In America, we’re going through an awfully rough period of relations between the police and the citizenry, culminating in the recent, terrible murders of two New York City Police Department officers. It’s the rockiest period we’ve seen since the ’60s. The police feel that they aren’t being fully supported by the political classes or appreciated by those who they work to protect, and among the citizenry there’s concern about militarization of the police, a seeming change to more aggressive policing tactics, and potential racial profiling.
There are no doubt a lot of reasons for this shift in attitude, but I think it is caused in part by the expansion of the role of police beyond the classic assignments of investigating serious crime and protecting civilians from violence. Our legislators have made so many forms of conduct into crimes that officers increasingly are asked to police behavior that, to many of us, just doesn’t seem important enough to warrant personal involvement by the armed security forces of the state.
The recent choking death of Eric Garner was precipitated because he allegedly was selling single cigarettes in violation of a law. Anyone who uses a gas station or drives a car has seen the ad campaigns warning that the police will be watching to see whether we’re all wearing our seat belts, and if we aren’t we’ll be stopped and ticketed. And while no one questions the importance of trying to stop drunk driving, the commercials that show multiple police officers faded into the scenery at every corner, ever watching us, has it’s own creepy quality that feeds into the unhelpful, “us versus them” perception on both sides of the police-citizen division.
I appreciate the hard work of the police in protecting our communities and risking their lives to do so. I also think, however, that the criminalization of certain economic activities, like selling single cigarettes, and stupid personal behavior, like driving without wearing a seat belt, trivializes the importance of the police and hurts the relations between the police and the community at large. When officers are stopping people to ticket them for failing to “click it,” they seem less like an essential part of a civilized society and more like officious busybodies who are just looking for an excuse the hassle people. And such interactions also raise the risk of a confrontation that escalates into something truly unfortunate.
We would do well to revisit our statutes, get rid of the petty offenses, and reserve the power of the police for investigating murders, rapes, burglaries, and other significant crimes and apprehending the criminals who engage in such conduct. If police were returned to their obviously important, but more limited, core functions, the respect and support for the officers of the law would increase.