SLOAN: No easy answers to stop police from being killed in the line of duty

Author: Kelly Sloan - February 16, 2018 - Updated: February 16, 2018

Kelly Sloan

On three separate occasions in the dawning weeks of 2018, young men kissed their wives and young children goodbye, got in their cars, and headed out to their jobs, where they were to be killed only hours later. All three young men were cops – sheriff’s deputies, to be exact. Three law enforcement officers murdered in the line of duty within just the first 5 weeks of the year.

The killing of a police officer – for the purposes of clarity I use the term here, apologetically, to include Sheriff’s Deputies, State Troopers and others whose organizational loyalty rebels somewhat at the generalization – disturbs us on a level that other tragedies do not, because it represents an attack not just on an individual but on society itself. Police are the manifestation of The Law, that which separates us from the base “nasty, brutish, and short” existence that Hobbes tells us is our natural state. The street cop represents the government acting as it should – not for its own aggrandizement, but on behalf of the citizen; discharging the state’s sole primary responsibility, the protection of life and property.

People in America enjoy a degree of protection from violence and anarchy, as we do from tyranny, because we live under the aegis of a system of laws, upheld by men and women who, in the end, are prepared to employ force on our behalf. When one is killed doing so, it reminds us, however briefly, that that protective wall can be breached.

So when a cop is murdered, there is, as happens almost reflexively following other jarring tragedies such as mass shootings, an urge to Do Something. Policy changes and meaningful reforms are, however, frustratingly elusive.

The call always goes out to do something about the guns, the tools used in the crime. But these are mostly unrealistic, for reasons practical even more so than political. Guns, whether we like or detest them, cannot be un-invented, and the person who shoots a police office has invariably already demonstrated a willingness and propensity for violating laws, including the ultimate ones. He is unlikely to be deterred by another.

What of putting in place policies to prevent such a person from obtaining firearms in the first place? Theft, of course, is already against the law, and existing systems have proven sadly inefficient at predicting who will offend. J. Edgar Hoover once said that had he been inclined or authorized to remove from potential access to the president every member of society who displayed behaviors the equivalent of Oswald’s, he would have to lock up 500 people every time the president visited Chicago. Can a free society afford to err on what it considers the side of caution? How much presumption does a law governing a free people allow?

There are here and there calls for more money for police departments and Sheriff’s Offices to provide better protection for their officers on the street, and I think that reasonable. Defensive technology must keep pace, at least, with the arsenals available to those who would use them against the police. But bulletproof vests have obvious limitations, and unless we are to send our police out in tanks, that alone will not solve the problem.

Our gaze turns to cultural and political matters, many of which are outlined coherently by Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald in her brilliant book, “The War on Cops”. The past 50 years have witnessed an erosion of respect for traditional authority, replaced by a solipsist liberalism most starkly exhibited in a criminal justice system which seems more often than not to elevate the rights of the offender at the expense of the police. Despite periodic corrections (i.e. Mayor Giuliani’s New York in the ‘90’s) this tide has proven stubbornly irreversible, but we owe it to ourselves as a society to take a hard and honest look at the social consequences.

Whatever policy outcomes may or may not come about, or whichever voices rise loudest in the ensuing debates, one thing will remain constant. After the procession of emergency vehicles, after the soul-wrenching final radio call, after the final notes of the bugle and bagpipe fade, men and women will wake up every day, kiss whatever loved ones they have goodbye, put on a badge and a gear belt, and head out to the darkest corners of society, dealing every day with the worst humanity has to offer. They will experience things they will try the rest of their lives to forget. They will summon superhuman restraint while being lied to, spit on, screamed at, and absorbing the vilest of verbal abuse. They will attempt to console people on their worst day imaginable. Few will receive adequate recognition, and none will get rich doing it.

But they will be there, keeping the predators at bay, making civilization possible. We will pray for their safety, hoping that we never again see a badge covered with a black band, knowing with breaking hearts that we will.

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.