The aftermath of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer has cast a much-needed light on over-policing in our communities. The philosophical basis for that over-policing is the “broken windows” theory, which holds that degradation in small things will evolve into degradation in big ones, like major crimes.

As an exercise in responsible community-building, the goal is good, and might be defensible in theory. In practice, however, after a generation of trying, we have the world’s highest incarceration rate, much of it for minor things like petty drug offenses (or window breaking). Now, we don’t have any more places to put the window breakers (or anyone else).

A principle of libertarianism informs us that there are no valid ethics that are applied to one but not another: that which is not ethical for a person is not ethical for a state. So, the broken windows theory should also be applied to the relationship between police and community.

There is much breakage:

Officer Chauvin’s case is only one recent (and infamous) example of what happens when we fail to correct small police infractions (not to mention his many large ones). It should be plain that, as cell phone cameras become ubiquitous, there is a dissonance between the tiny number of cases of police being held liable for misdeeds with the large number of incidents now captured on video. Therein is a very valid complaint of the Black Lives Matter movement: they have been swearing this for a long time, but have been disgracefully poo-pooed (with the irony of the police not listening to the communities they keep the windows unbroken in, when it comes to their own conduct).

It cannot now be denied that there is real police criminality out there. A visit to Reddit, and the heading “BadCop-NoDonut,” reveals hundreds of hours of outrageous police conduct that goes virtually unchecked. Which is incredible, as the footage is as accessible to the powers in charge of police discipline as it is to you and me. And such footage is routinely used in court to prosecute non-police. Swap the shirts of the cop and the victim, and the he cop would be eligible for future forfeiture for a true crime. Same crime, different shirt, fundamentally different outcomes, should be an anathema even to non-libertarians. Hardly anyone across the political spectrum disagrees about fixing this. Whether our system is capable of addressing it, due to our political dysfunction, is another question.

In another irony of broken windows breakdown: the system governing the police discredits the police, too. This, before the reform process has even begun. Our dueling-meme social media wars, combined with chronic partisan dysfunction and warring information systems, has caused the police to lose confidence in us.

Their retort: the media coverage of the BLM protests distorts the fact that, compared to the tens of millions of police encounters with Americans every year (to which we libertarians say: “WTF!?!?”), police criminality is very, very much an outlier. Police work will always look rough and dirty (all the more reason why it should be reserved for the truly criminal), and they do not make the laws they look bad enforcing. I’ve worked alongside them for nigh 30 years and I have not seen any police misconduct in 20 of them.

The two sides: Reddit vs the outlier, is largely due to exaggerated-by-its-granularity media, along with the weaponizing of every issue by our political tribes. A person who answers the call of the community’s need by taking up police work will not tolerate being made into fodder to feed the tribal agendas, over and above the “normal” risks they agree to take on (also something of a distortion, since police work is safer than ever).

Here are some examples of the degradation in police capability that I’ve personally seen working as a paramedic in NYC: they will mass in overwhelming numbers before they will support us in dealing with psychotic people. I was once struck on a scene waiting for them for over an hour and a half. I am better than most in dealing with the mentally ill, I am strongly motivated to negotiate, and not have anyone hurt. I will sedate them if I must, but I will not be doing that without a policeman standing ready behind me (I’ve had them whisk me aside, feeling the patient/perp was too volatile). To ask a social worker, or a mental health crisis worker, to do this without police support is no different than asking a violinist or a plumber to do it. They can’t do it, won’t do it, shouldn’t do it. We will always need the police to do it (but, with what agenda? It matters).

I’ve had more than one cop tell me that guidance from the police union has come down that the officers should not pursue any suspect on foot for more than a few steps. It’s very easy to write on a report that they were out-legged: If you ever see a cop running in earnest, it is quite a spectacle: hat flies off, citation book flutters away, gun bounces up and down one way, baton cuffs and pepper spray the other. They look like junk trucks trying to drag-race.

Of course, there are real (and bad) criminals that the police need to be running down: there is a story (who knows if apocryphal) I heard where the cops came upon a woman and her child screaming in a car. She pointed out the suspect. He outran the cops with no trouble, got in the woman’s car and sped away, the woman and child kidnapped right from under their noses, with them going “oh, please, please stop.” The victim’s estranged husband, who she lawfully took an order of protection out against, took them off somewhere for a few hours and threatened them with a knife, until he lost interest. For that tax-paying woman, there might as well not be a police department at all (neither can she, under NYC’s draconian Sullivan laws, gun-up to protect herself).

It’s a common theme for me on this blog: saying “be more wise and functional” to a government entity is Homer-Simpson-like. Agendas perverse and self-serving eat wisdom and judgement for breakfast. For an improved outcome, we need a correct diagnosis (we ask the police to do far too much), as well as a correct treatment (they need to be accountable, same as every other person in the lawful world).

We have to reform the police by getting through their perverse agendas. But we also need a system that is fair to the police, too. What is likely, given our partisan divide, is police reform will whiplash between poorly-conceived defunding (politically unpopular units will suffer especially), and the inevitable backlash when a politician shills for “law and order.” Rinse, repeat.

Always remember: there is no problem our system cannot make worse (ask the Arab world about that). The rallying cry: “What do we want!? Incremental, well-calibrated procedures! When do we want them!? In due course, in an evolutionarily stable way!!” isn’t going to sell well to the media.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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