Decriminalization, Transparency, Accountability.

Events in Baltimore bring attention, once again, to a serious problem in America: police brutality.

I have written and spoken about this topic for more than thirty years. It’s a tough topic for many people, for many reasons. We’re just starting to document, to count, to reveal how serious the problem is. I hardly know where to begin, so I’ll start with my conclusions:

Decriminalization, Accountability, and Transparency

Decriminalize All The Vice

Every law is a potential death sentence. Eric Garner was strangled to death because he a) allegedly sold single cigarettes without paying tax, and b) did not quietly submit to being violently tortured. This is par for the course. Any encounter with police may result in your death. Approximately 1000 Americans were killed by police last year.

We don’t even know why Freddie Gray was in custody.

Authorities can’t say if there was a particularly good reason why police arrested Gray. According to the city, an officer made eye contact with Gray, and he took off running, so they pursued him. Though he’d had scrapes with the law before, there’s no indication he was wanted at the time. — The Atlantic

In an effort to discredit the victim, Gray’s rap sheet has been published. It is not an indication of his guilt, nor cause for a death sentence; it’s an explanation of why he might have been inclined to run from the police. The Baltimore Sun found that most of Gray’s arrests were for possession of or intent to sell marijuana – which should not be a crime.

 

Vices Are Not Crimes — Lysander Spooner

Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.
Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.

Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.

In vices, the very essence of crime — that is, the design to injure the person or property of another — is wanting.

It is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another. But no one ever practises a vice with any such criminal intent. He practises his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property; no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.

For a government to declare a vice to be a crime, and to punish it as such, is an attempt to falsify the very nature of things. It is as absurd as it would be to declare truth to be falsehood, or falsehood truth.

Most vices are simply the use of something – such as marijuana – which the State objects to; or the sale of such to a willing customer. Contrast these malum prohibitum with malum in se, things which are wrong in and of themselves, such as rape, murder, theft, fraud.

Malum in se are almost universally condemned. When police attempt to arrest a rapist or murderer, they can count on full support from the community, since their interests coincide. When police attempt to arrest someone for smoking weed or for selling loosies, their interests differ markedly. If contact with police is going to be a potential death sentence – and it is – we ought to at least be sure that we all agree on the harm done by the putative offense.

I propose, therefore, that we seriously reevaluate our laws, and abolish most of them. Of each law, we should ask “Is this worth killing somebody? Is this a capital offense?” If we do this, potentially lethal encounters will be far fewer in number.

Accountability

Police are held to very different standards than the rest of us. Their victims are generally presumed to be guilty. A mere allegation of “resisting arrest” is considered to be justification for violent, even murderous actions. We should strike this fake “crime” from the books. Objecting to being tortured or beaten should not be considered a crime. Any reasonable person would do so. Police are not a superior race of beings, designated by a deity to spur and whip the rest of us. We should not allow them to become an American nobility, untouchable by mere mortals.

Police must be held to the same standards as any of us. If you and I, as individuals, are expected to know that choke-holds can easily be fatal, we should expect the same of police. We are expected to show restraint before shooting people, the same should be expected of the police. We give too much leeway to the police; this leads one to wonder if they are mentally incompetent, and unable to bear responsibility as adults.

The standard should be this: if an ordinary person would go to jail for an action – rape, fraud, theft, manslaughter, murder – police should be held to at least as high a standard. Instead of “get out of jail” cards, police should be held to even higher standards than the rest of us.

If police are to have such great power, they should, like Samurai, face the gravest consequences. When found guilty of abuse of power, they should get their hair cut, shave their beards, put on their best uniform, polish their shoes, sit down in the presence of their fellow officers and superiors, and ritually disembowel themselves.

Transparency

Police vans, cars, stations, and officers should be equipped with cameras which cannot be shut down. These video records must be available upon request. It should be a crime to withhold evidence.

People have a right to record the actions of police officers. Professionals should welcome such recordings – they can help show when a “professional victim” is lying, and can clear the name of any good cops who are honestly doing their jobs in a professional manner. It should be a crime to seize cameras, or to destroy recordings.

Police who lie about their conduct should refer to the earlier passage about ritual disembowelment. We cannot trust people who consider lying to be part of their job description.

The Protests

I am saddened by those who have turned to violence. I agree, the grievance is severe. Some claim that Americans listen only when things get violent. I imagine that they conclude that “what TV shows” is an accurate measure of “what Americans care about.” The media has an old proverb: If it bleeds, it leads. If there are violent activities, they’ll crowd out anything else – including the images of tens of thousands of people marching peacefully and demanding justice.

I don’t think it does any good when arsonists and looters dominate the news coverage. If I could find a reasonable way to get them to cool off and sit this one out, I’d do so. They’re drowning out the message: police are out of control. They’re even, in some minds, justifying the need for police to “control those who won’t control themselves.”

Racism

I have not led this discussion with the topic of racism, but not to diminish the reality. Racism is very real. I have saved this topic for last because the problems affect not only blacks, but many others. Not far from me, a white man, Kelly Thomas, was beaten to death by police. He was not only white, but the son of a deputy sheriff. If we focus only on race, we may limit our audience. I wish to establish the biggest tent possible; this problem threatens the lives of all of us.

Besides – look at the composition of the government of the city of Baltimore. The Mayor is black. At least half a dozen of the City Council Members are black. The Police Chief is black. 43% of the officers are black. Three of the six officers charged with crimes against Freddie Gray are black.  Who is being racist to whom?

Mind you, I do agree – minorities do face severe institutional handicaps – a topic which I’ve been writing about for thirty years or more – but who is being racist to whom? I stress again that the path to better treatment is one where none of us, regardless of race, have to spend so much time interacting with the police.

I have long held that laws against vice are both an avenue for abuse of power, and a threat to public order, for many reasons – not least of which is the dilution of resources. A force which is chasing down people who sell loosies, is not spending that time catching rapists, murderers, and thieves. There are reports that, when NYPD officers “went on strike” and stopped making unnecessary arrests, violent crime actually went down.

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