United We Distrust
President Barack Obama recently spoke of the “simmering distrust” between many police departments and minority communities. The president is correct in his assessment, but dramatically understates the problem.
Rather than being just a feature of the minority communities in our nation, distrust of law enforcement is widespread. Whether it’s the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, regulators targeting small businesses or NSA officials using the agency’s excessive spying capabilities to spy on love interests, the abuse of power creates legitimate distrust.
Conservatives and liberals may disagree on which agencies they distrust the most, but the problem is widespread.
The only solution is for government — at all levels — to change its behavior in an attempt to re-earn the trust that has been forfeited.
Unfortunately, when an issue arises like the shooting of Michael Brown or the chokehold on Eric Garner, people focus on the specific incident and miss the larger picture. This leads people to demand new rules for police or different procedures for hiring and training officers. That’s understandable, but it won’t solve anything.
The truth is that the vast majority of police officers do their jobs with integrity and do it well. The same could be said for IRS agents, regulators and NSA operatives. Screening potential officers or training them better sounds like a noble goal, but there isn’t much to be gained from such an effort. And, it will never be 100 percent foolproof.
Besides, it is far from clear that bad cops are the problem. Even in the best of circumstances, there is going to be some level of tension between police officers and the communities they protect. It’s a difficult job operating in a difficult environment. Sometimes, even the ideal officer with impeccable training will make a mistake. Sadly, such mistakes are sometimes deadly.
The only path forward is to recognize that the incidents we see in public are just the tip of the iceberg. The problem beneath the surface is a political system that is attempting to micro-manage every aspect of modern life. Things have gotten so bad that Harvey Silvergate wrote a book “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” He argues that the average American really does commit three felonies every day, most of the time without even knowing it.
If everybody is breaking laws, then law enforcement officials have the power to arrest anybody at any time. That leads to results like black men being arrested far more often than white men for smoking pot. It’s not because they smoke pot more often; it’s just the way the system works. It’s the same system that lets Tea Party groups get harassed more by the IRS or enables NSA agents to spy on their exes.
It’s a system that has too many rules regulating too many aspects of everyday life that gives government officials too much discretion.
Obviously, a mistake by a police officer that kills a young man is a far more serious outcome than an IRS agent harassing someone with differing political views. But both create a simmering distrust of government officials. The only solution is to roll back a lot of laws so that these officials have fewer opportunities to demonstrate the terrifying power of government.