Can One Respect the Police?
Tibor R. Machan
It began with the Orange County ordinance authorizing police to stop teens from smoking in public places. One of my children asked me, who are these people to tell them whether they may smoke? Isn’t that the job of parents? Don’t the cops have kidnappers, rapists, murderers, and robbers to deal with? Is it really their role in our lives to order us to stop smoking?
I really couldn’t argue with the logic here. It isn’t the proper task of the police to tell us whether to smoke cigarettes or dope or whatever, for that matter. The police of a free society are supposed to be peace officers, not parents or nannies or even schoolmarms. I did mention that what the police do is follow orders given to them by the politicians and bureaucrats but my kids reminded me that this is the excuse German soldiers used when they were asked about enforcing the tyrannical rules of the Nazis. They said isn’t it just a few steps—well, maybe quite a few—from that kind of a system when cops start taking over the jobs of parents?
Later I had a chance to talk to some of my kids’ friends—they had a little gathering at our house and I took advantage of this and asked them about their views of the police. Several of them, the more articulate ones, said they have zero respect for the police because of the kind of tasks they have willingly taken on, ones they should not be doing at all. The entire notion of a vice squad was upsetting to many of them—how can police officers expect young people to think highly of them when they are willing to follow such orders handed to them by the politicians, orders to eradicate vice! When I asked, well what do you expect them to do, some answered that they should rebel and refuse to follow these immoral orders; some argued that they should resign in protest, just as should the police of any tyrannical regime.
This led to a discussion of democracy—what about when the majority of the voters, through their representatives, order the police to enforce these rules? Some of the kids immediately questioned whether a majority may order the police to do what individuals may not order them to do—such as tell them how to behave when they are not violating anyone’s rights. They knew about lynch mobs and mentioned how despite the majority’s intention of hanging a suspect, it would be wrong to do this because no conviction has occurred, no due process has been followed.
You might say the friends of my children are a special bunch— they do some thinking about these matters quite on their own. Even in class, my kids speak up and challenge conventional wisdom. (It may have to do a little with the example I and my friends set for them!) But with respect to the role of the police, it is really sad that so many young people appear to be cynical about what is happening. After all, the proper task of the police is a very important one, namely, to deal with crime, where crime is understood as people violating the rights of other people—murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, etc., etc. This task requires serious training—the police may not fight crime by acting like criminals in the process. And that's often difficult to do—discipline, self-restraint, and knowledge of the nuances of crime are required, as well as much else. Those who take up the job of the police and do it properly do deserve respect. They are doing the quintessential public service in a free society where the public good is nothing more or less than securing the rights of individuals. So the police are a major agency of securing the genuine public good.
But when they start meddling in all kinds of things they have no business doing, when they blindly and even enthusiastically follow the orders or rouge politicians, then they have become corrupt. And young people are not oblivious to this.
Moreover, arguably seeing the corruption of the police on so many fronts, they are likely to lose respect for them where it really counts, namely, in their capacity as crime fighters. The police often needs the help of citizens in fighting crime but this help isn’t likely to be forthcoming from a citizenry that lacks respect for police officers in light of what they learn about them from their role in enforcing rules and practices that are none of their business.