Police Abuse

Cops Confused About Their Jobs and Perks as Privileges vs. Rights

Higher standards for police employment aren't unlibertarian.


Peter E Lee/Foter

In December I wrote a column suggesting a "police offenders registry" that could track problem cops and encourage local police departments not to hire them. I suggested the federal government could run such a list and, for example, tie it to federal grants. The Washington Post's Radley Balko (formerly of Reason) wrote about it, noting that it'd be a worthy project for a civil rights or other advocacy group to take on. Given the greater interest, nationwide, in issues of police abuse over the last year than at any point in the last forty, such a list, even run privately, could be a useful tool in the campaign to keep problem cops off the street.

This idea, apparently, is not very libertarian. So says Carole Moore, a former police officer who writes at Officer.com:

As anyone who understands the libertarian stance would know, adding layers of governmental bureaucracy is the polar opposite of libertarian philosophy. Libertarians believe in less government involvement, not more, so adding a government-controlled registry would serve only to build yet another layer of government into the criminal justice hiring system—that brings up another issue.

Police already have a bad cop registry. It's called a background check and, in many cases, it's reinforced with a polygraph. I don't know of any agency that fails to conduct background checks on the officers they hire.

Moore refers to her own work as a detective doing these, admitting that she and her colleagues "all hated doing them" but insisted that didn't stop them from doing a thorough job. Perhaps that's the case in her department. But there are plenty of examples of police officers, especially those involved in the use of deadly force, carrying backgrounds that, to the layman, should have prevented them from continuing their law enforcement careers. The police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, for example, had been kicked off a previous police force for dismal gun performance and emotional instability. And then there's the related issue of cops with bad records staying on the job, like Brian Rice, the Baltimore cop who had an innocent man arrested in 2013 and was involved in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last month.

The misconception that having more rules imposed on government would be unlibertarian comes from the mistaken belief that rules imposed on "civilians" are in the same class as the rules imposed on the government that imposes rules on us. It's a dangerous idea, one that opened the door for laws like the "law enforcement officer's bill of rights," which can make it nearly impossible to fire bad cops. Maryland was the first with such a law, passed in 1972, and many states have them now. It leads to an attitude where even criminal charges dismissed for being not strong enough are used as examples of how criminal charges create a "safety hazard" for police officers. In Milwaukee, a cop fired as a result of fatally shooting an unarmed man after finding him sleeping on a park bench, was cleared of all charges by a new state law, and has applied for disability for severe post-traumatic stress disorder. There's nothing libertarian about any of this, but there is a more libertarian solution than a police offenders registry: the elimination of police unions and the legally-granted privileges afforded police officers that keep so many problem ones on the streets.

As a final note, Moore writes that I have an "apparent dislike of the police profession." It's a popular smear, used especially when pointing out how awful police unions can be. But it's not true. I have a dislike of the laws that protect bad cops and a dislike of the kind of nanny state laws all kinds of cops are ordered to enforce that tend to create the space for unnecessary violent encounters. Both the former and the latter there ought to be less of, a libertarian and democratic proposition, and one that has nothing to do with disliking cops.

Moore says she couldn't find a "single redeeming law enforcement story" on the site. Not sure how hard she looked. Here are a few:

Swedish Cops on Vacation in NYC Stop Assault, Hold Homeless Man Until Police Come, Without Escalating the Situation

Ex-Baltimore Cop Alleges Retaliation for Reporting Police Brutality

Dallas Cop Disarms Armed Suspect Without Shooting at Him

And check out this Reason TV piece on a cop fired for speaking out against ticket and arrest quotas: