December 2005


What are the police for? What is their function in society? How is that function changing?

Since we seem to be on the verge of inaugurating a new and better police state, here in the "birthplace of freedom," it seems like a good time to figure out what police are for: what is the proper occupation of a cop?

Back in the dawn of the police age, the latter part of the nineteenth century, police forces were instituted in most cities and towns in North America. Their functions were simple:

  1. to protect property from destruction or appropriation
  2. to keep the peace
  3. to protect and help people

80% of 19th century Americans had no property that the police would bother to protect from destruction or appropriation, so this class of work mostly provided security guard services for rich people and their stuff. The same is essentially true today.

Keeping the peace is a good thing, usually. It means taking people who are a danger to others out of circulation until they cease to be dangerous, shooting rabid dogs, providing an environment where your nine year old can go three blocks from your front door to buy an ice cream, without your having to fear for their life. This used to be the case almost everywhere, at least for small children. Police regularly patrolled residential districts. Their imminent presence made many crimes too risky, such as harassing children for pennies.

Protecting people is a good thing. The opportunity for policemen, and firemen, to save lives, to be real heroes, was a large reason why the best members joined the ranks. Occasions when this happened were rare, but most folks looked to cops for help - from a lost cat to a difficult neighbor. Cops dispensed a lot of common justice, and freed courts for more serious matters. They were generally assumed to be helpful, at least in good neighborhoods. In poor precincts, cops were sometimes seen as the enemy.

You will notice, except by the accident of their unpredictable presence, preventing crime was not one of their jobs. They were supposed to be observant and step in whenever a crime might be in progress, to keep track of where and when crimes did occur, and to shift their attention to address trends and prevent lawlessness. They were not in the prediction business. The job of somehow predicting the future, and interceding between people with criminal intent and their possible crimes, is a fairly recent development of law enforcement. Criminal profiling is an example of intent prediction.

We now have new roles for police. Police are referred to today as "law enforcement." Many people want laws that allow cops to intercede before the commission of a crime, and to punish people who are assumed to have been intending to break the law sometime in the future. Crime prevention sounds like a good thing, until it involves you. To make it even slightly feasible, the surveillance maintained against ordinary, presumably innocent, citizens, must be increased. Law enforcement needs to know more and more of what is regularly going on, so that they can differentiate between routine, benign occurrences, and dangerous precursors of criminal acts. Law enforcement is becoming more and more of a presence in our lives, because there is no other way to make us "safe."

Preemptive law enforcement also means that when someone disturbs the peace the police may shoot them, as Federal Air Marshals did recently in Miami. Their justification, that he might have been a threat to others. You may care, or not, that this man died, in either case, consider training your children to instantly obey police and other authority figures, regardless of what they say.

Apart from placing the public in jeopardy from law enforcement personnel, there is the cost of all-encompassing surveillance. Are you prepared to pay our police state to keep tabs on every human in the world, and still not ensure your safety? A very expensive job, impossible to do properly. Once this information is filed, it must be managed. This becomes horrendously expensive if you want to prevent mismanagement of data. There is about a one in ten chance that government agencies already have misinformation on file about you.

As the information increases, so will the percentage of misinformation in the system -- this is how lowest-bidder information systems work. The bigger your economic footprint, the more information they'll have about you. What will you do when misinformation in your file gets you arrested?

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