Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Who Do Police Protect?

Glenn Reynolds posted the cartoon pictured above today, with the comment that the cartoon gets it backwards: "Police don’t actually protect law-abiding citizens from criminals so much as they protect criminals from the much-rougher justice they’d get in the absence of a legal system." Robert Farago at The Truth About Guns thinks Reynolds is wrong, claiming that police are hardly the bad guy's champion.

I don't think Reynolds intended to suggest that police are the champions of criminals, but that an active police force protects criminals from a system of mob justice/vendetta by subjecting them to an impartial justice system that uses a system of laws and rules to evaluate evidence and met out punishment largely without input from crime victims. It is the neutral position of the state--acting as the Leviathan--that acts as one of the greatest mitigators of violence according to Steven Pinker, exactly because it short circuits the cycle of revenge killings.

Reynolds is correct that police do not protect law-abiding citizens from crime in the direct sense suggested by the political cartoon. As knows anyone that has been a victim of a crime, police intervention is after-the-fact. Moreover, it is well-established law that police have no duty to protect any one person. Their duty runs to the public generally (i.e., to the body politic) and not to any particular individual. See, e.g. Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. App. 1981). And Reynolds seems particularly vindicated when you read headlines like these: "Businessman tackles two thieves after catching them red-handed on his property . . . now HE'S one on trial for assault," or "Life for farmer who shot burglar," both stories from the UK; or "Man faces jail after protecting home from masked attackers" in Canada. In the latter case, the masked men had just fire-bombed the man's house when he confronted them with a gun.

Farago claims that police protect the public through deterrence of crime. And it appears to be true that people are deterred from committing crimes when the odds of being apprehended are high. (Although I would question how effective this is outside the realm of the enforcement of traffic laws). But, again, Reynold's point wasn't that policy don't deter crime, but that they also keep law breakers safe from retribution or vendetta. Certainly, with insufficient law enforcement, people will eventually resort to self-help not only in apprehending criminals, but in punishing them. This leads to incidents such as this report from Venezuela:
When a man they believed to be a thief sneaked into their parking lot in the Venezuelan city of Valencia, angry residents caught him, stripped him and beat him with fists, sticks and stones.

They tied him up and doused him in gasoline, according to witnesses, in one of what rights groups and media reports say are an increasing number of mob beatings and lynchings in a country ravaged by crime.
Or this incident from China:
Video of a pregnant woman being tied up and brutally beaten has recently emerged on Chinese social media.

A woman was seen with her hands bound behind her back to a telephone pole as a man kicked her, reported People's Daily Online.

The incident took place on August 29 in a village near Taizhou city, eastern China.

Reports suggest the woman, who is only identified as Ms Lu, was brutally assaulted because the residents of Hengshan village believed she was a regular thief in their community.

She had been caught stealing from the village in the past. When residents saw her appearing again last week, they thought she has returned to steal again and decided to punish her.
So, yes, our system of law enforcement does protect criminals from street justice.

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