Thursday, November 15, 2012

How to improve the public attitude towards police

I know the libertarians like Radley Balko will tell you, and not without some justification, that there's already too much trust in the police. I dunno, though. My sense is that you're always going to be ruled by some gang or other, because the military advantage of numbers is overwhelming. And in the end, the police in the US are on the pretty good end of the scale of gangs to be ruled by. Don't get me wrong - there's plenty of egregious police misconduct, some of it the inevitable consequence of being tasked to enforce things like ridiculous drug laws. And even if that goes away, I think that plenty of police deeply enjoy the power of the job, and like bullies they are likely to retaliate if you question their authority. But still - I read stuff like Second City Cop, and can't help but think that in the end, these guys are not the real problem in society.

Anyway, that's all by the by. Suppose you were trying to increase trust in the police force. How might you do it?

For a period of two years in graduate school, I didn't have a car. I know you must think this a tragedy ill-befitting my social status, and you would be right. But at the time, it seemed sensible. Public transport has two major problems. Firstly, the fact that whether you get to your function on time depends on the competence of the government that day, which is always a precarious proposition. And secondly, the other people who ride public transport. The first one never goes away (except in Singapore), but for the second one at least I was riding a route filled mainly with college kids and other types low on the 'likely to stab you for twenty bucks' metric. So it wasn't too bad.

But what was strange about this period was that my attitude towards police became much, much more positive. Why? Because I had absolutely nothing to fear from them. The police are around? Great - the more, the merrier! It's like a personal security guard for wherever you happen to be walking.

The reality is that most citizens are law-abiding with respect to nearly all the laws that actually matter. The only major exception to this is that nearly everybody breaks traffic laws. Doing 70 in a 65 zone? Even if they don't pull you over (and they probably won't), they could. And they might, if they need the ticket revenue badly enough.

The net effect of this is that whenever you're driving and you see a cop car, you get the same feeling that a thug in the ghetto probably gets when they're walking and see a cop - even if I think I'm doing nothing wrong, they might still cause me trouble. I drive a little slower. I indicate earlier. I come to an over-dramatised pedantic halt at every stop sign. Why? Because Officer O'Rourke might just happen to be short of his quota this month, in which case, bad luck.

And this reaction, repeated however many times per week, ends up having an insidious mental association - police = potential trouble.

And this is completely easy to fix. Just announce a policy that traffic police will only give tickets to people driving in an unsafe manner. That's it. The rest will be reassigned to other duties.

This would have an enormously positive effect on the average person's perception of police officers - once you're not worried about some @$$hole giving you a ticket, there's nothing to worry about!

There's two reasons why this won't happen, of course.

The good reason is that traffic stops are often very useful for police to come into contact with people who have committed other types of crimes. They need to be able to pull you over for the ticket to see if you've got a body in the trunk and are acting suspiciously (or more likely, that you had a bag of pot on you).

The more neutral reason is that the people whose attitudes might be changed already support the police enough. Not only that, but the instrumental value of police support is for increasing public willingness to supply information that will help to catch crooks. And the reality is that people who only break traffic laws are unlikely to have much information about criminals in the first place. The guys who know who shot Maurice the gangbanger on 75th street have other solid reasons to not trust the police, over and above traffic tickets.

Exactly the same logic applies for why you should legalise marijuana. It affects a smaller number of people, but the principle is the same. Whenever a law is being semi-openly flouted by large numbers of people, it's usually a good time to acknowledge that it should just be ditched.

This, incidentally, was perhaps the best news to come out of the election - Colorado and Washington legalising marijuana. We'll see if the Obama administration actually lets them, but as Radley Balko notes, public opinion may finally be turning on this one.

The other was this one, which surprised me, because California voters rarely seem to encounter any freely operating business that they didn't think could be improved by some regulation or other.

No comments:

Post a Comment