The mass movement for U.S. police reform continues, with legislation pending in Congress, protests in the streets, and the public at large embracing an end to the "qualified immunity" that protects police officers against civil liability for bad conduct. But a lot of the same people calling—rightly—for changes in the way governments enforce laws also propose ambitious interventions into American life that require significant enforcement.
Ultimately, a lot of people are either going to have to betray their commitment to reform or come to terms with the fact that all enforcers are cops and prone to abusing police power.
"Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence," Yale Law School's Stephen L. Carter wrote in 2014 after New York City cops killed Eric Garner during a confrontation rooted in suspicion that he was illegally selling loose cigarettes.
Every violent enforcement action, I'll add, involves enforcers acting through a filter of flaws and prejudices.
The usual "face" of enforcement is the traditional police department, easily identifiable in patrol cars and uniforms. But general-purpose cops are only part of the apparatus that governments use to impose their will. Specialized agencies enforce regulations, hunt unauthorized immigrants, collect taxes, search out forbidden goods and conduct, and otherwise twist people's arms.
Even at the lowest level, coercive power is abused. Minority-owned businesses have long complained that they're on the receiving end of disproportionate attention from inspectors who don't like them, or who perceive them as less able to fight back.
"Our 2019 report showed that [State Liquor Authority] licensed businesses within minority census tracts were raided at 4 times the rate of less diverse neighborhoods levying fines up to forty thousand dollars in a single enforcement action," Dan Hogle of The Black Institute told a May New York State Senate hearing on the economic impact of the pandemic on small businesses.
The report itself goes further, opening with a caution that "New York City and New York State have been using their enforcement capabilities to terrorize, intimidate, harass, and shut down businesses for nearly a century" and these capabilities "have been aimed at minority owned businesses."
Not that minorities alone chafe at mistreatment by government officials. Anybody under their authority is a potential victim.
"A combination of oppressive regulations and a harsh economic climate—including steep rent increases—have forced more and more restaurants to close. Health inspection practices that are often unfair or even abusive have only further exacerbated this issue," New York Assemblyman Ron Kim complained in 2017.
If petty rules bring big abuses, high-stakes laws bring enormous ones.
Those high-stakes laws include drug prohibition, which is at the heart of policing problems in the United States. Interfering in big-bucks transactions involving willing buyers and sellers of forbidden intoxicants has led to stepped-up use of surveillance, infiltration, no-knock raids, civil asset forfeiture, and other tactics that are inherently dangerous. Prohibition has also led to mass arrests of mostly young people, and criminal records that stand between many Americans and employment in the legal economy.
"The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has existed for more than 40 years, but little attention has been given to the role the agency has played in fueling mass incarceration, racial disparities and other drug war problems," the Drug Policy Alliance noted in 2015.
The Movement for Black Lives, an organized part of the police reform movement, acknowledges part of the problem. A summary of the group's model legislation proposes, in part:
Eliminate federal programs and agencies used to finance and expand the U.S. criminal-legal system, such as the Department of Defense 1033 program, the Edward Byrne-Justice Assistance Grant Program, Community Oriented Policing Services, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bill would ensure that non-punitive, non-carceral elements of these programs are identified so that they can be transferred to another funding source.
But while the group calls for an end to the drug prohibition that fuels so many dangerous law enforcement interactions with the public, the legislation also proposes a wish list of housing, jobs, education, and other programs. Many might be helpful, but they necessarily come with a price tag that will have to be paid by taxpayers. That's a problem, since tax collectors are cops, too.
"The power to tax involves the power to destroy, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1819.
That includes the power to destroy political enemies, dating to long before Elliott Roosevelt admitted that his father, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt "may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution."
But enforcers often abuse their power for no reason more special than that they can.
"To some employees, the taxpayer is the enemy," former Revenue Officer Richard M. Schickel wrote in his self-published 2015 memoir, IRS Whistleblower. "The power of the IRS is the power of FEAR," he added.
Groups on the left aren't the only ones pushing for expansive government activity that requires an extensive enforcement apparatus.
On the right, "new nationalists have decided … that government should force you to choose correctly," (as they see it) Reason's Stephanie Slade warned last year. Those "correct" choices involve regulating social media, banning pornography, rejecting free markets, and, of course, a certain hostility towards immigration.
Then again, many on the right like cops—lots and lots of cops. Open authoritarianism is, at least, honest.
But the political left's happy talk about reforming/defunding/abolishing police comes off as so much lip service when it also calls for vast intrusions into people's lives. How do you forbid landlords to collect rent from their tenants, ban privately owned guns, restructure the economy along "green" lines, criminalize "hate speech," pay for a vastly expanded government, and threaten revolution against those who resist higher taxes without lots of enforcers?
And enforcers are cops; they're government employees authorized to use police power to force people to do the bidding of those in public office. Replacing police with police by another name, but with the same duties, powers, flaws, and biases, won't alleviate the problems that come with enforcement of the government's will.
Are Americans really serious about reforming policing? We'll only know if they back off their schemes to use the power of government to bend others to their will.