Police Misbehavior Is a Crucial Threat to Liberty

Whenever I write about police abuse and use-of-force issues, I often hear from the “back the badge” crowd to defend whatever it is the police officer did in a given situation. While they might not always be correct, I find one consistent theme in their writings that is particularly relevant given the fact that most of these writers are “conservatives.”

Police defenders instinctively view most situations—and expect the rest of us to do so—from the perspective of the officer. The officer knew that the teen African American was carrying a cell phone, not a gun. Yes, SWAT broke down the door of the wrong apartment. But mistakes do happen. (remember the passive voice)

Fealty to Constitution is one principle of conservatism. It protects individual rights against government abuses. The police are the government’s face. The police enforce all laws passed by lawmakers. They have the authority to hold you hostage or even kill, and they literally control all your rights.

So I worry less about officers’ genuinely challenging challenges than my fellow citizens about their right to liberty and life. As Charlton Heston says in a Touch of Evil, “Only in a police state is the job of a policeman easy.” I am less concerned about IRS agents being frustrated than I am about rights for taxpayers. While tax collectors do have an actual job, true freedom-lover are more concerned with protecting individual rights from the state.

Let’s take a look at an example. On Dec. 23, Los Angeles police shot to death Valentina Orellana-Peralta. who was shopping for quinceañera dresses in a Burlington store dressing room in North Hollywood. Reports of an attack with a deadly weapon were received by officers and they opened fire. A bullet penetrated the dressing-room wall, where Valentina and her mom were hiding from the ruckus. In the arms of her mother, she died.

Those who scream (rightly) about government encroachment on our liberties when, say, legislators pass a new gun-control measure, tax hike or business regulation need to acknowledge that the government’s killing of a young girl who is out enjoying her day is a rights-destroying offense of a much higher order. It does not matter that this girl was not intended to be the victim.

Los Angeles Police Department made a vague statement that said officers did not know the girl was there. The union argued the officer followed active-shooter protocols after getting 911 calls. There was not an active shooter. Although the suspect was dangerous, police killed him. The weapon was a bicycle lock and cable. This sounds like something out of the film Idiocracy.

The shooting “has already sparked widespread anguish and outrage,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “The violence has brought into question the response officers’ tactics and the possibility of de-escalating the situation, without resorting to opening fire on Valentina or not placing her in danger.

This summary speaks to the point. If officers followed the proper protocol, then the proper protocol is, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, “an ass—an idiot.” You might be tempted to dismiss this tragic incident as an accident. Are you more offended if some California Department of Justice official bans a type of firearm?

The U.S. Supreme Court could soon consider the question of federal officers abusing their power. The matter involves qualified immunity—the protection officers have from lawsuits when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. Two cases—one in Minnesota, another in Texas—are meandering their way toward the highest court thanks to the efforts of the libertarian Institute for Justice.

In the first, 16-year-old Hamdi Mohamud “was a bystander at a fight involving a knife-wielding girl who was a witness” in a St. Paul, Minn., officer’s investigation “of a non-existent Somali immigrant crime ring,” columnist George Will explained. He explained that the officer who was deputized to federal agents had “exaggerated and fabricated” certain facts which resulted in Mohamud being sentenced to unjust two years imprisonment.

Kevin Byrd claims that Ray Lamb from Homeland Security tried to stop him investigating an accident at a car park involving Lamb and Byrd’s former girlfriend. As the court explained, “Byrd alleges that Agent Lamb physically threatened him with a gun, and verbally threatened to ‘put a bullet through his ‘f—king skull.'” Lamb kept Bird under surveillance for 4 hours before Lamb was arrested for aggravated assault.

In both cases, the appeals courts ruled that Americans may not sue federal agents even when their behavior is unconscionable—and even when, as Will put it, such behavior “did not result from split-second decisions in dangerous situations.” You can be okay with this, but then you should admit you do believe it. Unlimited government.

This column first appeared in The Orange County Register.