Extra-legal policing - effective or counterproductive?
From discussions with friends and relatives in law enforcement I've come to better understand why and when a good policeman feels he's justified to act outside the law. Like civil disobedience, these traditions have existed longer than the US has been an independent country. Overall, are they effective or counterproductive? I'll start with an example from my own past.
In high school my cousin and I spent a lot of time hunting and wandering in the woods. We were with a couple of girls at a county park one day sitting under a tree, talking and just enjoying the natural beauty. About a half an hour before the park closed we saw a searchlight up by where our car was and figured a cop was wondering who belonged to the empty car so we walked up the hill back to where we parked. The officer insisted that we stand still in front of his car and we were there for over twenty minutes until the park closed. His psychology was sound. The wait, the fact that he was forcing us to actually break the law by being in the park after it closed and the fact that in a closed park there would be no one to see what happened seemed ominous. The officer then came out slapping his four cell Maglite into his left palm and started to accuse us of various crimes.
Teenage boys commit a disproportionate amount of crime and a traditional approach to this fact by police involves trying to scare them in order to curb their recklessness. In traditional small town and neighborhood policing I think this had more merit because the police were connected to the community and had more informal knowledge about who might be more likely to be involved in criminal activity. Even in this case, the threats and physical violence might suppress or inflame criminal tendencies.
In modern policing in a mobile culture the police usually don't know who they are dealing with. I would get pulled over often and even had my car searched simply because I was a young male with long hair in the early seventies. I've never been arrested, much less convicted of anything worse than speeding or parking at an expired meter.
Even assuming that scaring teenagers was once effective, is it still effective?
And what does it do to a policeman when he believes that he is justified to commit crimes that he would arrest a civilian for? Isn't this corrosive to public support for the police and doesn't it start the officer down the slope to where stealing cash from a suspected drug dealer is not seen as a crime?
Extra-legal police actions in the hands of a wise officer who knows the people he is dealing with can be a positive force but for many officers they are a net negative.
Making right and wrong a subjective judgment rather than a matter of law, wielding power that ignores personal rights was exactly the kind of abuse that the constitution and bill of rights were meant to stop.
Our reason is quite satisfied, in 999 cases out of every 1000 of us, if we can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized by someone else. Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
- William James, from The Will to Believe, a guest lecture at Yale University in 1897