When a particular good or service has been primarily provided by government, it becomes virtually impossible for people to imagine how that good or service could be provided by the free market. In today’s world, police services and fire protection are two obvious examples of this phenomenon. To begin an analysis of how these services could be provided in a completely free society, it is important to analyze them as they exist today. This three part series will focus on the police.
A libertarian defines crime only as those crimes which have a victim – aggression such as theft, assault, rape, murder, etc. These are things that virtually all of humanity agree are criminal acts. However, since the state (aka government) has a monopoly on defining what constitutes a crime, that definition has been perverted and stretched to the point that anyone anywhere could be considered guilty of a crime. This perversion allows for today’s government-provided police to harass, arrest, brutalize, and even kill anyone that they find disobeying any one of the countless state-created victimless crimes.
What is the effectiveness of state-issued police? They are great at solving and prosecuting the victimless crimes. Quite often they’re arresting and imprisoning drug dealers and drug users, they’re fantastic at writing traffic tickets, it’s no problem for them to enforce regulatory violations, and they’ll routinely target those who collect rainwater, sell lemonade, save dogs from burning buildings, drink iced tea , make direct eye contact, or any number of other insanities. As for actual violent crimes? Try finding statistics that speak to their crime solving abilities. It is immensely difficult. When statistics are able to be found, they don’t always paint an accurate picture. The FBI determines how such statistics are compiled, and the clearance rate (crime solving) statistics only require for an arrest to be made, not for a suspect to be tried and convicted. I had a pair of skis stolen out of the trunk of my car a couple winters ago. I called the police, and the officer wrote down a few notes in a pad and told me he would look into their pawn shop database, but that he wouldn’t find anything. Thanks for the help.
There also exists the problem that police are able to behave and act with impunity. They can get away with killing simply by saying that the victim was “reaching for his waistband.” They can beat as long they accompany the beating with yells of “stop resisting!” As of this writing, there have been 789 people killed by police in 2015 alone. Many of those killed were unarmed or entirely innocent of wrongdoing – even nonviolent “wrongdoing”. You can bet though, that the police responsible for those murders will rarely if ever be held accountable.
Another problem with state-issued police, is the use of asset forfeiture. This is a practice where property (money, cars, electronics, etc.) is seized by police without any warrant, arrest, or proof of a crime having been committed. It is then on the person whose stuff was taken to prove that the items taken weren’t involved in the use of a crime. How do you prove a negative? And, aren’t people supposed to be innocent until proven guilty? This practice flips that idea on it’s head.
Police forces are becoming more and more militarized. Both in personnel and in hardware/weaponry. Increasingly, police forces are recruiting military veterans. These veterans oftentimes have just recently come from war zones and still have the mindset of “enemy” and “enemy territory.” Military personnel are trained to always escalate the situation. As police, this mindset remains engrained within them. Even police recruits who aren’t veterans are being trained to hold this type of mindset. Police forces are stockpiling military-style equipment as well. Many departments around the country are now supplied with armored vehicles, MRAPs, grenade launchers, camouflaged uniforms, large-caliber firearms, riot gear, weaponized drones and aircraft, and even tanks. Students at public schools across the country too are becoming used to having armed police patrol their corridors.
Additionally, and largely due to the war on drugs, police target minority and poor communities at a vastly higher rate than the more well-off white communities. Anyone who is concerned about racism should take a hard look at the drug war. Blacks and Hispanics are arrested and imprisoned at a rate that far exceeds their percentage of the population.
The economics and incentive structures associated with government police are another factor which must be examined. When statistics point to crime increasing in an area, the police aren’t dealt with in a way that a private business would be – customers leaving and eventual bankruptcy – rather they always claim to need more. More money, more hardware, more overtime, more weapons, more personnel – just more. This rewards failure, and makes all of us poorer.
Further, the control of local police forces is less and less localized. Much of their funding comes from state and federal governments. This money comes with strings attached such that the policing is required to follow certain guidelines. This leads to numbers games which require there to be a certain number of felony arrests, a certain drop in some percentage, or any other arbitrary metric. It doesn’t lead to quality policing. As mentioned previously, the federal government largely controls how statistics are compiled and defined. This makes it near impossible for a local person to truly know how effective their police force is, or more importantly, is not.
Local governments largely rely on on the revenue generated by the fines, fees, and citations issued by their police forces. This also leads to numbers games, and though many departments will deny that there are quotas on traffic tickets, arrests, etc., they will admit that there are guidelines, and that privileged assignments and promotions are largely based on these type of numbers.
Something must change, and as I continue this series, I will outline what the solution looks like. Part 2 will consist of a look at what totally private policing and security would look like. Part 3 will touch upon some practical and acceptable reforms that can occur as the transition is made from state-issued police to free-market provided police.