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Ferguson And How We Feel About Cops

Ferguson shows us what happens when militarized cops go overboard.

If you want an indication about where someone sits on the dividing line between conservative and libertarian, sometimes it’s as simple as how they answer this question: how do you feel about cops? Do you naturally tend to trust them, viewing them as a necessary and needed hedge acting in defense of law and order? Or are you naturally suspicious of them, believing them to be little more than armed tax collectors and bureaucrats with a tendency to violence and falsehood in service of their whims? Are cops the brave individuals who stand between the law-abiding and those who would rob, rape, and kill, or are they the low-level tyrannical overpaid functionaries of the administrative state, more focused on tax collection in the form of citations, property grabs, and killing the occasional family dog?

This isn’t to say that only libertarians are suspicious of cops. There has always been a strain of conservatism very skeptical of government power, and as police forces have become more interested in seizing assets and ignoring complaint, many conservatives have become openly critical of their behavior. Indeed, Mary Katharine Ham has a great response to what we’re seeing in Ferguson, as does Kevin Williamson. But how you answer that initial question will tell you a lot about your political assumptions regarding authority.

If you are a cop skeptic, the increase in heavily armed SWAT teams over the past few years has been of great concern, as Radley Balko and others have detailed extensively. Smart policing keeps the footprint small in localities, focused on service to the community. In big cities, where large police forces make more sense to guard against real criminal threats, the presence of heavily armed police forces is less surprising. But thanks to federal policy, homeland security and drug war funding, and the availability of gear and equipment used in the war on terror, local police forces are now more heavily armed than ever, routinely wielding military equipment, grenades, and even MRAPs.

These local forces are often ill-trained to use this gear or to perform duties like crowd control without inciting the people to violence. The cop with a pistol and a club is one thing – the one clad in desert camouflage with the machine gun or sniper rifle trained on the peaceful assembly which just happens to be very upset at cops is another thing entirely. It is hot, and the crowd is loud and angry, and the trigger is just right there… As Homer warned, “iron by itself can draw a man to use it.”

In the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, there are obvious faults on all sides. Most obvious is the response from the police: the initial incident seems jarring indeed: a police officer claims an unarmed youth not apparently committing any crime and without clear motivation assaults him and grabs for his gun. The officer draws his gun and fires. The youth flees. He is apparently shot dead in the back from a distance. The story does not look good, at all. As my colleague Sean Davis noted yesterday, if a civilian had done this – even one who had truly been assaulted and feared for his life – they would be in jail right now waiting prosecution as opposed to on paid leave funded by the taxpayers.

The population of Ferguson has reacted with obvious frustration, followed by an overreaction of rioting and looting. The cops have responded by what seems from all appearances to be a massive crackdown on protesters and criminals alike, an escalation of arrests that includes tear gassing people for doing little more than yelling epithets from their own back yards. And so those people stopped throwing bad words and started throwing bricks and molotov cocktails.

This is overreaction, and it is unlawful, and must be stopped. But it is also understandable. For those on the right who do not think it is true, imagine what the reaction would be if, say, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s special militia – oh, and they are well-armed – was shot down in the streets of Fort Worth. The response would be massive, and who knows how open carry would play into it.

Yesterday, cops made their first mistake with national implications: they arrested some journalists hanging out in a McDonalds, for no particular reason, and fired bean bags and tear gas at other reporters.

“During this time, we asked the officers for badge numbers. We asked to speak to a supervising officer. We asked why we were being detained. We were told: trespassing in a McDonald’s. “I hope you’re happy with yourself,” one officer told me. And I responded: “This story’s going to get out there. It’s going to be on the front page of The Washington Post tomorrow.” And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re going to be in my jail cell tonight.”

Journalists love nothing more than to write about themselves, and particularly to write about themselves as martyrs or heroes. So you can bet they’ll be paying attention, and writing some more pieces about their harsh abuse, as the streets descend into further violence. It’s not that your rights don’t matter, of course, it’s just that their rights, you see, are just more important. Some people are more equal than others.

Absent from this scene: the authorities who could weigh in to help bring order to this situation and confirm to the people that justice will be done in regard to this dead child. But have no fear, good people of Ferguson – the tragedy there has done nothing to interrupt the party in Martha’s Vineyard, where President Obama toasted Vernon Jordan and danced the night away. It is good to know that no matter what troubles the populace endures, the monarch’s show goes on.

“Justice is the end of government,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 51. “It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” It can be lost because of the mob, or it can be lost because of the response to the mob – and conservatives who believe in law and order should understand that. Responsible governance in this situation would involve de-escalation and conciliation, not militarization.

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