This is an article by Jeremy Harris. Jeremy is a businessman and investor in New Zealand.
Why is America burning itself down in reaction to the murder of George Floyd and why are people in other countries with no discernible problem with police brutality – especially proportionally greater brutality towards minorities – marching about this issue during the middle of a pandemic? It is really just about stopping racism? A woke, left wing, virtue-signaling, circle jerk? A reaction to hundreds of millions of people being locked in their houses, while countless tens of millions of people are being made unemployed, all of whom are worried (or angry) about their future? Probably some of all of the above reasons, but there are deeper issues at work, issues which have been festering society-wide on an almost subconscious level, that this piece seeks to explore.
How do we know the Police have a purpose?
Have you ever asked yourself exactly what the purpose of the Police is?
A decade and a half ago when I left University I was employed by the New Zealand police as a Crime Scene Attendant (Forensics) and worked there for two years. My experiences changed me from an ardent police loyalist into a sceptic of how modern policing is done. It has caused me to ask myself the above question a lot, and I’ve taken to asking it of other people. The usual response I get is “enforcing the law”, but that doesn’t cover the purpose in totality, not really. It answers the what, but not that which is more important: the why. If the government in a liberal democracy passed a law making it punishable by death to whistle pop tunes, ‘enforcing the law’ goes from being a righteous and community building activity into an exercise of tyrannical power.
To answer the ‘why’ we need to understand what the purpose of government is. In a liberal democracy, as was summarised so well and succinctly by Thomas Jefferson (and expanded slightly by myself), it is to protect life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and private property. These ideas trace back to John Locke and other free thinkers before him, and permeate the thinking behind all Western liberal democracies, most of our laws (at least those that predate PC culture and make sense) and constitutions, informal or otherwise. From this base the purpose of the police becomes clear and simple: to protect people from people (violence), to protect property from people (theft), and to do so while protecting your liberty.
This mission statement gives a rational basis for the idea of a permanent police force, but also gives a list of all the crimes they should be investigating in order of priority.
Crimes Against People
Assault (in all its forms)
Crimes Against Property
Minor Theft/Minor Fraud
Threats, particularly those in conjunction with other crimes
It’s a remarkably short list when thought about: all actual crimes of aggression are some variant of the above.
Why are the police spending so much time doing that which isn’t their job?
At this point you may be thinking that this is all pretty self-explanatory, but you may notice there are a couple of things not on the list of crimes: ingestion, possession, sale and distribution of drugs, traffic and parking offences, drink-driving screening, to name a few. If your country is anything like mine, the police spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on things that shouldn’t be part of their job, to the neglect of things that are.
As an example, the New Zealand police haven’t solved more than 20% of all burglaries committed in decades and some years they solve less than 15%. As a Crime Scene Attendant, I was attached to a burglary squad. The constables and detectives spent most of their time trying to figure out how to execute warrants related to drugs (seen as glamorous for some reason) – with a burglary angle if possible to justify their existence, and they seemed to view the investigation of burglary as somewhat of a joke, not as the opportunity to catch budding career criminals and deter them, to return stolen property, or to bring relief to a fellow citizen through a solved minor case.
People inherently know when, even if they can’t articulate why, the police are doing something they shouldn’t be. The grumbling over speeding and parking tickets isn’t just about the monetary loss, it’s about the loss to society of having those who should be spending their time investigating acts of violence against people or property handling something that they know instinctively should be a private transaction between an individual and toll road owner, or the owner of a parking facility. It’s about a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of drunk driving, traffic accidents and road deaths that doesn’t take into account individual circumstances and more efficient private solutions. It turns the police into a blunt enforcement battering ram for socialised transport. In the same vein, everyone knows (or has heard) of that harmless pot fanatic who, nevertheless, is always in trouble with the law. This misallocation of power-imbued resources and demonstration of injustice erodes public faith, support and loyalty in the police, and it isn’t individual officers’ fault, it is a fault of government in the main, and to a lesser extent police management.
While there have been watchmen or constables of some form or another providing policing throughout history, for centuries, and until recently, these were informal, privately funded, positions with varying authority. The modern tax payer funded police dates back no more than 250 years. Before this, despite the help that may or may not have been coming via private law enforcement, individuals were empowered to protect their life, liberty and property; in fact the lack of private police was taken into account.
This is the first cause of the mission creep of the police, the fact that the state is a jealous mistress when it comes to the execution of force, and over time your rights to firearms and other weapons and to reasonably defend your person and property with them has been slowly diminished and replaced by the sweet promises that the police are only a few minutes away. Except, when you need the police, a few minutes is a lifetime – or the end of one. Again, the public knows this inherently and it breeds resentment.
In New Zealand tobacco taxes have been jacked up so aggressively that armed robberies of corner stores for a cigarette treasure trove (yet another example of the intended consequences when the government tries to save us) have skyrocketed. When this first started happening it was made quite clear by the police’s actions that anyone who defended themselves and their means of prosperity with a gun or blunt-force instrument would be prosecuted along with the perpetrators, usually just as severely. This has led to store owners having to just ‘take it’, whatever it is, and that has has emboldened the criminals. Furthermore, almost universally the public supports the store owners over armed criminals and supports the common-sense right for these store owners to protect all they value. All of this backwards thinking undermines the police.
It’s important to talk about the role of firearms and the part they play in self-defence. Young, fit men, especially those trained or experienced with violence have a huge physical advantage over children, women and older or weaker men. A firearm levels this disadvantage, so the right to access one if you wish is essential for self defence. This is an important argument for the right to bear arms, beyond the purpose of hunting and beyond being an insurance policy against a despotic government or leader.
The government’s ever-expanding role for the police and a clear lack of understanding of what their job is, or should be, by both the government and the police themselves, along with the criminalising of a well-armed public, which has been disempowered to defend itself, has undermined public confidence in the police and will do so at an ever-increasing pace until these trends are reversed, wherever these harmful trends continue.
The Toxic Police Culture of Us Versus Them and a Lack of Understanding of Their Mission
As a Crime Scene Attendant I spent most of my time with the other science nerds in our team at crime scenes and I generally just liaised with constables, or drank with them after hours. I spent little time attached to them while they were policing, but looking back on the times I was, I cannot actually remember an experience that didn’t leave anything but an incredibly sour taste in my mouth. Here is some of the long list of incidents I witnessed.
1) A call to a beach where the there was a report of a group of drunk young women being disruptive. The constable I was with walked up to the obviously drunk girls and asked for their IDs. They refused, as is their right (in New Zealand you can simply walk away from the police if you are not under arrest). The constable responded by snatching the bag they were carrying out of their hands and opening it (an illegal search) taking out the cans of alcohol inside, opening them and tipping them onto the ground and over the girls as they tried to grab them back (an illegal seizure and destruction of their property). The constable then threatened the young women with what would happen if he had to come back (illegal threats made). I was in shock at the clearly illegal nature of his actions, in fact multiple illegal actions, and as we drove back to the station I realised he didn’t view what he had done in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people on the beach as an issue at all. I was still in shock at his behaviour as he calmly ate his lunch next to me less than 30 minutes later.
2) I was attached to the burglary detectives when they executed a search warrant at a house. They entered the house with guns drawn even though we were advised there was no evidence of firearms in any of the intelligence. The owners had two beautiful pure-breed pit bulls. These dogs can be dangerous, so as soon as the bathroom was cleared the dogs were placed inside. One of the detectives didn’t like dogs and throughout the day he repeatedly tapped on the bottom of the outside of the bathroom door and when the dogs came over he would pepper spray them under the door, and revel at their distressed sounds. This didn’t seem to strike anyone else as reprehensible – just another joke, some more gallows humour.
As the officers searched for drugs they used their powers to damage items to great effect to take a sort of revenge on the fact no drugs were being found. After eight hours of this the house looked like it would be easier to simply sweep empty, maybe implode, and refurnish: it was an unholy mess. After eight hours of being outside and us finding nothing, the officers left the partially disabled lady who rented the property back into this wasteland for goodness knows how many hours of cleaning that lay ahead – and of course caring for her distressed dogs. I felt truly sorry for her and ashamed at our actions; my colleagues seemed to feel none of this.
3) Finally, and most egregiously, was the case were one of my fellow Crime Scene Attendants was processing a ‘stair dancing’ scene. This is when someone steals things from high rises using the fire escapes. There was a witness with a description – rare for burglary cases. The description was for a large, very tall, Pacific Island woman. When the Crime Scene Attendant asked the sworn officers if this description was familiar, one of the constables said he had previously been punched by a lady who matched that description, and she was a local ne’er-do-well. He had been knocked out by this woman in front of a group of officers and was mocked about it regularly. Immediately and without evidence he decided she was the perpetrator and took over the case.
He prepared a photo board for the witness and put his mark’s photo among the ten or so on the board. The Crime Scene Attendant accompanied the constable to visit the witness and told me what happened. It is important to remember that there are strict rules around how a photo boards should be shown to witnesses – there should be no leading in any way – and the witness must volunteer an ID entirely voluntarily. When the witness couldn’t make an ID, the constable apparently said something to the effect of, “could it be number 4?”. The answer was no, and the constable then proceeded to spend give minutes convincing the witness it could have been, must have been, number 4. Eventually the witness relented – just to give the constable what he wanted and make him go away.
Immediately upon returning to the incident car the constable put out an all-points broadcast and had arrested and charged his mark within two hours. Was justice done? Quite possibly, but it was not done legally, not even close, and all the Crime Scene Attendants felt quite sick about it.
The list goes on, but hopefully the above, an inside look at the New Zealand police culture from a group of essentially independent scientist types, demonstrates a toxic culture where it is us (the good virtuous police whose actions are always justified) versus them (the crooks and criminals who are always bad so have forfeited their rights in the sake of efficiency).
I never heard the officers I worked with talk about how to enhance their image with the public, the rights of the public, or how they should be proud of protecting them. Nor did they talk about what is actually crime and what they should focus their time doing. It was always about us versus them, or how to physically restrain people better, or jokes about the idiocy of the people they dealt with. Anytime someone from the public tried to speak up for their rights during an encounter the response was the same – aggression, an attempt to dominate and intimidate the person.
From what I saw the police at a front line level simply do not understand their mission or what it should be in the slightest. They do not understand the what and the why of their existence, and this, along with a reaction to the growing hostility of the public, has led to a toxic, antagonistic culture.
How does this relate to George Floyd and the protests and riots in the US?
All of this comes back to the police in the US. In most of the above problems (except for the right to self-defence) the government and police in the US are the furthest along in the breakdown of their constitutional legitimacy.
When it comes to wasted resources the ‘War on Drugs’ must be right up there with the most appalling. The number of people in prison in the US is staggering and the number related to drug offending equally so. This injustice on a mass scale, which does disproportionately affect minorities, is a cause of huge hostility.
Additionally, in the US a citizen’s rights as it relates to the police is very clearly defined by their Bill of Rights and Supreme Court rulings, and Americans as a rule hold dear these rights much more than citizens in countries with similar philosophies underpinning their national foundations. This has led to groups that do ‘First amendment audits” testing the police’s understanding of their rights as citizens and the police’s willingness to protect them.
To accurately understand the willingness of officers to routinely breach people’s rights the Youtube channel Audit the Audit looks at these encounters while reviewing the law in full and grading both the auditor and the officers involved. It will clarify exactly how far from legal most US police encounters are, and likely will help you understand how poorly the officers you’ve dealt with in your country during your lifetime have usually behaved. The toxic culture is widespread internationally.
All these of these advanced problems is the US are exacerbated by peculiarities of their system and its perverse incentives. Police unions in the US are unusually powerful and seem to view it as their job to protect and restore, poor, negligent or downright criminal officers back into their jobs, whenever they are fired or even reprimanded. There are also thousands of law enforcement agencies in the US and when an officer is actually so poor at their job that they can be fired (despite the protestations of their union) they can often find work in the department in the next town, county or state over, and they can begin the cycle again. Additionally, fired officers, even those involved in highly suspect shootings and suspect deaths, almost always retain full pensions and other benefits.
Conclusion: So, what are solutions to modern policing’s problems, especially in the US?
The US requires special solutions given the deteriorating and advanced situation. Disincentives for outlandish behaviour need to be introduced, such as the removal of qualified immunity, no pensions for fired officers, all deaths of unarmed or detained individuals to be investigated by the FBI, rather than the departments that were responsible for their deaths, and a disbanding or depowering of police unions. All these measures would still be band-aids. However, until the actual wound is healed. Ultimately, all liberal democracies need to undo the damage that has been done and restore the trust between the public and police. The officers on the front line need the government to reduce their mission creep, to refocus the police on actual crimes, to restore and enshrine the public’s right to self-defence of their person and property, with firearms if required, and the right to own them, so they can be their own first line of defence. To train officers on the why, their mission statement, their raison d’etre, not just the what and how of their day-to-day work. If this isn’t done we can expect the situation to continue to get worse, not better, and we can expect to see hostilities grow until eventually more cities burn, and not just during powder keg moments such as we are in right now.