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A Case for Private Eyes

November 4, 2002

[John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, "the Beltway Snipers," shot 13 people over the course of three weeks in October 2002. Police finally caught them on October 24. This Mises Daily was first published on November 4, 2002. An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Colin Hussey, is available for download.]

As many writers have pointed out since the October 24 arrest of the alleged "Beltway Snipers," law enforcement from the FBI to the Montgomery County police have not deserved the accolades that have been poured upon them for "solving" the murder spree. Even the mainstream news accounts, which have gushed forth with praise for these various government employees, have permitted any casual observer to note that the investigation and month-long dragnet for the killers was botched from the beginning.

While I have no intention of belaboring upon law enforcement's insistence upon its "racial profiling" of the suspects — the imaginary Angry White Male driving a white van — I should point out that none of us should be surprised that the investigation was overly politicized. Government, at last check, is and has always been a political institution, so we should not be shocked when those employed by the state act in a political fashion. While people might condemn this behavior, it comes naturally to government employees. The real challenge here is not to reform government, but rather take criminal investigations out of the hands of the state.

(This piece will deal with the investigative aspect of police work, not actual policing itself. While I may favor privatized police, I believe that a realistic place to start is in the area of criminal investigations. Thus, I concentrate on that in this article.)

There were numerous problems with the search, and while trying to find the perpetrators of such action was truly looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack — the murderers acting in the random fashion that they did — there were some aspects that truly were peculiar to government entities. For example, the day before the suspects were arrested, they spent some time in Hagerstown, Maryland, which is about 60 miles northwest of Washington and about 65 miles east of my home in Cumberland, Maryland.

By that time, authorities in Montgomery County along with the FBI were aware of the names of their suspects and the vehicle they were driving, yet refused to share that information with other police jurisdictions until a day later, including adjacent Frederick County (where Muhammad and his accomplice were apprehended) and Washington County, where Hagerstown is the county seat. To put it another way, those politically correct law-enforcement agencies placed the lives of citizens in those two counties in danger because they could not get themselves to publicly admit they had been deadly wrong in their highly publicized AWM profiling.

To make matters even worse, it took the police an hour to arrive at the rest stop where the alleged snipers were sleeping in their car, following the 911 calls from the maintenance worker who had spotted the vehicle. (By then, the police had made public the information on the car and its occupants.) The police version is that this was such a dangerous operation that they had to have their full contingent there to make sure things did not go wrong. Of course, the real reason is that all of the various organizations and jurisdictions had to have their representation so the "right people" could receive the praise.

Meanwhile, two unarmed men waited nervously, hoping the pair would not wake up and attack them or even drive off and commit more crimes. To put it another way, the police were willing to place the lives of other people at risk so that the politics of the situation could be enhanced for those who were supposedly deserving of publicity.

While most commentators have concentrated upon the incompetence and political cravenness of the Montgomery County police, I believe that there is a much larger issue at stake, one that unwittingly has been pointed out by the mainstream news media. As I noted earlier, trying to find a sniper or snipers in the heavily populated Washington Beltway area was like finding a needle in a haystack, but over time, as we have seen, even Muhammad the needle left many clues, including evidence he did not leave deliberately. From Montgomery, Alabama, to Tacoma and Bellingham, Washington, the pieces slowly but surely began to fit.

The problem, however, is that there was no mechanism by which law-enforcement agencies could effectively share information. Yes, there are national databases, and the FBI supposedly is the entity that is supposed to tie things together, but, to quote the sheriff from Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is failure to communicate," and under the present government crime fighting regime, communications always will be botched.

This is not due to lack of technology or even the lack of people who have the aptitude to do the necessary work. The real problem is that for all of the talk of cooperation "inherent" in socialism, government agencies are extremely competitive with one another, but in a provincial way. The refusal of Montgomery County to cooperate with its neighbors speaks volumes of this truism. For that matter, most local police will tell you the agency that is most uncooperative with them is the FBI, thus disproving the false notion that the national government knows best.

The real issue, then, is how do we effectively put together the mechanisms to allow for better criminal investigations, especially when we are dealing with criminals who carry their crime sprees across state and jurisdictional lines. Here is where private enterprise can step in.

I ask this simple question: Why do we depend upon government to carry out the vital job of criminal investigation when we don't depend upon government to provide us with the important basic items of food, clothing, and shelter? In fact, we instinctively know that if we were to depend solely upon the state for our sustenance, we would starve or die of exposure to the elements. Yet, people then turn around and insist that government is the most effective entity to investigate crime, especially when lives are at stake.

What I am proposing is that we permit private firms to engage in criminal investigations instead of leaving this important job to the politicized state. First, as we have seen in other areas of private enterprise, for-profit firms have no problem sharing information with each other — except when government intervenes in the name of "antitrust" laws. Second, unlike the monopoly of state law enforcement in which political goals always trump public safety, these firms would not be loaded down with such dangerous baggage.

Third, the incentive to solve crimes with accurate data would be much greater with private firms than government agencies. Not only would the reputation of solving crimes mean more business and more profitability to successful firms, the system of liability in which companies could be successfully sued in court for sloppy or dishonest investigations would also temper the desire for a "quick fix," especially in difficult cases.

In recent years, we have seen that criminally suspect "investigations" by law-enforcement agencies have landed innocent people on death row in many states, most notably Illinois, where DNA testing exonerated half of the death-row population. One shudders to think how many other Americans are incarcerated at the present time for crimes they did not commit because politically zealous police and prosecutors railroaded them into prison. Unfortunately, even though we are well aware of these problems, we also see that it is an extremely rare occurrence when those in positions of crime investigation and prosecution are actually punished for their criminal negligence.

To put it another way, private investigating firms would carry a much heavier burden than the state currently does. While this is hardly a "perfect" defense against mistakes, I could guarantee that private firms would make far fewer errors than are currently made by government employees, including those in the FBI "crime" labs that, as we know now, routinely botch investigations, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.

I realize that such a proposal also has its possible downside. Since the state determines what is and what is not a crime, such agencies also could be politically manipulated into carrying out investigations that satisfied the political appetites of bureaucrats and elected officials. Thus, we likely would still have the same political emphasis upon certain kinds of "crime" that perhaps should not be considered crimes at all.

But even here, private enterprise gives us a barrier that state-run crime investigation does not offer. Contrary to public opinion, it is easier to hide errors and outright fraud in government agencies, since government ultimately decides what shall be criminal and what shall not. Private firms do not have that cover. Moreover, private companies also have the option of walking away if government wants them to obtain politically correct outcomes in their investigations.

I am not advocating what is commonly called "privatization," in which firms compete for having the government designate them as a local monopoly. Instead, I am calling for firms that compete with one another in the same jurisdiction.

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None of this is a panacea, and I realize that the presence of government policing is fraught with its own sets of problems. The real world, as Austrian economics demonstrates, is one in which error is always present. I am simply calling for another way to look at how we presently "solve" crimes in our country today, noting that we now have the worst of all worlds.

The apprehension of the alleged Beltway snipers should not make us more trusting in local law enforcement and crime investigators; in fact, it should do the opposite. The incentive structure inherent in government kept agencies from seeking the right people and sharing information. We need a change, and private, for-profit enterprise is the only way we will have the kind of change we need. It may not be perfect, but it surely would be better than the politicized regime that rules over us today.


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