Criminal Justice

Police Misbehavior Is a Crucial Threat to Liberty

Cops in Los Angeles killed a young girl in a department store dressing room by accident while firing at a suspect armed with nothing more than a bike lock.


Whenever I write about police abuse and use-of-force issues, I often hear from the "back the badge" crowd to defend whatever it is the police officer did in a given situation. They're not always wrong, of course, but one recurring theme always sticks in my craw, especially given that these writers typically describe themselves as "conservatives."

Police defenders instinctively view most situations—and expect the rest of us to do so—from the perspective of the officer. "Well, sure that African American teen was holding a cellphone rather than a gun, but how was the officer to know before he shot him?" "Sure, the SWAT team broke down the door to the wrong apartment, but mistakes happen (note the passive voice)."

One of the stated principles of conservatism is fealty to the constitution, which protects the rights of individuals against the abuses of government. Police are the face of that government. They enforce the rules that lawmakers pass. Having the right to detain or even kill you, officers literally hold all of your "rights" within their grasp.

Therefore, I spend less time worrying about the genuinely difficult challenges of officers than about my fellow citizens' right to life and liberty. As Charlton Heston says in a Touch of Evil, "Only in a police state is the job of a policeman easy." Likewise, I worry less about the frustrations of IRS agents than I do about the rights of taxpayers. Tax collectors have a legitimate job, but a true freedom-lover is primarily concerned about protecting individuals from the state.

Let's look at a recent example. On Dec. 23, Los Angeles police shot to death Valentina Orellana-Peralta. who was shopping for quinceañera dresses in a Burlington store dressing room in North Hollywood. Officers were responding to reports of an assault with a deadly weapon and opened fire. A bullet penetrated the dressing-room wall, where Valentina and her mom were hiding from the ruckus. The girl died in her mother's arms.

Those who scream (rightly) about government encroachment on our liberties when, say, legislators pass a new gun-control measure, tax hike or business regulation need to acknowledge that the government's killing of a young girl who is out enjoying her day is a rights-destroying offense of a much higher order. It doesn't matter that the girl was not the intended target.

The Los Angeles Police Department released a bland statement saying that officers didn't know the girl was in the dressing room. The union argued the officer followed active-shooter protocols after getting 911 calls. It appears there was no active shooter. Police killed the suspect, who was a danger, but the weapon was a bike lock and cable. It sounds like a scene from the movie Idiocracy.

The shooting "has already sparked widespread anguish and outrage," reported the Los Angeles Times. "The violence has also brought scrutiny about the tactics used by the responding officers and whether there were ways to de-escalate the situation without opening fire or at least not putting Valentina in harm's way."

That summary is on point. If officers followed the proper protocol, then the proper protocol is, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, "an ass—an idiot." If your instinct is to excuse this tragedy as a mere accident, then perhaps you're not that committed to constitutional rights. Would you be more outraged if a California Department of Justice regulator had mistakenly banned some kind of firearm?

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court might soon take up the issue of federal officers who abuse their power. The matter involves qualified immunity—the protection officers have from lawsuits when they violate someone's constitutional rights. Two cases—one in Minnesota, another in Texas—are meandering their way toward the highest court thanks to the efforts of the libertarian Institute for Justice.

In the first, 16-year-old Hamdi Mohamud "was a bystander at a fight involving a knife-wielding girl who was a witness" in a St. Paul, Minn., officer's investigation "of a non-existent Somali immigrant crime ring," columnist George Will explained. The officer, who had been deputized as a federal agent, was found through judicial proceedings to have "exaggerated or fabricated" facts, which led to Mohamud's unjust two-year incarceration, he added.

In the second, Kevin Byrd alleges that Homeland Security agent Ray Lamb tried to stop him from investigating a car accident involving Lamb's son and Byrd's ex-girlfriend. As the court explained, "Byrd alleges that Agent Lamb physically threatened him with a gun, and verbally threatened to 'put a bullet through his 'f—king skull.'" Lamb had Bird detained for four hours until video surveillance footage led to Lamb's arrest for aggravated assault.

In both cases, the appeals courts ruled that Americans may not sue federal agents even when their behavior is unconscionable—and even when, as Will put it, such behavior "did not result from split-second decisions in dangerous situations." If you're OK with that, then just admit that you actually believe in unlimited government.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.