is largely a buffer for the barren philosophy job market, with the benefit of avoiding comments about wasting my time and money. The free market rewards talent; I am learning multiple skill sets.

The reality of working with a criminal justice degree is that I will probably be in procedural justice at some point. I could study pre-law right now and go for administration or argumentation, but the degrees are sufficiently similar in preparing for law school (philosophy majors do better on the LSAT than law majors, anyway), and the criminological aspect of criminal justice is more interesting than mundane memorization of legal case studies.

At some point, I’ll want to become a detective – it seems like an unmatched intellectual exercise and the work is rewarding. However, to make detective, years of patrol is expected. Almost all detectives and high-ranking officers in police departments begin as beat cops. Here the question arises: how could I possibly enforce laws to which I am strictly morally opposed?

I’ve written elsewhere about the disastrous path of American law enforcement. It’s not a great thing to have on my resume when applying for departments. A simple fact is that outsider thinking is discouraged for patrol.

The criminal justice system relies on tremendous obedience. Alternative thinking just has no place in the enforcement aspect of law enforcement. In war, soldiers follow orders, generals project them, politicians fund them. The police department operates microcosmically similar. (With many veterans returning to the states and serving as officers, this similarity becomes even more prevalent. Much of the ideological militarization of departments has its roots here.) The police are (supposed to be, ideally) the enforcers of democratically conceived legislation. Their role is contingent on society’s and they are not expected to reflect or speculate on the law. My own minor-in-possession infraction a couple years ago is illustrative: having a conversation with my detaining officers, they unanimously agreed that the drinking age should not be lowered. This in a culture with one of the highest alcoholism and binge-drinking rates – not shared by all of the other developed countries with lower minimum drinking ages (the United States is one of very few with over 18 legislation, another notable country is Japan). So, do police officers suffer unashamed ignorance about the discordance of law and order, or dysfunctional faith in the creed of criminal justice, or are they just doing their democratic job and avoiding an opinion?

I don’t think my detaining officers believed that twenty-one is somehow an optimal age to begin legally consuming alcohol. Working in Chico and citing students daily for pulic intoxication (not to mention responding to emergency calls for poisoning) is enough for a reasonable officer to think, hey, maybe this law isn’t doing its job right. So it’s a matter of opinion discretion. Alternative thinking is not appreciated by law enforcement, and reasonably so. Intellectualism has a place in administration and jurisprudence and Constitutional law, but not patrol. Patriotism and firm belief in contemporary majoritarian values are crucial in officers to keep the apparatus functioning and maintain trust between the shared culture in the department and on the street.

Were I to take up the shield – which is probable if departments don’t reject me on behalf of all my anti-authoritarian articles over the past few years – it would seem difficult to reconcile enforcement with my libertarian instincts. Detaining a student for underage drinking, say, would run very counter-intuitive to all my political reasoning thus far. Indeed, I would be the one with an expensive fine were criminal justice not always about the wrong place and the wrong time. (I wonder how communities like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition proceed – you can’t just not do your job on the job. It seems that any conspicuous libertarian ideals would be rooted out from a department.)

And yet the police force, with its declining reputation among citizens, serves a vital role beneath all the of the mala prohibita legislation, tradition and pot busts: public safety. There is the central function of police, beyond their democratic institution, to protect property and life. Liberty is fought for in courtrooms and, ever increasingly, online; not within the police department. In this stance I find myself aligning with R. P. Wolff’s distinction of philosophical opinions and political opinions… he found himself a philosophical anarchist and political liberal, and here I find myself philosophically libertarian and politically democratic.

I don’t think that change begins behind the badge, and so it seems reasonable to continue the supposedly democratically-conceived enforcement as public servant while background processes shape liberty. In fact it’s one of the few ways to be a “public servant” and actually fulfill this function meaningfully.

Also, here’s an article parodying libertarian law that, though ripe with misunderstanding, is hysterical:


3 thoughts on “Libertarian police officers

  1. If I were you, I’d try to see which police departments have the most polycentric structure in their community policing techniques (Indianapolis comes to mind, but I don’t really know where else). You’d still be faced with a lot of moral dilemmas, but you’ll probably be given more freedom of judgement in law enforcement techniques in individual situations. You’ll just have to do research in the department before you start working there.

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