Maybe we should give police fewer laws to enforce
Originally published in the Herald-Mail
A single event rarely causes social upheaval. Rather, one event—fittingly or not—can be the flashpoint for long-simmering grievances. So to understand the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests in Staten Island, N.Y., look beyond the specifics of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson or Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo and consider a broader pattern of disturbing police uses of force.
For instance, search YouTube for video of South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones during a traffic stop late last summer. Groubert asks Jones for his driver’s license and, when Jones reaches into his vehicle for his wallet, Groubert mistakes the action as hostile and opens fire on Jones, wounding him. The reason for the stop? Jones allegedly wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.
Or read about the botched SWAT raid in Habersham County, Ga., last spring. The SWAT team, searching for a purported drug dealer, executed a “no knock” raid on a family home. As the raid began, the police threw a “flash bang” grenade, which landed in a toddler’s playpen and exploded, maiming the child. The police later learned the drug dealer was not in the house, did not live there, and there were no drugs or weapons in the home.
Or remember the local story of Ethan Saylor, the severely mentally disabled man who died of asphyxia early last year as police forcibly removed him from a Frederick County movie theater. Saylor’s offense: wanting to rewatch a movie he had just seen.
Such troubling police uses of force are common. Because so many victims are poor or racial minorities—especially African Americans—some people attribute the incidents to economic inequality, lack of political power and racism.
But police make wrongful uses of force against people of all races and socioeconomic levels, as shown by a botched 2008 SWAT raid in Berwyn Heights, Md. After drug-sniffing dogs indicated that a box addressed to Trinity Tomsic contained marijuana, police delivered the package to her home and began a stakeout. That evening, a SWAT team and other officers launched a no-knock raid, breaking in her front door and shooting Tomsic’s two Labrador retrievers as they tried to run away. Tomsic wasn’t home, but the police forcibly placed her distressed husband and mother in restraints, aggressively interrogated them and ransacked the house. They found no contraband other than the unopened box they had delivered. The police later admitted they had been investigating a drug ring that was shipping drugs to unsuspecting local residents and then retrieving the packages from front porches without the residents ever knowing they had been a part of criminal activity. Other facts worth noting: the police had no warrant onsite at the time of the raid and the warrant they did obtain didn’t authorize a no-knock raid. Also, Tomsic’s husband is Cheye Calvo, mayor of Berwyn Heights—which the police didn’t know because they hadn’t researched the raid’s targets.
Some people attribute such incidents to “corrupt cops.” There certainly are cases of severe police misconduct, such as the March 2010 beating of University of Maryland student John J. McKenna following a Terrapins basketball game. Police claimed their use of force was justified because McKenna had attacked a mounted officer—until a bystander’s video showed he had done no such thing. He was merely skipping down the sidewalk in celebration of the Terps’ victory when he was attacked by three cops wielding batons.
The “racist, corrupt cops” explanation is comforting because it suggests that all we need to do is fire the bad cops and hire more good ones. And most of us know many good cops. But, looking over the incidents described in this column, I see few bad cops. In most cases, I see officers dutifully following the directives and incentives that policymakers and the public have given them—including liberal permission to use force. We shouldn’t blame the police for doing what we’ve told them to do.
We want law enforcement to be authoritative and in-charge. So we condone police tactics that are confrontational and even hostile—though those tactics can confuse, incite or harm citizens who would otherwise be peaceful and cooperative. We want law enforcement to neutralize risks no matter how small or unlikely. So we accept no-knock raids, excessive suspicion, questionable searches and seizures, troubling sting operations and violations of people’s constitutional rights.
Beyond that, we elect lawmakers and empower bureaucrats to pass hundreds of laws and regulations every year—so many that legal scholar Harvey Silverglate estimates the average American unknowingly commits three felonies a day. We forget that nearly every law and regulation is, by definition, government coercion backed by the threat of force. And so Levar Jones is shot over his not wearing a seatbelt and Eric Garner is killed over his selling individual cigarettes.
If we give cops a more modest body of laws to enforce and limit how they enforce them, we’ll have far fewer troubling police uses of force. And good cops could return to the duty they originally wanted: protecting and serving the public.
Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a native of Washington County.
 ABC News. “Dashcam Captures South Carolina Trooper Shooting Unarmed Man in Traffic Stop.” Sept. 25, 2014.
 Steve Visser. “Investigation into Botched Habersham County Raid Growing.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. June 4, 2014.
 Associated Press. “Robert Saylor Death: Report Shows Aide Warned Police.” July 16, 2013.
 Ruben Castaneda. “Beating of University of Maryland Student by Police Probed by County Prosecutors.” Washington Post. April 13, 2010.
 Harvey A. Silverglate. Three Felonies a Day. New York: Encounter Books. 2011.