1 Cheer for Police Corruption

Last night at Toastmasters, I delivered my most libertarian speech yet.


PoliceBribesLate at night, a tall, handsome cop is chatting up a hooker in New York City. He’s supposed to be patrolling 2nd Avenue, but he prefers to socialize with the streetwalker.

A short man with small spectacles and big teeth steps out of the shadows and tells the patrolman that he is neglecting his duty.

The police officer lifts his baton and threatens his accuser with a beating. The smaller man identifies himself as Theodore Roosevelt, the new commissioner of police, and tells the officer to report to his office the next morning.

There’s something very satisfying about this scene. A bullying cop brought down by a heroic reformer.

In 1895, before he was president, before he charged up San Juan Hill with the Roughriders, Theodore Roosevelt spent a brief spell as a police commissioner, conducting what the city papers called a “Reign of Terror” to root out corruption among New York’s Finest.

What does TR’s crusade teach us about police corruption in our own time? That’s what I’d like to address tonight.

The people of New York did not feel protected by the police. At best they found the cops negligent. At worst the citizens felt threatened by their supposed protectors.

Roosevelt’s early anti-corruption campaign made the city safer — and made him the most popular political figure in New York.

Three cheers for the great reformer, right? Well, I want to reserve one cheer for corruption.

If I were trying to persuade you that puppies are cute, or that love is good, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have a very hard time. But preaching to the choir is boring. Instead I’d like to play Devil’s advocate and argue that widespread corruption among the police is not necessarily a bad thing. It very much depends on which supposed duties the cops are violating.

OVER THERE

Let’s start with an almost absurdly easy case. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the law said it was a policeman’s duty — in fact, it was every citizen’s duty — to report Jews who hadn’t made themselves known to the government. The established wisdom in the West, ever since the Nuremberg Trials, is that “just following orders” isn’t enough to avoid culpability if the orders you were following were themselves morally reprehensible.

We look back on such corrupt party members as Oskar Schindler as heroic.

Has everyone here seen the movie Schindler’s List? A politically connected industrialist and a Nazi spy, Schindler helped 1,200 Jews escape the Holocaust.

We consider Schindler’s lawbreaking to be virtuous, but what about the Nazi officials he paid to let him get away with it? What if they had refused his bribes? Without their corruption, Schindler’s heroism wouldn’t have been possible.

That doesn’t make them heroes. But surely we should prefer their corruption to the duty-bound Nazis who followed the letter of the law and helped send innocent people to the concentration camps.

OVER HERE

Maybe it’s too extreme to invoke the Nazis. Let’s bring it closer to home.

Once upon a time in our own United States, it was the legal duty of a police officer, even a diehard Yankee abolitionist in the slave-free North, to assist Southern slaveowners in the capture of runaway slaves. There were heroic people, black and white, North and South, who risked everything for no immediate reward in order to smuggle escaped slaves into Canada. Again, these people were heroes — but what about the people they bribed? Shouldn’t we prefer the corrupt cops who profited from the Underground Railroad to those who insisted on obeying the law of the land?

HERE AND NOW

I’d like to bring it even closer to home. I have a friend who has cancer. He has an excellent chance of survival with chemotherapy — but the treatment is horrific. He feels like vomiting all the time, and the prescribed anti-nausea pills aren’t working.

Marijuana, however, makes the nausea go away. But medical marijuana isn’t legal in our part of the world. Think about how you felt the last time you were nauseous. For me it was on one of these puddle jumpers that fly in and out of CHO. I kept telling myself, Just hold out a little longer, just a little longer.

Now imagine feeling that way day in and day out, week after week, month after month.

Do we prefer the dutiful narcotics agent to the one who looks the other way, whatever his or her reasons for doing so?

BAD LAWS

I’m not trying to convince you that medical marijuana should be legal. I’m saying that there is some law on the books that you don’t want enforced.

If you doubt me, consider this short list of candidates:

  1. In Alabama, you can be sentenced to three months hard labor for playing cards on a Sunday. (And by the way, interracial marriage was technically illegal in Alabama only 15 years ago!)

  2. Over the mountain, in Waynesboro, there is still a law on the books that says a woman may not drive a car on Main Street unless her husband walks ahead waving a flag to warn other drivers.

  3. And throughout our fair state of Virginia, it is illegal to have sex if you are not married — and if you are married, you may only do it with the lights on, face to face.

Anyone with an ounce of moral sense has to consider some laws to be unjust.

Some laws should themselves be considered criminal.

For me, the distinction is easy: Good laws protect us from crimes — and by crimes I mean someone harming someone else. So-called victimless crimes aren’t really crimes at all.

BACK TO TR

This distinction must have been lost on Theodore Roosevelt. His anti-corruption campaign made him extremely popular with New Yorkers — at first.

Then he began to insist that the police enforce a very old and rarely observed law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. For working-class people, that was their only day off. TR may have wanted all laws enforced equally, but the people of New York understood that buying a beer on Sunday was no more criminal than having a beer any other day of the week. TR went from being the most popular man in the city to the most reviled, practically overnight. And his campaign against corruption fell apart.

CONCLUSION

I’m certainly not saying that all corruption is good. We are right to be scared of bad cops. But whether or not the corruption is a bad thing depends entirely on whether the law being corrupted is itself a good or an evil.

Thank you, Madame Toastmaster.


For a far more hardcore libertarian treatment of this subject, see Walter Block’s “Defending the Dishonest Cop.”