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August 14, 2014

You're Not Going to Believe This, But a Low-Level Reporter Said Something Dumb

Mary Katherine Ham had her own thoughts about this, though, unlike Stefan Becket's, her thoughts weren't completely stupid.

Now, it’s not that the journalists in question are super-citizens who have more rights than the rest of us (though, certainly, the coverage of them will suggest it). They are canaries in a coalmine. If national journalists are arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson for what can only be described (and has yet to be described by police, mind you) as some sort of reach of an infraction, how are the regular citizens in this now militarized zone faring?

I agree with this formulation of "Canaries in the Coal Mine." That's a good way to put it.

To be honest, though, I disagree with Mary Katherine Ham as far as her conclusion she derives from that starting premise.

The cops at the McDonald's -- while they might have been dismissive of free speech rights -- were not brutal, and in fact repeated their orders to exit the restaurant dozens of times without resorting to physical force. I think, ultimately, they did resort to force, though (and I can't believe I'm saying this) I think I agree with Joe Scarborough on this point.

Let me explain.

I can concede the point to Mary Katherine that the cops acted wrongly in ordering the reporters (and everyone else) to exit the McDonald's without conceding another, bigger point.

One worrisome thing about the "militarization of police" is that this militarization will be employed in many situations, that it will become a routine thing.

And that's not hypothetical -- the militarized response of the police has in fact become a routine thing.

Consider the case of that SWAT team throwing the flash-bang (accidentally) into a baby's crib. Was that team there to take down a major drug dealer that they'd been surveilling and building a case against for months?

Nope. They went in all Rambo on a routine warrant service based on a tip from an informant that they had just received that day or the day before.

Over a fairly petty drug bust.

That is truly objectionable.

I do not mind that the police should have the capacity to Armor Up and employ Fallujah Room-Clearing Tactics in serious situations, in apprehending serious criminals after serious investigations.

I want them to have that capability.

However, I do not want (and will not accept) them employing that capability for routine warrant services in the service of confiscating a meager amount of contraband drugs.

In Ferguson, the situation, as I see it, is different. There were major riots. The cops are not making up some pretext for going Rambo. As a strictly factual matter, there was rioting, shops were looted and burned to the ground.

I can concede -- and in fact I endorse -- Mary Katherine's unstated point that the militarization of police has gone too far and is being employed for trivial matters, while not agreeing with her that protecting against further rioting is itself a trivial matter.

I know the cops' theory here, or at least I think I do.

Cops come at you with a high level of intimidation. Everyone who's had a bad experience with a cop knows this.

And anyone who's had this experience surely has begun to question what right the civil servants of the state have to treat citizens in such a matter.

However, cops have a theory to justify these intimidating tactics.

Their theory is this: Compliance secured by intimidation and bullying is better than compliance secured by physical force.

When physical force is employed, many, many bad things can happen, including the possibility of injury or death of the cop, and, much more frequently, the injury or death of the suspect (who, himself, may be completely innocent of any crime).

From the cops' point of view, they are presented with a choice of Two Evils -- Intimidating citizens with a show of force and a show of barking, yelling physically-coercive authority, or resorting to some sort of physical restraint or weapon to secure compliance.

They say, and I'm not sure they're wrong, that as bad and awful as the first choice it, it is preferable to the second choice.

Every tactic a cop may use to secure compliance -- including physical restraint, wrestling, holds, and "less lethal" weaponry -- may in fact inflict death, and, alas, does occasionally inflict death.

The cops in Ferguson -- and I'm not saying they're right, I'm just telling you what they're thinking -- are thinking that a show of force is likely to keep the situation "under a lid," as Obama is fond of saying of violence overseas, and is therefore less likely to result in the actual use of physical force and the likely product of physical force, which is serious injury and frequently death.

I am not at all dismissing Mary Katherine's concerns. She may well be right. I have to disclose here that I, like our semi-retired President, have not been following this story at all.

I cannot address her conclusion that in some cases the police's response has been overly heavy-- because I don't know about the specific facts at all.

However, many are speaking about this not just as to the specific facts in Ferguson but as a general matter about the militarization of police.

I'm only speaking to that, the general criticism of this development.

And I'm not really disagreeing with those who criticize this on a general level. I'm only attempting to suggest what the cops would say about this matter: It is better to have a Yelling Cop than a Shooting Cop.

In fact, there's a scale of preferences:

An Intimdiating Cop is better than

A Tasering Cop, who in turn is better than

A Grappling/Chokehold Cop, who is in turn better than

A Shooting Cop.

All of these, note, implicate Coercion, and that should be a concern for any conservative (and naturally, any actual Libertarian).

And yet: Coercion is an unavoidable bedrock necessity of a police force, isn't it?

I do agree with the general libertarian criticism of this development -- it is absurd that the Department of Education has its own SWAT team, for example.

It is absurd that every small police force is getting federal money to create such a capability, rather than simply employing the SWAT forces of a neighboring large town.

It is absurd that SWAT tactics are being used to serve minor warrants on minor, not yet proven to be criminal suspects.

But where I disagree -- provisionally; I'm not even sure that my position is right -- is that the cops should have this capability, so long as the capability is employed judiciously and only in extremis.

Whether several days of looting and arson count as a situation in which the Heavy Intimidation Tactics of the police should be deployed, I don't truly know.

My gut hunch is yes, because I don't want to see any more violence or disorder.

But I don't know. Maybe it's not. Maybe there's something to be said for social disorder.

And maybe, as some say, we have over-encouraged, or over-permitted, cops to use Intimidation as a method of social control.

Perhaps we should begin to reframe the social contract between cop and citizen and demand that cops seriously limit the use of Intimidation Tactics -- maybe it's time to get them to start being Officer Friendly again, except when something serious seems to be going on.

I do believe that many cops -- not all cops, but some bad cops -- are very quick to assert their Physical Authority over law-abiding citizens.

We're in an odd period where pretty much every old belief of the conservative movement is open to challenge.

I think that's healthy. And it's kind of exciting -- we're in a period where there are almost no sacred cows whatsoever. We're essentially questioning everything, and deciding anew what we actually believe.

Of course, it's also a little scary, as most exciting things are.

But in challenging the old thinking, we shouldn't forget why we once believed in (or at least countenanced) the old thinking in the first place, just a little while ago.

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posted by Ace at 03:13 PM

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