Recent and current events have brought some films from the mid-1970s to mind. More on that later.
The most recent issue of The New Republic, a magazine that has been around for quite some time and has a distinctly leftward slant, featured an article by staff writer Matt Ford entitled “The Police Were a Mistake.” Mr. Ford, is undoubtably intelligent and a technically decent writer (or he has a very good editor). But evidenced by his opinion and advocacy in the article, he is either insane or a fool.
His thesis is that municipal and state police forces have become the standing armies that was feared by America’s Founders. He quotes parcels of James Madison’s speech to the Constitutional Convention in which Madison warns that “a standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” Those words, “not long be safe companions to liberty” could more aptly apply to today’s administrative state, which has all but supplanted the elected executive of the nation and those of many states.
Mr. Ford’s invocation of Madison’s warning is apposite to the vast law enforcement powers of the federal administrative state, as well as many of the states and some large cities, such as New York, that he cites as a prime example. He fails, however, to cite the abuses of many of the enforcement arms of the administrative state.
Instead, Ford’s beef is with municipal police departments who “overpolice” low income urban areas, inhabited by mainly black persons. Well, those neighborhoods are where most street crimes occur. And their residents are almost always victims of those crimes.
Ford proposes a solution, nearly as idiotic as wholesale abolishment of the police:. “Perhaps smaller, detective-heavy police departments that focus on homicides, white collar offenses, and other major crimes would be a healthier alternative. Perhaps shifting the bulk of police budgets into housing, mental health care, and other social services would be a better long-term investment.” Really? Before I unpack the first sentence of Mr. Ford’s quoted proposal, it is useful to recall John Maynard Keynes’s quip that in the long-term, we are all dead. Citizens need to be safe now.
“Homicides”? There are few whodunit murders a la Agatha Christie, Perry Mason, or other crime novelists. Most homicides in urban areas are gang related, either killing rival gang members, or sadly, locals who get caught in the crossfire. Ford claims that the police are “not very good” at discovering and charging the perpetrators. Perhaps so. But gathering evidence sufficient to arrest and convict the number of murderers in one weekend in Chicago, for example, would require much larger, not smaller, departments.
“White collar crime”? Leftists love to point out that financial crime — embezzlement, securities fraud, and the like — costs more in dollars than petty street crime. True enough, depending on one’s definition of a “white-collar” crime. But it’s really a matter of degree. White collar crime rarely threatens the livelihood of its victims, who are most often entities that can absorb losses. These misdeeds have to be detected and punished, of course, but that leads us to the last of Ford’s trilogy.
“Other major crimes”: Where do we draw the line? One of my complaints about most penal codes is that they reckon the severity of property crimes by the dollar value of the loss without regard to the impact on the victim, for the most part. If a thief stole $100 from a mother receiving government assistance, her children might not eat. Stealing that same amount from Mr. Ford, perhaps, would not create much hardship. Looting a mom and pop store would put them out of business. When supermarkets get robbed in poor neighborhoods, the chains go elsewhere, creating food deserts. Ford does not even mention burglary, assault, rape, and other street crime. If we were to effectively decriminalize “minor” or “property” crime, if police were ordered not to address it or were de-funded to the extent that they could not address it, what would the consequences be?
By the mid-1970s, Charles Bronson had been a yeoman supporting actor for over a decade. The movie Death Wish made him a star.
For those who have not seen or heard of it — it’s now 45 years ago — the plot goes like this:
Bronson’s character is Paul Kersey, an architect who lives in New York City together with his wife and daughter. At the beginning of the film, Paul is a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal” One day his wife and daughter are followed home from the grocery store by two miscreants (young males, white if it matters). The robbers use subterfuge to enter the Kersey’s apartment, steal some valuables, beat and rape the daughter, and beat her the mother, who dies of her injuries, when she tries to stop the rape. In the story, the robbers are never apprehended.
While recovering from his grief, Paul’s company sends him to Arizona on business. There, a client who refers to New York City as a “toilet” befriends Paul, sympathizes with him, and, and gives him a revolver. Paul returns to New York to begin an after-hours career as a vigilante. He roams the streets to attract muggers, and when they attempt to rob him, he shoots them to death. When an NYPD detective determines that Paul is the vigilante, he does not arrest him but tells Paul to get out of town. He does, and two sequels we see off muggers in other cities.
This precis of the film is not to advocate or glorify vigilantism, although that can happen (maybe did happen – recall Bernard Goetz) quite naturally enough. The real point to be taken is when a society is unable to have a police force that can effectively keep crime levels low, such self-help measures will emerge.
Vigilantism as a method to safeguard individuals and communities, and reducing crime, is seriously flawed. Vigilantes do not observe due process and quite often pursue and punish the wrong guy. One of the more famous depictions of this in fiction is Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-bow Incident (made into a now-classic movie with Henry Fonda as a main character) where the vigilantes hang the wrong person. Those who take the law into their own hands inevitably become their own law and turn on those they were formed to serve and protect.
But the possibility that vigilantism will come about in the absence of duly constituted law enforcement is real. We cannot have that. Leftists have for many years complained that the police are really agents and enforcers of capitalism and big business. Who would enforce socialism or fascism? (Two sides of the same coin).If our the police forces are eliminated, vigilantes may well turn into mercenaries. Who will they serve? The highest bidder, of course. Posh apartments and gated communities already have private armed security, which amount to mercenaries on a small scale. Rioters and looters pretty much leave them alone. Kings and nobles used to have their knights at arms; their modern incarnations have theirs by other names.
Of course, the complaint against so-called police brutality needs to be addressed. Police have to be allowed to initiate physical force when necessary. “When necessary” is the issue. Every situation is different. When a suspect is cooperating, no or minimal force, depending on the degree of cooperation, should be used and nearly always is.
The use of deadly force is obviously necessary when anyone is threatened with a gun or knife. Every situation in between is based on the facts of that situation. Much has been made of police, as well as private citizens using deadly force, a firearm, against an unarmed individual. But “unarmed” does not necessarily mean “not dangerous” and there is a continuum, from, say a young, large and muscular man, attempting rob another similarly endowed individual to the same assaulting an elderly disabled woman, at the extremes.
The law regarding the use of such force by the police or private citizens varies from state to state. It may be a subject for further comment on this platform. In the meantime, Mr. Ford and those of his persuasion on law enforcement reform better hope they do not get their wish. When the mob comes for them, there will be no one left to object.
Note: Mr. Ford and his acolytes might well get their wish. As this essay becomes ready to publish, news items have it that the Minneapolis city council has a veto-proof majority of members who wish to abolish the city’s police department. The mayor, who ordered his police to retreat from the station that was burned down, does not agree, and is being denounced and picketed for his stance — can’t please the mob. No formal vote has been taken yet, but I guess we’ll see. If abolition were to happen, There may be a mass exodus from that city. But who knows exactly what might happen.