DOJ’s Zero Tolerance Of Zero Tolerance

A Justice Department report critical of the Baltimore police missed the point. So did those who praised and faulted it. [Credit: NY Post]

A Justice Department report critical of the Baltimore police missed the point. So did those who praised and faulted it. [Credit: NY Post]

The Department of Justice report on Baltimore police practices has prompted predictable reactions from Left and Right.

The report confirmed suspicions on the Left that police unconstitutionally harassed African-American males. From the Right came reflexive defenses of the police.

Both have a point.  And both miss the point.  As does the report itself.

The Justice Department alleges that the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a pattern and practice of unlawful and unconstitutional behavior.  The report found “systemic deficiencies” – police are poorly trained, poorly monitored and not held “accountable for misconduct.”  The city has not supplied its officers “the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally and effectively.”  Those shortcomings have resulted in “constitutional and statutory violations.”

Substantiating such “pattern and practice” allegations requires no evidence.  Mere arithmetic will do. If police frequently stop and search African-Americans in a particular neighborhood, DOJ infers institutional racism.  The neighborhood’s open air drug markets and elevated levels of violent crime are at best incidental to its analysis.

“Willing To Do What It Takes”

DOJ has demanded that the city abandon its “zero tolerance” policy.  Advocates of the policy believe that attacking disorder (e.g., arresting people for minor offenses like loitering) prevents more serious crimes.  DOJ contends that such policies lead to unconstitutional actions by police reflected in “large numbers of stops, searches and arrests.” It has insisted that Baltimore officials end the practice.

The city will comply.  Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the DOJ to undertake the investigation.  She has pronounced herself “willing to do what it takes to reform my department.”  That means spending scarce resources to catechize police on a fresh list of “do’s and don’ts.”

The new police practices won’t stop the carnage.  Baltimore suffered 344 homicides last year – a per capita record. Most perpetrators and victims were young, black males. Murders occurred more frequently after a man named Freddie Gray died after suffering injuries while in police custody.  The April 2015 incident provoked riots and bloodshed. Baltimore’s homicide rate has remained elevated ever since.

Nor is the spike in murders of young African-Americans limited to Baltimore.  An academic study commissioned by DOJ found that the “homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented.”  It is too soon to say whether a broad retreat from “zero tolerance” policies among urban police forces contributed to this increase.

A Conflict For Conservatives

As a conservative, I find myself conflicted.  I am offended both by those who hurl charges of racism to legitimize crime, incite violence and enrich themselves (see Sharpton, Al) and by police who resort to excessive – and sometimes lethal — force.

Indeed, the whole idea of a police force occupying our streets is a relatively recent one. The Founders did not imagine that government would deploy quasi-military forces to establish minimal levels of public safety.  Deteriorating social conditions in some communities necessitated this intervention.

Government is prone to abuse its power, overspilling constitutional limits.  The notion that police can stop someone because he looks like the sort who might be up to no good is constitutionally suspect.

But placing excessive constraints on police risks putting citizens at the mercy of violent thugs.  Both are paths to tyranny.

The Point DOJ Missed

And that is the point the DOJ, as well as most commentators on the Left and Right, seem to have missed.

The fundamental issue is not police protocols, but the effacement of social norms in many neighborhoods.  Communities where such norms have broken down have no good options. They can tolerate constitutionally questionable police tactics or slide further toward a brutal dystopia.

In the communities where most Americans live, the prevailing (though hardly universal) norms include getting a job to support yourself and your family, deferring childbirth until after marriage, caring for your children without public assistance and maintaining your property. Broad adherence to such values is essential to a peaceful society. Government neither devised these norms nor enforces them.  On the contrary, these values supply the necessary social conditions for constitutional government.

Our government, paradoxically, has spent hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing behavior that flouts these norms.  It rewards choices that corrode personal and social responsibility.  These subsidies present themselves as blossoms of compassion but yield a bitter fruit: whole communities terrorized by young men with guns.

Government Counterinsurgency

Government’s response to the problem it helped incubate is an armed counterinsurgency. Liberals are uneasy with this.  Conservatives should be.

But the discussion should expand beyond arguments over matters of race, law enforcement techniques and government’s role in maintaining order. It should instead center on the cause of violence in our streets: the erosion of cultural norms on which freedom and self-government depend.  There are no remedies for communities in which those norms have worn away, only a simmering cauldron of perpetual conflict.

If I lived in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, I would both resent the police and want them to protect me from the likes of Freddie.   I would hold these two conflicting impulses with equal fervor.  I would be relieved when the cops shot some kid who had been making my life and those of my neighbors miserable.  I also would resent the police for shooting that kid and suspect they did it out of contempt for people of my race.  My resentments would arise from the misery of living among armed men — some criminal, some dispatched by the government — fighting for control of the streets.

I’d wish they all would go to hell.