The Thin Blue Lie
by Wendy McElroy

I'd rather take my chances with criminals than with the police. For one thing, criminals usually want your property, not control over your life.

Policemen will angrily assure me that they are the barrier between civilians and a world of random violence. This was a common theme in the flood of hate mail I received from policemen who responded to my earlier column, "Prevent Violence: Disarm the Police." Many officers provided the further assurance that - given my bad attitude - I had best not count on their assistance against a rapist. (Rape was the assault consistently mentioned, perhaps because the e-mails were all from men.) Well, years ago, I was raped and the police weren't there. So it will be difficult to tell the difference.

The police e-mails that disturbed me were not the threatening or abusive ones. These merely confirmed my opinion: the police are the enemies of anyone who holds a 'wrong' idea or takes a 'wrong' action, however peaceful that action may be. I was disturbed by the few written by officers who were clearly decent and reflective human beings. Of course, they disagreed with my contention that the current police system is just one more layer of State abuse which must be abolished and rebuilt along entirely different principles. (The first principle being to protect the persons and property of those who are peaceful. The second one being to leave everyone else alone.) These officers believed they could change the system from within.

I don't believe reform is possible.  Consider an analogy: A man goes to work in a factory that produces cardboard boxes.  Taking his place on the assembly line, he announces an intention to produce envelopes instead. As long as that man uses the factory's materials and complies with its procedures, his intention will be irrelevant. He will produce cardboard boxes because that is what the institution/factory is designed to manufacture.

'The police' is an institution designed to enforce the law, whatever the law may be, and to  process those suspected of violating it. Only if the law is just does an individual policeman stand any chance of 'producing' justice. To a large degree, current law is designed to produce morality (e.g. enforcing victimless crimes), social 'ideals' (affirmative action) or the protection of political power (gun control). As long as the well-intentioned policeman uses the institution's materials - the law - and complies with its procedures, he will not produce justice. All he can do is to minimize the viciousness with which unjust laws are enforced.

I do not belittle the importance of reducing police brutality. Yet I believe attempts to reform this aspect of the problem are doomed as well. I do not use 'bad apples' like Officer Justin Volpe, who sodomized suspect Louima with a broom, as a paradigm around which to level criticism. I am willing to believe that Volpe's sort is as unusual as the idealistic policeman who treats suspects with real compassion. The vast majority of people in any profession fall in the middle of the bell curve, not at either end. I think most officers simply wish to process the goods - that is, the suspects - with as little trouble as possible. When the goods resist processing, the police respond with the same frustration anyone would feel. Only police carry guns. They often view suspects as less than human. And, as with domestic violence, their brutality has the protection of occurring behind a closed door.

The example I use to argue that a few well-intention officers will not reduce brutality is Sgt. Michael Bellomo. He is one of the other four defendants in the Louima matter and the only one not charged with some form of assault. Bellomo went on trial for lying to the FBI about Louima. He is, more credibly, the typical policeman. He protected the unbelievable brutality of a fellow-officer rather than tell the truth. I believe Bellomo is the norm that good intentions will not overcome.

Many, if not most policemen lie. They lie all the time. I remember when my husband lost all faith in the average policeman. At meeting him, I was surprised to learn that he, a civil rights zealot, had preserved a positive image of the 'cop on the beat.' About two months later, he contested a rather trivial speeding ticket in court. The officer involved repeatedly lied under oath. "If the police lie about something that matters so little," he asked me, "how can I believe what they say about anything important?" From that moment, he has never accepted a policeman's statement at face value.

I am a peace-loving, middle-class white woman who does not have so much as a traffic violation on my record. My husband and I should be the rock-solid strata of support upon which the police can draw. They can't because we know they don't protect us. We know they do not produce justice. And the best intentions of the most honorable officers will be lost in the willingness of most policemen to lie to protect the abuses of the worst of their kind. I'll take my chances with the criminals.