Whatever Happened to Peace Officers?
Editor’s Note: The following is a selection from a speech by Mises Institute President Jeff Deist at the Southwest Regional Mises Circle in Houston, “The Police State: Know It When You See It,” on January 18, 2014.
Today when we use the term peace officer, it sounds antiquated and outdated. I’m sure most people in the room under 40 have never heard the term actually used by anyone; we might as well be talking about buggy whips or floppy disks. But in the 1800s and really through the 1960s, the term was used widely in America to refer generally to lawmen, whether sheriffs, constables, troopers, or marshals. Today the old moniker of peace officer has been almost eliminated in popular usage, replaced by “police officer” or the more in vogue “law enforcement officer.”
The terminology has certain legal differences in different settings; in some places peace officers and police officers are indeed different individuals with different functions, jurisdictions, or powers to execute warrants. But nobody says peace officer anymore, and it’s not just a coincidence.
The archetype of a peace officer is mostly fictitious — sheriffs in westerns often come to mind, stern lawmen carrying Colt revolvers called “Peacemakers.” But the Wyatt Earps of western myth weren’t always so peaceful, and often, at least in movies, used their Peacemakers to shoot up the place.
Outside the Old West archetype, Sheriff Andy Taylor of the Andy Griffith Show is perhaps the best and most facile example of what it once meant, at least in the American psyche, to be a peace officer. Now of course the Andy Griffith show was fictional. And there’s no doubt that many, many small town sheriffs in America over the decades have been anything but peace officers. Yet it’s fascinating that just a few decades ago Americans could identify with the character of Sheriff Taylor as a recognizable ideal.
Obviously the situation today is very different, and we all know how far things have fallen. Police have suffered a very serious decline over the last several decades, both in terms of their public image and the degree to which average citizens now often fear police officers rather than trust them. We can note also that poor and minority communities have long been less trusting, or perhaps less naïve, about the real nature of police. But today that jaundiced view has found its way into middle-class consciousness.
Now the subject of police misconduct and the growing militarization and lawlessness of police departments could fill many hours, and several libertarian writers are doing a great job of documenting police malfeasance, as in the excellent work of investigative journalist William Norman Grigg.
But allow me to mention some particularly egregious recent examples of police action escalating and harming, rather than protecting and serving.
As just one example, we can point to the case in which a 90-pound, mentally-ill young man very recently was killed by three so-called law enforcement officers from three different agencies in Southport, North Carolina. He was apparently having a schizophrenic episode and brandishing a screwdriver when police arrived in answer to his family’s 911 call asking for “help.” The first two officers managed to calm the young man down, but the third escalated the situation, demanding that the other officers use a taser to subdue him. Once his body hit the ground the young man was brutally shot at close range by the third officer, for reasons that remain unclear.
As another example, we could note the beating death of Kelly Thomas by police in Fullerton, California. The beating was seen as so brutal and unjustified by many members of the community that it led to the recall of three members of the Fullerton City Council who defended the police department in the wake of the beating.
So here we see modern police at work. Escalation. Aggression. A lack of common sense, making a bad situation worse. Overriding concern for the safety of police officers, regardless of the consequences for those being “protected.” These are not the hallmarks of peace officers, to put it mildly.
Another troubling development that demonstrates how far we’ve strayed from the peace officer ideal can be seen in the increasing militarization of local police departments. The Florida city of Ft. Pierce (population 42,000) recently acquired an MRAP vehicle, which stands for “mine response ambush protection” for the bargain price of $2,000. The U.S. military is unloading hundreds of armored tank-like vehicles as Operation Enduring Freedom winds down — and it’s also unloading thousands of Afghanistan and Iraq combat vets into the ranks of local police and sheriffs. The Ft. Pierce police chief states, “The military was pretty much handing them out. ... You know, it is overkill, until we need it.”
So how did we go from “peace” officers to “police” officers to “law enforcement” officers anyway? How did we go from “protect and serve” to “escalate and harm”? And what is behind the militarization of police departments and the rise of the warrior cop, as one writer terms it?
Well, as Austrians and libertarians we should hardly be surprised, and we certainly don’t need a sociological study to understand what’s happening. The deterioration in police conduct, and the militarization of local police forces, quite simply and quite predictably mirrors the rise of the total state itself.
We know that state monopolies invariably provide worse and worse services for more and more money. Police services are no exception. When it comes to your local police, there is no shopping around, there is no customer service, and there is no choice. Without market competition, market price signals, and market discipline, government has no ability or incentive to provide what people really want, which is peaceful and effective security for themselves, their families, their homes, and their property. As with everything government purports to provide, the public wants Andy Griffith but ends up with the Terminator.
There is no lack of Austrian scholarship in this area, the intersection between security services, state monopolies, public goods, and private alternatives. I would initially direct you toward two excellent primary sources to learn more about how markets could provide security services that no only produce less crime at a lower cost, but also provide those services in a peaceful manner.
My first recommendation is Murray Rothbard’s Power and Market, which opens with a chapter entitled “Defense Services on the Free Market.” Right off the bat Rothbard points out the inherent contradiction between property rights and the argument that state-provided police services are a necessary precondition to securing such property rights:
Economists have almost invariably and paradoxically assumed that the market must be kept free by the use of invasive and unfree actions — in short, by governmental institutions outside the market nexus.
In other words, we’re told that state-provided police are a necessary precondition to market activity. But Rothbard points out that many goods and services are indispensable to functioning markets, such as land, food, clothing, and shelter for market participants. Rothbard asks, “… must all these goods and services therefore be supplied by the State and the State only?”
No, he answers:
Defense in the free society (including police protection) would therefore have to be supplied by people or firms who (a) gained their revenue voluntarily rather than by coercion and (b) did not — as the State does — arrogate to themselves a compulsory monopoly of police or judicial protection.
Another excellent starting point is Hans Hoppe’s The Private Production of Defense. Hoppe makes the case that our long-held belief in collective security is nothing more than a myth, and that in fact state protection of private property — our system of police, courts, and jails — is incompatible with property rights and economic reality.
Motivated, as everyone is, by self-interest and the disutility of labor, but equipped with the unique power to tax, state agents will invariably strive to maximize expenditures on protection — and almost all of a nation’s wealth can conceivably be consumed by the cost of protection — and at the same time to minimize the actual production of protection. The more money one can spend and the less one must work for it, the better off one will be.
Both Rothbard and Hoppe discuss an “insurance” model for preventing crime and aggression, which makes sense from a market perspective. Rothbard posits that private police services likely would be provided by insurance companies which already insure lives and property, for the commonsense reason that “... it would be to their direct advantage to reduce the amount of crime as much as possible.”
Hoppe takes the insurance concept further, arguing that:
The better the protection of insured property, the lower are the damage claims and hence an insurer’s loss. Thus, to provide efficient protection appears to be in every insurer’s own financial interest. ... Obviously, anyone offering protection services must appear able to deliver on his promises in order to find clients.
Compare this to the “growth” model of most local police departments, which continuously lobby their city councils for more money and more officers!
Now admittedly the private provision of police and security services is a complex and controversial subject, and we’re only touching on it today. But rest assured that if you read further, both Rothbard and Hoppe address many common objections raised when discussing private police: attendant issues like political borders; differing legal systems; physical jurisdiction and violence among competing firms; the actuarial problems behind insuring against physical aggression; free riders; and so forth.
But increasingly society is moving in the direction of private security regardless: consider for example, complex insurance networks and indemnification arrangements across borders; private arbitration of disputes; the rise of gated communities and neighborhoods utilizing private security agencies; and fraud prevention mechanisms provided by private businesses like eBay and Paypal.
These trends can only intensify as governments, whether federal, state, or local, increasingly must spend more and more of their budgets to service entitlement, pension, and debt promises.
If we want our police to act more like Sheriff Andy Taylor and less like militarized aggressors, we must look to private models — models where our interests are aligned with security providers. Only then can we bring back true “peace” officers, private security providers focused on preventing crime and defusing conflicts in cost effective and peaceful ways.