We are hearing a lot about law and order. When officials say law and order, they often mean using the overwhelming life-threatening power the law has given them to impose what they consider order to be. This is not always the same as the community’s idea. A hundred thousand marching down mainstreet can be order even if it’s a technical violation of an ordinance. One person furtively throwing a brick through window is disorder. So is an officer using a weapon unnecessarily.
Rule of law asserts that the law is a two-edged sword — it can cut both ways. Those who are charged to enforce the law must work within the law, or they are outlaws. Once we allow them to use violence no matter how good the intention, we open the door for a little more violence a little less justified.
Some police justify violence that results in a dead suspect as saving the people the cost of a trial. I hope that happens more in the movies than reality, but suspect it is reality. The cost of a trial is lunch money compared to the social cost of a family without a breadwinner, hundreds of thousands. The cost of a trial is pocket change compared to the cost of the lawsuit from the decedents survivors, tens of millions.
The time to fix a leak is when you first notice it. Sure, you can let it go for a while, put a pot under the drip, but it will only get worse and the longer it goes, the worse and more expensive it will be to fix. A lot of social situations have the same potential. A child is unruly in school. We can send him to detention, but that does not address the underlying problem. It might only make him resentful. It’s only when the behavior is a public issue that we address it, and that seems to fall on police. It is well established that early education is way more cost-effective than later incarceration, $45 public benefit for every dollar spent on pre-K education, but we don’t fund it. A half a million for a SWAT van, or 500 child years of pre-K education so 500 keiki get off to a head start and we’re ahead $20 million. Our primary mental health facility should not be the county jail.
Expecting police to fix a broken justice system is like expecting the drivers to fix a broken subway system. They can only do what the law and the budget support. My contact with police here has been overwhelmingly positive. They were one of the first to be CALEA certified but what I read and hear from others less so. They definitely have an advantage on an island. You can run, but you can’t hide.
The country we call Germany has a terrible stain on their past called the Holocaust. True the behavior would not have been considered outrageous in the 15th century but it happened in the enlightened 20th. As a result, German soldiers are thoroughly indoctrinated to prevent any recurrence of the war crime atrocities. Some of their indoctrination would be a problem under our Constitution, but the people are sensitive enough to want the rules of engagement to be perfectly clear and ensure that soldiers err on the human rights side not the autarky side. Our police need similar indoctrination, to paraphrase Blackstone: It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent die under a policeman’s knee.
As hard as it is to screen out the potential bad apple, at least his history can prevent repetition. It is even harder to identify the good officers who might do a bad thing in certain situations. Soldiers can tell you about things they have done that they are ashamed of and that they would not have believed themselves capable of until they did it. The only way to prevent that behavior is to not let those out of control situations fester. One small step would be to return to the title Peace Officer instead of Law Enforcement Officer.
Isn’t peace what we really want?
Isn’t peace what we really want?
Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to email@example.com.