Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The police state, or maybe the police municipality

Tomorrow a new law goes into effect in Austin. It will be illegal to use a cell phone, as well as a variety of other devices, while driving or cycling, unless the device is being used in a hands-free fashion. A question this raises in my mind: will the police abide by this law? In Austin, as in probably just about every jurisdiction in the U.S., police have laptops mounted in their vehicles. More than once I have observed a police officer looking at his laptop screen or tapping on the keys while his vehicle is in motion. (The law seems to prohibit touching the device while in motion, so I guess simply looking at a screen of any kind would be within the letter of the law, as would touching the device when the vehicle is at a full stop.) I seem to remember hearing a story or two about this kind of behavior on the part of the police causing an accident, although I don't have a reference.

So I wonder, will police officers be expected to refrain from touching any of their electronic devices while driving? And even if the official policy is that they must, will they actually do so? I doubt there would be any reprisal against an officer for breaking this law in any instance where it did not lead to an accident. It's hard to imagine one officer writing a fellow officer a ticket for laptop use while driving.

The more general concern for me is that police sometimes break laws. I'm not talking about something like a patrol car going through a red light, lights flashing and siren blaring, while in pursuit of a suspect or in response to a distress call. That kind of thing, I would imagine, is explicitly allowed for in the law, with appropriate definitions and restrictions. I'm talking about law-breaking that the police can get away with, or try to get away with, because they enforce the law. Not just the big, awful things like overt corruption or excessive use of force, but all kinds of little stuff too, like parking illegally. I've noticed that one a lot, many times and in many different places. Last week, for example, I saw a pair of police motorcycles parked in a loading/unloading zone outside of a restaurant. Did the officers park their cycles there in the course of urgent police business? No, they were simply in the restaurant having breakfast, as I was. I wonder how the officers would justify their behavior. Is it a complication of the law? I.e. is it not actually illegal for police to park in a way that would be illegal for the typical citizen? Do the police view the ability to park anywhere as a necessary part of the job (which it clearly isn't)? Or perhaps as a fringe benefit? However they might rationalize it, I think this is an example of the police breaking the law simply because it is convenient for them to do so and because they face no consequences since they are the ones that enforce the law.

I also have to wonder how bad this really is. To me it's an annoyance, and I certainly think that the police should be held to the same standard as the rest of us with respect to non-emergency parking. But I'm concerned that it's an indication of a lawless attitude among police; that abuse of power by the police is endemic, and this is one of many manifestations of that. It is in the nature of police that they have the power to enforce the law, but it becomes a problem if they construe that power any more broadly. If they have the ability to park illegally, how much of a leap is it really for a police officer to adopt the attitude that he can do whatever he wants when he is acting in his professional capacity?

Cracking down on any illegal acts by the police is a good idea, but I wonder if making an issue of the small stuff, like parking and laptop use while driving, could have a greater benefit by inculcating a law-abiding attitude in police officers. Enforcement of these relatively minor infractions could also serve as a screening device. Without speculating on the relative proportion, I'm sure there are those that are attracted to police work for the power itself, and the opportunity to use and abuse it. Imposing highly visible limits on the powers of the police can only serve to reduce the attraction. Not to mention that even the most upstanding officer is going to have some tendency to abuse whatever power he is given--we all have that tendency, I think--and it is crucial to have checks on police powers in place as well as good oversight.

I would like to see the police act not just as enforcers of the law but as ambassadors of the law. I would like officers to view upholding the law, in every way, as their professional responsibility, and to view their power only as a means of fulfilling that responsibility. Maybe some of them already do that, maybe even most. But allowing the police to break laws, any laws, can't help.

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