A note on the police or – “Why I don’t trust the police.”

Police brutality is back in the news cycle following the Dallas shootings, Philando Castile shooting, and [insert your regional news cycle shooting here] in early July. I expect the topic to be removed from the news cycle as the Olympics draw closer so I am writing this note now explaining why I don’t trust the police and why I hope other classical liberals have similar reservations.

Two quick asides:

  1. I am at heart at pacifist and I don’t encourage the use of violence against anyone.
  2. The current literature shows that police activity reduces crime rates; here is an ungated article for those interested in reading part of that literature.

I come from a poor migrant family and was raised in Los Angeles’ Koreatown back in the 90s. The area has become more middle classed in recent years due to new development, but at the time it was a working class neighborhood populated largely by recent migrants and other minority groups. Unsurprisingly there was plenty of crime and the sound of police sirens and helicopters was common for me growing up.

Despite this I don’t think I ever held police in a high prestige. It is true that I often saw the police round up criminals, but I also saw them round up several innocents or perpetrators of ‘victimless’ crimes, mostly unlicensed merchants.

Many of the migrants in my neighborhood, including my family, were illegal and therefore unable to acquire employment in the formal sector. To survive they instead turned to work in the informal sector. I had a neighbor who ran a bakery from her kitchen and sold her goods on the street. Another neighbor sold various electronics and clothing apparel; during the weekend they would go around buying things from garage sales in bulk and re-sell them during the week. My father ran a taco stand. Often times the police would harass these informal vendors by confiscating their goods and/or destroying their makeshift stands. I vividly remember my father’s taco stand being thrown to the street when he didn’t have the proper documents for passing police.

In my mind the police were worse than the criminals they put away. To be sure criminals are undesirable, but most of the ones I encountered in my youth only wanted to steal what cash you had and they would leave you alone otherwise. On the other hand whenever my father’s taco stand was raided by the police his cash would be confiscated and he’d be put back several hundred dollars in fines and having to rebuild his stand. Not only was a robbery cheaper, but criminals never pretended to have the moral high ground.

Note that in my story there was no mention of police corruption. The police who harassed my family and neighbors might have been acting out of genuine belief that they were serving the public good. Their good intentions still had negative consequences for the neighborhood though. Those who were harassed were the immediate losers, but so were their consumers. There were plenty of people who would have wanted to purchase from the informal vendors, but were denied the freedom to do so.

-And for what reason? It was not like vendors in the informal market have any incentive to cheat their consumers. The neighborhood baker might not have been licensed, but she could hardly afford to give food poisoning to anyone.  The apparel salesperson relied on repeat business and would quickly be out of business if they didn’t sell clothing others wanted. My father certainly wasn’t adding horse meat to the tacos or anything like that – migrants are picky about how their tacos are made!

The police may be filled with good intentions, but they ultimately are enforcers of illiberal laws. If well intentioned can so easily cause harm one needn’t much imagination to see how corrupt police can do much worse. It is difficult for me to understand those who defend the police or even honor them. It may be the case that they are a necessary evil to discourage other criminals, but they are still an evil themselves. Police ought to be tolerated at best, but never glorified.