A question like the one in the headline might seem a bit far afield for a finance and economics blog, but with our government increasingly looking like a Mussolini-style corpocracy, the actions of local government increasingly interact in troubling ways with our financial system.
As we discussed a couple of days ago, the rise in civil forfeiture as a way for local police forces to increase their budgets has escalated as a direct result of the financial crisis (both falling tax revenues and plunges in pension fund assets played a big role in creating or worsening red ink, so that even the normally recession-resistant police forces were facing staffing and hours reductions in many locations). Police have also played a troubling role in the foreclosure crisis, refusing to treat bank breaking and entry (entering a home in advance of foreclosure in violation of the mortgage, or worse, entering the wrong home entirely) and vandalism (removing owner contents before an eviction is permissible) are treated as mere “civil” matters, when if you tried the same stunt with your neighbor’s home, you’d be in the slammer in no time.
In the wake of the civil forfeiture post (and our related post of how Google Glass might be used, like Russian dash-cams, to keep the police a smidge more honest), we’ve had readers flagging other fresh examples of questionable police conduct, such as 5 Apologies to the Cops Who Beat Me Up For No Reason (diptherio), Police restrain and hit woman and Florida teenager dies after police Taser (both from Mexico).
Since I live the most boring personal life imaginable, my interactions with the police types are limited to the every-thirty-five-year big speeding ticket, the TSA, and passport and customs officials (well take it back, I have a very long ago funny story when I went on a car ride in Harlem with a couple of black men who offered me a lift to try to find a kid on a bike who’d snagged my wallet out of my hand. The men who trundled up in the car knew the woman who’d run down the block ahead of me trying to apprehend or at least identify the robber, so they looked to be neighbors in that little corner of Harlem. The men dropped me back where I’d called 911 on a pay phone, this being in the pre-cell phone days. The cops had just arrived and drove me home and thought I was clearly insane to have take up an offer of local assistance).
I have heard bad stories about cops from cab drivers here (New York City and Bloomberg in particular has it in for cabbies for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom) and former DAs in other cities (for instance, that decades ago it was routine for cops to plant evidence and fabricate testimony in high profile cases if they couldn’t find a logical suspect fast enough). I’ve also heard some good stories about cops from local people and have seen them have to perform some unpleasant duties (like enforcing ridiculous cordons mandated by Presidential visits, the degree of lockdown and the diversions forced on locals who wind up on the wrong side of lines are insane, and the police stay patient with irate locals. I suspect they think the procedures are overkill, and even with all the overtime, they look none too happy about it). And then we have the really hair-raising media accounts, of paramilitary crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street and other dissident groups, of tasers and pepper spray and pain-inflicting zip handcuffs becoming appallingly routine.
I’ve noticed a shift in my reactions to police. While I generally assume they need to be handled with care, I’ve assumed in certain tame neighborhoods that they aren’t so bad (as in the local needs don’t call for much aggressive policing), such as my immediate ‘hood and coastal Maine.
But the other night, I saw a fire engine pulled up outside the local fire house. It had its lights on but no siren and wasn’t going anywhere. There was a cone next to it. I wasn’t paying much attention but it looked to have been deliberately parked close enough to the curb to allow traffic to pass.
I was walking towards the fire engine when I saw a cop stop a cab trying to go by the parked fire engine (I didn’t see any police car visible, so I’m not sure how he came to be there). He asked for the driver’s license and registration and told the driver in a normal conversational tone, “Park over there, this is going to take a long time.”
Now I have no idea what lead to this. I see a policeman taking a cabbie off duty (and remember, cabbies rent their vehicles, so this will force they guy into a loss regardless of what else cams out of this interaction). I realized later than with no information either way, no basis for knowing whether the cop was being completely proper or not, I assumed the cop was likely not in the right.
Maybe I’m just an outlier, but here I am, in one of the tamest spots (in terms of police likely to get rough with a resident going about their normal business) and my default assumption with my own police force has become not to trust them. That may have been what I believed on some deeper level before, but that view has now become more apparent to me.
This is what we’ve lost with all these police abuses. Blacks and other minorities no doubt think my reaction is ridiculous (where have you been?) and my vantage no doubt reflects growing up in small town America a long time ago and living in professional enclaves since then. But as I mentioned above, Maine, which is a poor state, still seems to have relatively civilized police. I suspect that results from the fact that the communities are all not large (as in the police still are accountable to the locals and know many of them) and heavy-handed policing would be bad for business (as in it would scare off tourists, a big source of income for a lot of Maine).
Nevertheless, I wonder if a state change is well underway. There’s a big difference between recognizing that police often abuse and scapegoat out groups (that those police actions are big, ugly manifestations of broader patterns of prejudice) and seeing increasingly that only the very rich and connected are safe from tinpot tyranny or worse.
How does this issue look to you? Do you trust the police or not? Or do you trust police in some locales and situations and not others?