If Fewer Police Is the Goal, Consider Repealing Laws

June 30, 2020 Updated: July 1, 2020

Commentary

Movements to “defund the police” are now well underway across the nation and across the world. While some of the proposals genuinely seek to make improvements to current law-enforcement models, most appear to seek spiteful punishment for the institution and its members, and quite possibly for society itself.

Little thoughtful reflection has yet to be heard on one of the very reasons police organizations exist, which is to enforce the law, and that perhaps if there were fewer laws, there would be less need for enforcement.

There is a human tendency to demand that annoying behaviours be outlawed. Have you never swung your fist in frustration, claiming “that should be illegal!” This, among other things, has led to an endless growth of laws requiring enforcement, which in turn requires law enforcement officers on the streets engaging suspected offenders.

While the rule of law means that everyone is equal under the law, it also means a lot more. It means that the initiation of force against someone is only justified to enforce the law, and that every time such force is used or threatened, there is an unfortunate and inherent risk of escalation, even to the point of lethality.

Municipal laws contain many of the most minor offences. In some cities, for example, it is an offence to spit on the sidewalk. Is this distasteful behaviour? Most definitely. But should it be outlawed, say with only a small fine? How might its enforcement play out?

A law-enforcement officer notices a group of people on the sidewalk. As he drives by, one of them loudly hurls a spit on the sidewalk in complete disregard for those who are peacefully walking past. People are appalled, and rightly so. Everyone knows it is illegal, and they also know the officer was a witness. The officer, for his part, well understands that though this is a minor offence, he is expected to engage the offender and enforce the law; after all, these appalled citizens pay him to do exactly that.

The officer stops the offender and politely explains that he will be issuing a citation. The offender does not appreciate being publicly pointed out, and the presence of friends and bystanders emboldens him to become testy and uncooperative. The officer asks him to identify himself for the issuance of a citation, but the offender refuses. He becomes argumentative, claiming to know his rights. After several unsuccessful attempts at persuasion, the officer orders the offender to immediately identify himself for the issuance of a citation, or risk arrest for his obstruction.

In every intervention, this is the moment of truth. The offender’s decision will determine whether things escalate. If he chooses to comply, he receives a citation and he is soon on his way with the option of judicial recourse. If he chooses not to comply, then he is obstructing the rule of law itself, which then moves the intervention from the realm of a minor citation to that of a criminal charge and arrest.

And what if he then resists arrest? What if he becomes violent? These are not uncommon events.

In a country where the rule of law is supreme, no amount of resistance is acceptable, regardless of the offence, and while law enforcers must attempt to gain cooperation through persuasion, they are also duty-bound to adapt to an offender’s level of resistance. To suggest that officers must retreat when offenders are uncooperative effectively undermines the rule of law.

This does not mean, however, that there is no way to have meaningful reform while also preserving the rule of law. In our attempts to have both a free and ordered society, perhaps the repealing of laws is an option worth consideration.

It may be wise to keep in mind, however, that a move in this direction involves a willingness to resist the urge to legislate annoying behaviours, to accept a little less order in exchange for a little more chaos, to understand that some people simply can’t be reasoned with, and to carefully consider, before calling for legislation, what might possibly happen when the rule of law is resisted.

Kevin Richard is a freelance writer with a professional and educational background in policing and criminal justice. His articles have appeared in various publications, including The Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Sherbrooke Record, La Presse Plus, and HuffPost Québec.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.