Are We Becoming a Police State?
Traffic enforcement has become a major industry in the United States. This essay presents a look at some of the social, psychological, and economic trends behind the emergence of this big business.
Are we becoming a police state? That is a difficult question, but it can certainly be argued that in some places in the United States, yes, we definitely are. Let's take a look at some trends that have emerged since the late 1970's.
But first, let's go back in history. Public police forces did not exist in the United States until the middle of nineteenth century, when their introduction met with significant resistance from the populace.1 By the 1950's, excluding the largest cities (many of which have had problems with corrupt law enforcement officers dating well back into the 19th century), citizens generally had a highly favorable opinion of law enforcement officers. Good people had little to fear from the police, and the moral person's encounters with police were generally favorable. The sheriff was a "good guy," the "white hat" celebrated in so many of the Old West movies and television programs of that era. Children at play fought over who got to be the sheriff, and this esteem for law enforcement could be seen in many other places in our culture.
Contrast this with the present. Good people now become uneasy when a police car pulls out behind them. The average encounter with police is often stressful and ends with the citizen having to divert a bunch of his income to the local powers-that-be (perhaps more like the bands of outlaws, or "black-hats" of those same Old West movies).
What happened? There are a several different phenomena that I believe explain this cultural shift.
"Us vs. Them" Mentality
Let's go back 40 years. Most places had "beat cops," patrolmen who would travel around their jurisdiction on foot. These patrolmen would regularly encounter the merchants and residents in their jurisiction, greet them, exchange some pleasantries or family news, and maybe even be treated to a free cup of coffee at the corner store. These cops knew the people they were protecting, and they were reminded several times a day of the community values they were protecting, and of the people they were protecting. I attribute much of this to the unofficial face-to-face encounters that were inherent to the job.
Fast forward to the present. John Q. Suburbia no longer has a single, friendly officer patrolling his neighborhood on foot. In the interest of police efficiency, a much more anonymous team of people in cruisers takes turns driving through that same neighborhood. The community interactions of the average patrolman are now only a narrow subset of what they once were. Now, for many patrolmen, these on-duty encounters are typically limited to: 1. getting out of their car to respond to a call (often because someone is acting irrationally or violently), and 2. pulling people over for traffic infractions, said people thus being inherently disagreeable. Many of the favorable interactions are now gone. Good people now see less of the police except in unfavorable circumstances. And conversely, the police now see less of the citizenry except in unfavorable circumstances. It's only natural that, in this situation, police officers will begin to perceive their community as little more than a giant playground of dysfunctional children who really need to be kept in line. Perhaps I am overstating things with this metaphor, but the stated situation will, at a minimum, greatly increase the cynicism of our patrolman.
Now, add to this mix officers who spend the majority of their time enforcing traffic laws. These patrolmen make their living hunting for speeders, or waiting for drivers to slip up and make some kind of fine-worthy mistake. The citizens these patrolmen encounter are quite reasonably regarded by them as prey; the typical citizen who is pulled over is going to react to the officer with some combination of fear and anger. Obviously, the bond between the citizen and the patrolman is not exactly strengthened (in either direction) by this state of affairs. This trend has been exacerbated by the growing power and budget of state patrols, law enforcement organizations chartered exclusively for traffic enforcement (and thus, revenue generation; see "Critical Mass," below). State Troopers are often little more than roving "meter maids" looking to issue tickets for the most trivial of infractions. Further, they generally lack many of the powers granted to police officers. As a result of these factors, they are held in much the same public contempt as meter maids.
This "Us vs. Them" attitude can emerge anywhere, even in the smallest of towns, given the growing influence of state patrols whose troopers have jurisdiction on any public road in your state. State patrols typically have very little citizen oversight. Unlike a sheriff's office where the sheriff must periodically be re-elected (albeit by a populous often apathetic to such less prominent offices), state troopers have no such motivation to keep from angering or frustrating the commuting public.
Decreasing Public Confidence
The 1982 Figgie Report on Fear of Crime revealed a growing belief that police are not effective in controlling crime. This sentiment has been echoed in the free market: by 1990, there were over twice as many private police (watchmen, guards, security experts) as public police in the United States. Between 1964 and 1981, employment at firms providing these private police services increased over 400 percent as more individuals and companies sought a more effective solution in the private sector.1
A decrease in public trust only exacerbates the us-versus-them attitude on the part of police officers. According to G. W. Walling, the Superintendant of the New York City Police in the late 19th century, "To such an extent is the public demoralized that they no longer consider the policeman in his true light, that of a preserver of the peace; but actually, and with some degree of justice, deem him a public enemy. This, of course, inevitably reacts on the police force itself, until a policeman very naturally comes to consider himself not unlike an armed soldier in the midst of a hostile camp."
Police Patrol Resource Critical Mass
This is a simple issue of economics. Note that this example does not rely on any assumption of community growth. Now, let's assume you live in a a rural county or small town with few police officers. The duties of the patrolman are going to be primarily responding to calls, and generally trying to keep their community safe. Now, add some more officers into our mix. At some point, you'll hit critical mass, that is, you'll reach a point where, on the average day, you've got more police officers on the clock than you have work for them to do. What do you do with these extra patrolmen? You inevitably send some of them out to do traffic patrols (ticketing the out-of-staters and whatnot). These tickets then bring in additional revenue to our town or county that would not have existed without the additional traffic patrols. A couple of years pass, and the local government takes notice of the revenue brought in by our police department or sheriff's office, and starts directing some of that money back into the police department. After upgrading some equipment and possibly their facility, they begin hiring additional police. After all, the sheriff figures, if their current staffing lets them do a good job at minimizing crime and bringing in revenue, then adding patrolmen will let them do a great job at those things. What do these additional patrolmen do? In terms of protecting and serving you, the police department is now even more overstaffed than before. As such, a significant percentage of the new patrolmen are sent out to do additional traffic enforcement. This cycle continues, and with each new iteration, the community ends up with even more officers on the streets. Maybe the crime rate drops by a couple of percent, and few complain about the cost of all the officers since the police department is now a significant source of revenue. It is now standard practice for many police agencies to staff additional officers exclusively for traffic enforcement duties, under the assumption that these officers will pay their own salaries with income from traffic citations. Law enforcement agencies refer to such officers as "self-paid".
Also exacerbating things is the way public budgeting works, wherein the failure of an agency to spend all its annual budget may result in a reduction of budget allocation next year. This parallels public road construction, wherein construction crews are assigned to resurface a perfectly good road just to consume and conceal a budgetary surplus. Likewise, once the agency and local government become dependent on traffic enforcement revenue, this reliance will prevent any reduction in traffic enforcement later on.
This phenomenon is probably most likely in growing communities, since it's easier to justify more patrolmen when you're regularly adding to your staff to compensate for growth. It is not hard to imagine officers in these communities being rewarded (the old notion of "quotas" for a period of time, or less officially in some law enforcement organizations, with an award at the end of the period for most citations issued). Such a reward is just the institutionalization of the organization's desire for more traffic enforcement revenue.
Big Profits from Enforcement
One particularly alarming trend relating to traffic ticket revenue is the increasing percentage that police agencies get to keep. Traditionally, only a small amount of the revenue collected from a given traffic ticket actually went to the police agency issuing the citation; the rest went into a general fund for the state, county, or municipality in which the cited offense occurred. This has changed dramatically; some police agencies (such as the Larimer County Sheriff's Department in Colorado) actually keep 75 percent of collected revenue from traffic tickets! It doesn't take much imagination (unless you're a Colorado legislator, evidently) to realize that exploitive levels of enforcement of minor traffic laws will result, which is exactly what has happened in Larimer County. Such police agencies are happy to share the wealth with their enforcers: one half of the highest paid Larimer County officials are officers in the Larimer County Sheriff's Department! It's hard to imagine a police agency that perpetually complains about having too low a budget to function paying someone over $100,000 to drive around a rural area and issue speeding citations to motorists -- a job any high school graduate is qualified to perform.
The Rise of a Federal Police State
The Posse Comitatus Act makes it illegal for the US military to be used for domestic law enforcement purposes. However, the federal government has been aggressively building its own army to sidestep this limitation as part of the "War on Terror". Through the use of local Fusion Centers, federal agencies are coordinating the actions of local police agencies and helping to arm them with military-grade weapons and train them. Further, federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (which as of 2013, has purchased 7,000 M16s, 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition, in addition to its holdings of armored vehicles and robotic drones) are now well-armed enough to act as their own army, thus bypassing the Posse Comitatus limitations and achieving the result it was intended to avoid. This trend shows no signs of reversing.
It's not hard to see that if either of the above phenomena happen in the community, the most fundamental values of your local law enforcement organizations have changed significantly. Overshadowing all of this is the growing profit motive of law enforcement agencies (mirrored in the "War on Drugs," wherein law enforcement agencies and local municipalities regularly make a great deal of money through the confiscation of property loosely attached to a drug transaction). This business model is parasitical by nature, and this cannot help but color the activities of the law enforcement agency. The motto on the police cruiser remains "To Protect and Serve," but in many jurisdictions it would more accurately read "To Raise Revenue off the Backs of the Citizens."
Without a doubt, there are still a lot of good people in the field of law enforcement. Unfortunately, these people are outnumbered at least 2-1 (according to one law enforcement officer I spoke with) by the glorified hall monitor type figure we have all come to fear. And perhaps that is the most important difference between the America of now versus the America of 40 years past.
The zealous formation of a federal police state may tougher to stop. As the 2012 elections proved, both of the mainstream parties are committed to expanding governmental police powers and curtailing civil rights whenever terrorism is suspected. Of course, what counts as terrorism has the potential to broaden as time goes on, and in the long run, this is the real danger.
May 2012:This editorial entitled Cops Don't Make Me Feel Safe raises some interesting points.
April 2012: Are forfeiture corridors the new speed traps? Civil forfeiture has created perverse incentives for police departments to pursue profit instead of public safety.
March 2012:Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System from the New York Times suggests that since 90 percent of criminal cases are settled via plea bargain without ever going to trial, citizens could organize, stop taking plea bargains, and cause instant collapse and reform to a corrupt system.
March 2012:The Cost of America's Police State from Salon.com points out that hundreds of billions have been spent to militarize the US against a terrorism threat that barely exists. Towns and cities are now equipping themselves with tanks and other assault vehicles, and automated flying drones for are not far behind.
February 2012:They Don't Dial 911: Citizens in Detroit have recently hired their own private law enforcement in response to a police force that cares more about generating income than keeping its residents safe.
April 2011: Corrupt local governments have begun balancing their budgets on the backs of drivers as states across the US triple speeding fines and add ridiculous surcharges to moving violations. The City of Los Angeles now makes $1.5 million a year from cameras at a single intersection in the San Fernando Valley.
November 2010: Many states have a disproportionately large number of judges who were former prosecutors, but almost no judges who were former public defenders. See, e.g., this article regarding trends in recent judicial appointments in Colorado.