Law Enforcement Is Not The Same Thing As Security

By Chris Calton

I have a general distrust of police, but while distrust may be healthy, I try to keep my antipathy aimed at the institution of the police, rather than the individuals themselves. After all, not all police officers are guilty of accidentally killing six-year-olds, playing sadistic games with unarmed civilians prior to executing them, or killing family pets. Even if they may be misguided, there are actually people who join the police with the noble goal of protecting their communities, and they do their jobs without brutalizing and executing innocent civilians.

But the institution of the police – being the government-run monopoly on the law enforcement industry – means that even these well-intentioned police officers have to face the dilemma of carrying out morally-questionable aspects of their job. What constitutes “morally questionable” varies from person to person, but as government grows, it seems that more people are identifying certain law enforcement obligations as, to them, morally questionable, if not outright immoral.

The most prominent example of such a reaction has grown out of law enforcement officers themselves. I’m referring to the group Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which was originally Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The name change reflects the growing awareness of morally questionable laws police officers are expected to enforce. LEAP was originally founded in 2002 by five police officers who had come to realize that the War on Drugs was not only a failure, but waging it was immoral and harmful.

In January of 2017, LEAP changed the last two letters of the acronym to stand for “Action Partnership” as an indication that drug laws were no longer the only unjust laws that police were obligated to enforce. The problems of the criminal justice system, such as mass incarceration, are not solely the product of drug prohibition. These officers recognize that at least some of what they are expected to do is the opposite of what we are told police do; they were not “protecting and serving,” they were destroying innocent lives. Many police officers who have come to such realizations have quit the force.

But the institution of the police remains, and the result of conscionable officers quitting is that cops who are less likely to be violent and abusive leave, while those who are attracted to a job that allows them to commit violence with near impunity replace them. The result is that while there may still be good cops – which I’m generously defining here as cops who sincerely want to protect their communities, even if they mistakenly believe that includes enforcing bad laws –the natural tendency of this system is for “bad cops” to stay and “good cops” to scram.

Recognition of this is hardly a “war on cops,” as some conservative commentators argue. If anything, it’s a war on bad cops, but it should be a war on a bad institution – an institution that has built-in incentives to attract dangerous personalities and weed out the level-headed and responsible. Narratives repeating the “war on cops” mantra only serve to support a system that fails to hold guilty cops accountable, maintaining this negative incentive. “Law and order” conservatives should be the greatest opponent to such a system, but few seem to have come to this conclusion.

But the institution isn’t the only reason people are increasingly realizing that cops can’t be trusted. The other reason is the laws. Local laws, state laws, and federal laws. As government grows, so do statutes and criminal codes. The police don’t have to agree with the law, they just have to enforce it. At least, this is what we are reminded any time cops are criticized for “just doing their job.”

But there is truth in that statement. Many cops are “just doing their jobs” when they make an arrest that seems difficult to justify. Most police officers have no desire to shut down a child’s illegal lemonade stand. It’s just their job. Likewise, I would at least hope most police officers don’t want to arrest the elderly for illegally smuggling flowers (though the cops in this story did seem to enjoy it). But whether they enjoy it or not, it’s their job.

When I see people criticizing stories such as these, it often seems like they are criticizing the cops, rather than the laws. I understand the criticism of the police officers – nobody forces them to put on a badge – but the laws are the real problem, and the police are often just the symptom.

The problems we find in the institution of the police, then, stem from two different areas. The first is the one that typically gets acknowledged, and that’s the government policies in running the police. The negative incentives that attract dangerous people, the lack of consequences for mistakes and abuses of authority, and the low criteria for earning a badge. Many libertarians argue for the privatization of the police as a way of reversing these incentives so that they have a positive effect. The recent string of sexual harassment allegations demonstrates the different levels of accountability between private individuals and those in government positions.

But when libertarians advocate privatizing the police – a position I’ll admit that I share – they are usually advocating the privatization of security. The motto of the police is “To Protect and Serve.” This is the motto of a security industry. But despite continuing to fly this banner, the police today hardly constitute a “security” service. In fact, the security industry is already privatized, and there are more private security guards employed in the United States and other countries than there are police officers.

The synonymous term for “police” is “law enforcement,” and this is a distinction worth remembering. The role of police is not, and has never been, to keep people safe; it has always only been to enforce the law.

When a public police force was first created, the idea of “law enforcement” and “public safety” almost went hand-in-hand. Most laws were actually designed to protect the person and property of private citizens (with exceptions, of course). So even if a public police force was less efficient than a private alternative, its job was still, for the most part, to keep people safe by enforcing the laws designed to protect them from violent criminals.

But as government has grown into the leviathan we know today, the law has expanded well beyond a small criminal code designed to protect life, liberty, and property. But the police, true to their role as law enforcement officers, are just as obligated to enforce these laws – the ones prohibiting marijuana use, lemonade stands, and collecting rainwater, to name only a few oft-cited legal absurdities – as they are to enforce laws protecting people from violent criminals. In fact, if we factor in the negative incentives police departments have guiding the allocation of their resources, it’s reasonable to conclude that an officer is more obligated to enforce the laws against non-violent criminals than the laws against violent ones.

If we really want to solve the problems that people are increasingly associating with police, privatizing the police is certainly a good start. But the real solution is to privatize the law.

Chris Calton is a Mises University alumnus and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

See also his YouTube channel here.

This article was sourced from Mises.org


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9 Comments on "Law Enforcement Is Not The Same Thing As Security"

  1. The symptoms cause the problems, just as much as the laws. Good cops stand up for what’s right, they don’t just say it’s their jobs. Laws are just things written on paper by men, while following unconstitutional laws even after taking an oathe to the Constitution places blame squarley on them. If even a small percentage of police upheld the Constitution, then we wouldn’t be in this situation. I won’t apologize for cops who break morality in the name of the law, neither will God who will treat them as they’ve treated others.

  2. “When I see people criticizing stories such as these, it often seems like they are criticizing the cops, rather than the laws.”

    Yeeeeesssss……what part of they swore an oath, under penalty of perjury (a felony), to support our rights, are you missing?

    • Wait until you are falsely accused, run thru the system – your mind will change and will get a haunting wake up call. They used to be respected by me. The whole ” Brotherhood is dirty”.

      • Sorry about any confusion Gary. My comment was directed at the author. I am one of the many millions who has been screwed by the “justice” system for speaking truth to power. Unfortunately for them we have become their worse nightmare. They have exposed their corrupt ways and empowered us to beat them at their own game. We are informed.

  3. There is No police state in Russia. How do they deal with it? Left over from old days is their most basic society that ruled out militarized police like in the Trotskyite and partially Stalin era’s. Today, many villages with 2-4000 people living in them police themselves, which was instilled within Russian society for quite awhile now. Russia has many security men and women – they are not armed and are very respected in those villages – to the level that if they need help most anyone in the village will assist them. From Babooska needing a ride to the clinic to dealing with public disturbances- the village is behind them. At night they have a couple men/women drive around the village at certian times making sure things are safe and of course they watch for fires. Alaska, in most bush villages have a VPSO { village police} but they do what the mayor wants or they serve to much like the judge, jury and and then bring in the Police state troopers. It’s not even close as being effective as the Russian system is. Spacibo

  4. Only people with low IQ’s can get a job as a police.

  5. BugsBunnyPatriot | January 28, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Reply

    “Even if they may be misguided, there are actually people who join the police with the noble goal of protecting their communities, and they do their jobs without brutalizing and executing innocent civilians”. After working with law enforcement for 20 years I can assure you all that the “good cops” are very few and far between. The vast majority are bullies with personal agendas and dishonest to the point of tampering with evidence and carrying out personal vendettas.

  6. Bill the eighth | January 30, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Reply

    I think the author is way off base. We can correct the behavior of the police quite easily. Eliminate “qualified immunity”, make each officer purchase liability insurance and be bonded. Too many claims, the officer can no longer get insurance and will lose his / her bond, thereby automatically banning themselves from police work forevermore. Also, hold them to the exact same standards they hold us to. If I discharge a weapon in my neighborhood because I don;t like children cutting through my yard, I go to jail and I am charged with discharging a firearm in a residential area, within city limits, reckless endangerment, etc. When a cop did it last week, absolutely NOTHING happened to him, he faced no consequences whatsoever.

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