What is the role of the police?
(This article has been updated and brought forward to add another example of SWAT action)
Originally, it was to protect the innocent, and to solve crime and apprehend criminals. It still is, largely, but there seems to have been a bit of drift in the intent. There seems to be a trend to apply more energy to catching the bad guys, as opposed to taking care of the good folks; and there are some side effects of this shift.
Disclaimer: I am not a cop; I am speaking specifically as an average citizen looking from the sidelines. So what you read here are my opinions, thoughts and concerns, based on what I see in the news and read on the net, and there is always the possibility that I’ve missed something.
One other thing: Every single police officer I have ever met in person has been polite, professional, and courteous – good people doing a difficult job. Kudos to them. I respect the cops, and I don’t generally fear them.
I read Massad Ayoob’s blog. I have a great deal of respect for Massad Ayoob. I noticed several posts wherein Mas felt the police were being attacked by what he terms cop-haters. And some of them probably were cop-haters. You can read about it here, here, here, and here. This series of postings and many, many comments caused me to spend some time thinking about the subject. And frankly, I can see both sides, except for the actual cop-haters.
The police generally have the right to a citizen’s respect, and obedience as required by the law. No question there.
However, I have seen evidence of a disturbing trend in which the rights of citizens to basic safety and privacy are being abrogated by the police. I don’t think it’s systematic in most cases, but it does seem to happen with disturbing frequency.
For instance, on the Cato website is a link to a map showing hundreds of incidents where the police botched paramilitary SWAT team raids. Many of these happened for reasons as simple as getting the address wrong. Documented here are around 100 deaths caused by these botched raids; some 45 totally innocent civilian deaths, and another 31 police officers dead or injured.
I haven’t looked at every single one, but the police who were injured were mostly probably shot by people defending themselves against a home invasion. After all, if you aren’t breaking the law, you don’t expect a SWAT team to kick in your door, do you?
In a case in Longview, Texas, near here, two brothers were dragged out of their beds, and one had a gun pointed at his head, and was told not to look at the police officer... and the SWAT team had the wrong address. These guys were totally innocent.
I’m here to tell you that any man that points a gun at me for any reason whatsoever is NOT my friend. Especially not a bloomin’ fool that got the address wrong. I feel quite strongly about this.
Furthermore, the legal system is not helping with this. In Indiana, the state supreme court has recently ruled thus:
“Justice Steven David writing for the court said if a police officer wants to enter a home for any reason or no reason at all, a homeowner cannot do anything to block the officer’s entry.” Additional reference here.
Your Fourth Amendment rights have just been raped by the court system, at least in Indiana. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. I don’t think I’ll be going to Indiana – ever. (SEE FOOTNOTE)
So, do I hate the police? No. But I do think that they doggone well should not be allowed to kick in people’s front doors and enter their homes without knocking first and presenting a warrant. Not because the police are particularly evil, but because the best intentioned police can make mistakes. And when the cops make mistakes, innocent people can die; as documented on the Cato map.
One other point about SWAT team raids: In Texas, at least, the law permits a person to defend against home invasion with lethal force. The law also permits a SWAT team (with a warrant) to kick in your door without warning. The SWAT team may shout “police!” or something like that as they enter, but anybody can do that, and a smart gang of criminals breaking into your house probably would. This presents a situation in which police can get the address wrong, break in your house, and get shot at, and return fire – and everybody involved is acting legally.
(SEE UPDATE below for a possible example).
Mas, if you happen to read this, I’d really appreciate your thoughts on that last scenario. What legal criteria of identification must police provide before you are legally bound to believe they are actually police? I have no idea, but clearly, claiming to be police is not adequate.
The solution is to enforce the Fourth Amendment. As originally written. No more kicking in doors without warning. It is better (in my opinion) to let a few bad guys flush the drugs down the toilet, than it is to take a chance with the lives of innocent people. You can catch the bad guys later, but you can’t bring back the innocents who have died. There have clearly been too many such incidents.
The police should, at minimum, do no harm to the innocent.
Because of all of the above, I think we ordinary citizens actually do have legitimate reason to be concerned about the power given to the police. At the same time, I still believe the police, as individuals, are generally well intentioned, at least to the law abiding.
What do you think?
FOOTNOTE: Added 5/16/2011. Amazing. The U.S. Supreme Court just made a very similar ruling. Now a police officer, on the basis of a suspicious smell and the fact that nobody answered the door, can knock down your door and enter without a warrant, anywhere in the U.S.A. And this has barely made a blip in the news. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution has been gutted. I never thought I would see the day when a man no longer had the right to demand a warrant before the police entered his home; and now, that is exactly what has happened. This is a sad day for the United States of America. Thanks to Tamara for the link. We are now officially a police state.
UPDATE: Added 5/22/2011: Yet another example of questionable SWAT action. The SWAT team fired 71 bullets inside Jose Guerena’s home. Read the story for yourself. Original story; the police comments (which smell funny to me); and Tamara’s post which lead me to this. And here is the first story I read about it. The police fired 71 rounds inside this guy’s home; he had a legally owned AR-15 in his hands – which is not an illegal act, especially in your own home. The police put 60 bullets in him, and the safety on his AR-15 was still on. His wife and four year old son were in the home. He had no police record. There is no available evidence that he had done anything to warrant being killed. This is a perfect example of a situation that, had a warrant been served by knocking, rather than a police home invasion, this man would almost certainly still be alive today.
If somebody kicks in my front door, I will almost certainly have a gun in my hand, too. If I know it is the police, I will put it down – but my default condition is armed. Legally. So it makes me just a bit nervous that the police are allowed to do these things, and they often get away with it without penalty.
Folks, this could happen to you. Do you want the police to have that much power?
We need our Fourth Amendment back!