Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | August 17, 2013

Cops — Who Needs ‘Em?

Sitting with an old friend in a public park in Vienna a couple summers ago, I realized something that I’ve witnessed countless times but never paid attention to. There were hundreds of people there, all ages, all having fun. And no cops. The whole time we were there, almost a couple of hours, not a single cop.

No one got mugged. No one got raped. No one even got angry, as far as I saw. Why? Because everyone knew that if they did, cops would swoop down and stop them, or hunt them down and arrest them? No. No one was thinking about cops or criminal activity or “justice” or jail. They had better things to think about. Hundreds of things, for hours.

I’ll interject here, because pieces like this one have upset law-and-order types before. So before anyone shuts me down in a huff, (it’s happened,) I’d like to ask: Why?

If it were possible to do without cops, and if it actually might be better to do without them, why would exploring the possibility be terrible or offensive or — even more puzzling — threatening? Wouldn’t we want to know? Would it be better to live in a world that didn’t need cops or one in which they were indispensable?

Of course, law-and-order advocates are already convinced that we live in a world that makes law enforcement mandatory, even desirable. But what if that certainty were mistaken? Besides, my beef isn’t with pro-law-and-order certainty, but precisely with the fact that it hasn’t been seriously questioned and people react negatively at the prospect. That seems quite less than reasonable.

So, if anyone gets upset with me for questioning it, it’s not because questioning it is ridiculous — it isn’t — but because, dollars to donuts, they don’t want it questioned. To my way of thinking, “certainty” that can’t bear to be challenged is weak, possibly even hypocritical.

OK, back to hundreds of people thinking about hundreds of things for hours on end in a Viennese park on a sunny day without a cop in sight. Multiply that by days and weeks and months and tens or hundreds of thousands of people in thousands of places all over the world, and what do you get? A minuscule fraction of cop-worthy behavior ever actually happens.

Criminal behavior is the exception, not the rule. Does that mean that cops are unnecessary? Not of itself. But let’s ignore the 99.9% of behavior to which police are irrelevant and look at the remaining 0.1% of behavior for a minute, which is all the attention we should give it, though you’d never know in light of our compulsive fear and worry about it. That exceptional shred of human behavior might still justify the need for police. Let’s see…

Looking now at the 0.1% of exceptional, criminal human behavior that might warrant police forces and the billions we spend on them annually, let’s ask a simple, enlightening question. (And don’t worry, I’ll get to why it’s only 0.1%, not 1% or 5% or 10%, in a bit.)

How often do cops intervene at all, let alone successfully?

Almost never.

To “serve and protect” requires being there at the time. Cops are almost never present when a crime goes down. Obviously. And on the rare occasions when they do arrive in time to intervene, do they make matters better or worse? Honestly, that’s circumstantial and debatable. It depends on a lot of variables, most of which cops don’t control. Don’t take my word for it. Read through 14 cases of “People Killed By The War On Drugs” (at the bottom of a Huffington Post article reporting that the USA is the #1 incarcerator in the world, by a wide margin) and see if you come away with the same estimation of police competence and effectiveness that you went in with. You might come away with arguments, but that’s precisely because the message is so clear: cops can not only make matters worse, but much worse, and they always increase the chance of things going wrong. That’s not to say that they don’t also increase the chance of things going right. Guns shoot just as effectively whether pointed at the good guys or the bad guys. Authoritative presence willing to act with lethal force increases the likelihood of both </em desirable and undesirable outcomes — depending. The problem with law-and-order thinking is the pretense that police presence and intervention mainly have positive effects most of the time. That’s naive and short-sighted, but even worse: it’s unfounded.

Am I saying that cops are incompetent? No. I’m saying that their competence has limits. Even when corruption is not involved, they can be grossly incompetent just like anyone else, make serious mistakes just like everyone else, and the situations they deal with only aggravate those problems — sometimes with dire consequences. I have relatives who were and are cops, and I understand in small measure the bind they’re in. We’ve placed them in roles that require superhuman competence, and then we judge them against that unrealistic standard for “poor” performance. They aren’t the problem. Our near-impossible expectations are the problem.

The vast majority of the time, police arrive after the fact and — again, in an exceptional fraction of cases — do little more than apprehend no-goodnicks in order to force them through brutal, dehumanizing, punitive “justice” systems… and that’s if they’re found innocent! If found guilty, we cast “convicts” out into social darkness, into slavery where there literally is weeping and gnashing of teeth, along with rape, frequent beatings, non-stop indignities rubbed in their faces, and even outright torture like “the shoe.” Most of us treat our dogs better. In some ways, we treat vermin better. At least we make our pest extermination and containment methods “humane.”

Our justification? “Justice” — a thin veneer for socially sanctioned retaliation, of which police forces are just a part. After all, the “scum bags” deserve it, right? So, let’s see… We can’t stop the shit. We can’t fix the shit. But we sure as hell can beat the shit out of anyone who dares to get out of line. Judging by the way that “excessive force” so often gets winked at when the thugs involved are wearing badges, how different are these “problem resolution” methods from those used by the very criminals we so righteously prosecute and punish? We teach our five-year-olds better than that, (or many of us do,) but when it comes to “law and order,” we revert to behavior that hasn’t much changed since ancient, brutal times when we like to think humans were less socially and psychologically “developed.” At least we don’t use the screws and the rack anymore. We prefer methods that don’t leave such obvious physical damage. At least if an “accident” occurs and the torture victim dies, he’ll still look presentable.

The deterrent effect of “criminal justice” isn’t just a joke, it’s a demonstrated myth. Who do we want to deter, anyway? Law-abiding citizens? Criminal punishment deters would-be criminals only when their social support systems reinforce the myth, which is a great example of how delusion can occasionally provide benefits. But when budding lawbreakers are embedded in crime-inducing, crime-supportive social environments, defying the threat of apprehension and punishment is an attractive part of the point.

(To see just how widespread crime-supportive social environments can get, check out the superb documentary The Act of Killing. How about an entire country like, say, Indonesia, which has celebrated unapologetic gangsters as heroes for over a half century, no less, and still idolizes these “free men” today? We’ll have to wait to see what effect reaction to this film has on that attitude.)

The real measure of “criminal justice” effectiveness isn’t “crime rates” like we’re given to believe, but recidivism rates. If “criminal justice” were truly effective, it wouldn’t just deter would-be criminals who have the right kind of influence around them; it would deter wannabes embedded in crime-promoting environments as well as full-fledged, hardened, repeat offenders. It would stop novices inclined and encouraged to commit crime as well as career criminals. Recidivism rates show whether law, enforcement, criminal court, and penal systems effectively deter criminals bent on committing crimes in spite of those systems. What do studies show?

Recidivism rates actually do respond to increased enforcement, more stringent sentencing, and harsher incarceration, just not how we’d like to think they do. Here’s one study:

The Impact of Sentence Length on the Recidivism of Violent Offenders, 2005

“The results of this study provide no support for specific deterrence theory as it has been operationalized in this study. In every regression estimated, increased severity as measured by increases in sentence length was significantly associated with an increase in the predicted probability of recidivism for this sample of violent offenders. This finding adds to the substantial body of research that suggests that increases in sentence severity also increases probabilities of recidivism…” [italics mine]

and another…

The Effect of Imprisonment on Recidivism Rates of Felony Offenders, 2006

“We find no evidence that imprisonment reduces the likelihood of recidivism. Instead, we find compelling evidence that offenders who are sentenced to prison have higher rates of recidivism and recidivate more quickly than do offenders placed on probation.  We also find persuasive evidence that imprisonment has a more pronounced criminogenic effect on drug offenders than on other types of offenders.” [italics mine]

So, harsh sentencing and imprisonment make the problem of criminality worse, not better.

Let’s recap. Given that:

  • criminals are the only population that justifies the need for law, enforcement, criminal court, or penal systems…
  • those systems do little to prevent crime…
  • the harsher those systems become, the more people they affect…
  • the harsher those systems become, the more likely that those affected will commit crimes yet again…

I make the following claim…

Law, enforcement, criminal court, and penal systems are virtually ineffective in curtailing crime and utterly ineffective in reducing it.

On the contrary, if you look at the data instead of swallowing the propaganda, it’s as if our “justice system” were designed to exacerbate crime. Wouldn’t that be a frightening realization? I suspect that our aversion to the frightful implications accounts for why we’re so loathe to explore the possibility and react to it so vehemently, even though the data indicates otherwise.

If all this is true, eliminating our “justice system” would have negligible negative effects on crime rates long-term, if any negative effects at all. In fact, eliminating it would have significant positive long-term effects.

WHOA! I just said that we don’t need cops!

Of course, anyone who made it through fifth grade knows that just ain’t so! And the proof is in the pudding. Check out this brief of a Time magazine article, “City Without Cops.” Montreal found out what happens when no cops are around. “Six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass were needed to replace shattered storefronts.”

Case closed? You wish.

Check out the date of the article, LOL! 1969. That’s the most recent information I could get by Googling “are there cities with no police.” Wha? No information on the topic in a half century? No studies? No social experiments? No data? Not a single city that doesn’t have police? No attempt at all to find out what would happen if normal, healthy people were left to themselves without law enforcement to “protect” them? Tell me ain’t so, bubba!

I found out the same thing when I researched anarchism. (Click the link and check it out. You think you know, but it’s not what you think — trust me.) Almost no data. What little data there was showed that every time people made an attempt at self-governance, authorities swooped down and ended it using — you guessed it — cops and soldiers.

Things in Montreal went to pot at least long enough for the striking police and firemen to get what they wanted. Then the strike was over and they came back. Isn’t that a little bit like removing guards and getting a prison riot? Or like removing school administration and getting a student riot? Uh, sure — it would be if we ever let it happen! But we never do, except once, in Montreal, in 1969. Wow. One case — what a solid factual basis for arguing the necessity of cops! I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude and depth and scope of the evidence! [grimaces, eyes rolling…]

In fact, riots happen exactly and only in retaliation against repressive authorities that maintain oppressive conditions. Even if conditions suck, as long as they’re tolerable, people don’t riot. Then, in the single case when cops disappeared from the scene, people who tolerated things when cops were there took advantage of their absence, along with other people who take advantage of situations whenever possible, cops or no cops. How long would that have continued? We don’t know, because the cops came back before we could find out.

And then, there’s the favorite law-and-order, anti-anarchist example: Somalia. 🙂 You’d think that intelligent people would realize the apples-to-kumquats comparison they’re making. The gist of the argument is that educated people with formidable histories of democratic process and high living standards in cultures that honor basic human rights would fare no better, should governing authorities and their law enforcement organizations suddenly vanish, than would uneducated, oppressed, and dismally impoverished people in cultures that denigrate the dignity and rights of all but elite minorities. I’m sorry, but have a higher opinion of myself and those I know than that. And in my experience, people who blame “those” hoodlums and hooligans and thugs and outlaws for rioting and mayhem have no intention of implying that they would do the same under similar circumstances. They aren’t saying that they’re glad we have cops because there — but for the grace of badge, nightstick, and sidearm — go I.

Aside from Montreal, authorities everywhere make sure that we won’t find out what would happen if they disappeared. They refuse to take the chance, but why? Because then we’d find out how necessary they are? If they truly wanted to convince us of that, disappearing is exactly what they’d do, just like the Montreal first responders did. Then they could double or triple their salaries when we came crawling to them, begging them to return. They don’t do that because they’re afraid that we won’t pay the ransom if we discover there was nothing to kidnap, since the precious child of public safety that they claim to safeguard is a myth. Once we found that out, not only would we not ask them back, we’d ensure that they never got the chance to extort us again.

Even if I’m completely wrong about all this, we still haven’t considered an important question, one that’s actually far more profound. Riots broke out in Montreal when the cops went on strike. So, what is that not like? It isn’t like the other 99.9% of human experience — like those hours in the Viennese park — when things aren’t fucked up by the oppressive presence of authorities, let alone their meddling and abuses.

But let me check in at this point. Maybe you think that my 99.9% vs. 0.1% numbers are off? HAH! If so, you asked for it.

Let’s do a little simple math, shall we? Maybe much more than 0.1% of human behavior involves criminal activity. I’ll use data from http://www.city-data.com/ covering murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft, auto theft, and arson. The higher the percentage, the more justification there is for police and the criminal justice systems they are key to; because without law enforcement forces, criminal justice would literally have no power.

Let’s say that it takes an hour on average to commit a crime; which is very generous, since most crimes take a mere matter of minutes. In Seattle in 2012 (that site’s most recent data), there were 35,754 crimes of these types committed. (See http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Seattle-Washington.html)

Let’s say that two criminals on average were involved in each crime, again very generous. That makes for 71,508 person-hours devoted to committing crimes in a year.

Now, let’s take the population of Seattle in 2012 of 630,533 (an average of the 2010 and 2013 populations listed at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/53/5363000.html) and multiply that by the hours in a year to get total person-hours lived by residents in Seattle: 630,533 x 365 days x 24 hours = 5,523,464,700 person-hours. That’s 5.52 billion hours lived by Seattle residents in 2012.

Now let’s get the percentage of person-hours that were devoted to committing crime in Seattle that year: 71,508 / 5.52 billion = 0.0013%. Just a little over one-thousandth of one percent. That means that 99.9987% of the life lived in Seattle in 2012 was devoted to something other than committing crimes.

Since these statistics are very crudely done, let’s double the crime rate just to make a point: 143,016 person hours a year devoted to committing crime. Then let’s double the involvement, too — four criminals per crime rather than two. That makes for 286,032 person-hours per year devoted to committing crime.

What’s the percentage of life lived in Seattle in 2012 that was devoted to committing crimes, using doubly double-fudged numbers? 286,032 / 5.52 billion = 0.0052%. Still 99.9948% uncriminal human activity in which cops played no necessary role. So my 0.1% criminal activity rate was exaggerated — far too big, not too small. The bigger, the more justification for the existence of “criminal justice” systems. I just quadrupled the real numbers and still, it would take almost twenty times more crime to arrive at my original, almost imperceptible 0.1% criminal activity guesstimate. Not too shabby for a very conservative guess.

So, I rest my incredibly strong case: when seen in perspective, a crime rate that might justify “criminal justice” doesn’t just turn out to be relatively weak, it’s in fact statistically non-existent, which is the same as saying that it’s rationally negligible. “Criminal justice” — whatever it actually involves — is a response to virtually nothing.

This, in turn, implies that our amazingly strong, instinctual, emotional, and virtually evidence-free certainty that criminal justice is indispensable, along with equally ardent objections to calling that certainty into question, result from some kind of irrationality. Societally-induced paranoia, perhaps? Brainwashing? I think so.

This is as close as you get in the real world to what we might call “mass delusion”.

But wait! I forgot about the most important part: what it all costs!

How much of the Seattle City budget was devoted to law enforcement in 2012? Answer: $249.3 million dollars, according to the section for the SPD in their endorsed 2012 budget. So, let’s do some more fudging against my case, just to show how strong it is: let’s use a paltry $200 million — a $49 million savings! Realize that this is just the cost for municipal police and says nothing about costs for legislative, criminal court, or municipal detention systems.

Here’s the multi-million-dollar question: How much did each hour devoted to crime (that the Seattle Police Department failed to prevent, by the way,) cost Seattle taxpayers, even using our doubly double-fudged and fudged again figures? (Now remember — all the fudging strengthens the case for the indispensability of cops, contradicting my claim.) $200,000,000 / 286,032 = $699.22 per hour. In effect, given my bloated crime numbers, Seattle taxpayers spent $699.22 per hour for police to fail to prevent crime because, of course, if it was reported as a crime then it wasn’t prevented.

And that’s about as much sense as any of our governance and security systems make: hype the fear induced by a less than a 0.1% possibility of threat and then promise to prevent it. It works even if there’s absolutely no evidence that anything at all gets prevented. We’re still willing to pay through the nose.

Just to rub it in, here’s what John Mueller told Adrienne Arsenault in response to her questions about the cost of counterterrorism during a 2011 interview for CBC News (@ 1:45 into the video):

JOHN MUELLER: “Unless they can demonstrate that they have deterred, protected against, or foiled thousands of plots per year, the money simply is not justified by using conventional cost-benefit analysis.”

ADRIENNE ARSENAULT: “How many Times Square-type attacks a day would they have had to have foiled to make the trillion-dollar spending worth it?”

MUELLER: “Four.”

ARSENAULT: “Four?”

MUELLER: “Yeah, four a day.”

Why are we paying through the nose for virtually nothing? Where does all that taxpayer money go? Good questions, with no good answers, as you’ll see if you watch Arsenault’s full story, 9/11 and the price of protection. For example, Ronald Spike, sheriff of Yates County, New York, used Department of Homeland Security counter-terrorism funds to set up a mobile command center that he seemed proud was used to coordinate police presence at county fairs, and an underwater movie camera intended to search for bombs that he’d used to look for drowning victims. That’s an example of the hundreds of millions spent on equipment that works. Arsenault also discovered much of the DHS counter-terrorism grants funded systems that never became operational.

But back to the main point: the indispensability of cops.

Ok, so I claim that we spend at least triple a good lawyer’s rate for law enforcement that does nothing to prevent or reduce crime. Are my arguments lopsided? What about all the crimes that never happened simply because police forces exist and cops walk their beats and patrol the streets? Well, (even if I ignored that this is just a different angle on the deterrence argument that I already obliterated,) there’s no way to quantify that, is there? So on what evidential basis does the claim that police prevent crimes actually rest? It has no more evidence than a superstition, I’m afraid.

We can’t know how many crimes didn’t happen or were not reported, just how many crimes did happen and were reported. So there’s no way to form a rational (as opposed to a superstitious) argument that justifies a police department’s existence or operations in terms of preventing crime. There’s no way to know what effect eliminating police departments would have on crime rates until we try it and get some data.

Since we lack data, we have no objective, rational basis for arguing either way, but we in fact do argue about it — when and if someone has the temerity to question the need for police. My beef is that we could get the data, but we choose not to, and then argue anyway as if we had. If anything is bullshit, that qualifies. The fact is, we’re deathly afraid to get the data and make it available.

What other possible reason could there be for not observing a 1994 Federal law requiring collection of statistics about police use of deadly force? Almost two decades later, the data collection systems exist, but with a critical component missing: data! In a 2011 article by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “National data on shootings by police not collected,” we read…

In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life.

Need corroboration? Here’s a 2012 Huffington Post story, “Why Are There No Good Data On Police Use Of Force?” which states:

The problem is that while the 1994 law requires federal government to compile data on policing shootings, there’s no requirement that police departments actually provide them. And so most don’t.

Wouldn’t statistics on police use of force be a crucial slice of the data pie needed to monitor excessive use of force? I guess that would assume that we want to monitor it. Silly me — my mistake.

We have no data about the effects of doing without police, because we don’t dare explore that option. We have no data about the most important effects of operating police forces, because we either don’t want to collect the data, or we don’t want to expose to scrutiny the data we collect. (Some police departments must track their officers’ use of force, after all.) Then, in spite of this self-imposed state of ignorance, we pretend a certainty that only data could justify.

We dismiss the dearth of data supporting the need for cops by pretending that the need is obvious, so why risk what it would take to get data? Then we dismiss the possibility that cops might not be necessary by pointing out that we have no data to support that claim. And we ignore the data we already do have that strongly suggests that “criminal justice” does little good and in fact might make matters worse. Doesn’t that seem just a bit lopsided?

But still, “everyone knows” that we need cops!

That’s not “knowledge.” Wherever that prejudice comes from, (and make no mistake, it’s “an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge” just like Merriam-Webster Online says,) it doesn’t come from reason based on evidence. Even worse, it defies reason and evidence, given that the people who commit crimes and will commit them again do so in spite of and aggravated by laws, law enforcement, criminal courts, and penal consequences.

So what, exactly, makes us so sure that we need cops?

All responses, rants, feedback, denunciations, knee-jerk reactions, and piss-n-moan fests WELCOME! 😀

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