David R. Henderson  

Jail a Policeman?

Big-Picture Finance Questions... Pacifism and Repeated Prisoner...

In his recent post on pacifism, co-blogger Bryan cites an earlier post on the same issue. He wrote:

Even if militaries don't deliberately target innocent bystanders, they almost always wind up recklessly endangering their lives. If a policeman fought crime the way that "civilized" armies wage war, we'd put him in jail.

Commenter stuhlman pointed out that policemen often do similar things and don't go to jail. Just read Radley Balko's blog for a few weeks and you'll get disabused of the idea that such a cop would go to jail.

My wife had her own experience with an out-of-control cop last week and luckily the car he was chasing didn't hit her. Here's my letter to the Carmel Pine Cone about her experience:

Dear Editor,

In her news story about the recent car chase on Carmel Valley Road, reporter Mary Brownfield tells your readers that the pursued car barely missed hitting a car driven by Jean Terry. Ms. Terry was not the only person put at risk. The pursued car barely missed hitting my wife's car, too. Driving east on Carmel Valley Road, my wife pulled over as far as she safely could onto the road's narrow shoulder. After speeding past my wife with little room to spare, the pursued car then veered into the oncoming lane around a curve at a speed of about 100 mph.

Sure, it ended fine with the suspects being caught, but that car could have easily killed my wife and her passenger and would have surely killed someone coming the other way on the curve. And why? Because "eagle-eyed" (Ms. Brownfield's term) deputy Oscar Leon noticed that the car's tags had expired and he chased it. So because of expired tags, Mr. Leon put innocent people at risk of death. Mr. Leon played Russian roulette with other people's lives and he won. What if he had lost?

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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

Spelling: "Radley Balko" not "Radney Balko"

Zippy writes:

The person with expired tags could have just pulled over. I mean, I've been pulled over for minor traffic violations, and I pulled over when signaled to do so. The fact that they ran suggested something else may well have been amiss.

And as an economist, you ought to know that letting people go when they run encourages more running.

darjen writes:

Sure, he could have pulled over. But sometimes people get spooked and do irrational things when threatened with their safety or property. I mean, the police job is to essentially generate revenue for the state by stealing from as many people as possible by handing out fines for even the smallest little thing. If a robber tries to steal from me in the back alley, am I not justified in attempting to run away? In so many cases, the police are no better than highway robbers.

It would have definitely been tragic if that careless cop ran into your wife. Unfortunately, police supporters simply blame the victims for running in the first place. The most popular talk show host in Cleveland did just that the other day. To him, nothing the police do is wrong. It simply doesn't matter how many people they steal from (via fines) because they claim to keep us safe. He wants the police to get away with practically anything as long as the safety charade continues. It never occurs to him that maybe they don't keep us as safe as they seem to claim.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Vipul Naik,
Correction made. Thanks.

Jim writes:

The fact that they ran suggested something else may well have been amiss.

Right, maybe he had some pot or a boosted car stereo. That's definitely worth endangering the lives of hundreds of innocent bystanders.

roystgnr writes:

Blaming "the victims" for running sounds entirely appropriate when they're running 100mph on the wrong side of the road. If you're not rational enough to avoid doing that, you're not rational enough to drive a car.

Pandaemoni writes:

While I think Caplan's point was overstated, I do think the intution is valid. We do not fight crime in the way we fight wars...because in wars the deaths of "enemy" civilians is far more acceptable than the deaths of our own.

That he overstated things is clear, though. Remember the 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters by Philadelphia police? Many were killed and several city blocks wound up being destroyed by the city government? No one went to jail for that even though, to quote wikipendia: "The report [of the committee formed to investigate the bombing] denounced the actions of the city government, stating that 'Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.'" Harsh words which no doubt cause those involved a restful night's sleep since that was the end of the matter.

The investigative committee for the incident annoys me because it seems so obvious to me that the city official involved were criminally negligent buffoons given that they dropped C-4 and dynamite from a helicopter on a city block because they knew criminals were there. (And what was their crime? Officially, it was being loud and having large compost heaps. Unofficially, it was because other people who happened to be members of the group were convicted of killing a police officer years earlier and were in jail for it.)

At the same time, though, I am not nearly as emotionally invested in the fire bombing of Tokyo, the bombing of Dresden, or the notion of "total war" as I am buy the actions of the Philadelphia police in 1985.

I think the difference is that I feel of a tribalistic connection to my fellow Americans, that I don't feel for our nation's enemies. I am not especially proud of that feeling, but I also can't shake it. Evolution has prepared us to view the world through a prism of ingroup and outgroup biases.

It's not much different than Adam's Smith's observation:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity.... If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw [the Chinese people killed by an earthquake], he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
(The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759).
Eric Hanneken writes:

The driver of the car with expired tags is responsible for risking others' lives as a side effect of fleeing. The police officer was responsible for risking others' lives as a side effect of chasing. Perhaps the cop's decision can be justified, but doing so requires an argument. If the cop's response is the suspect's fault, then the cop is permitted to throw a grenade into a crowd to stop him.

David R. Henderson writes:

I'm confused. I don't care much about the guy running who went 100 mph. I care about all his innocent victims. My wife is a good driver. But she's not prescient enough to know when someone like that other driver will be out driving irresponsibly because he's being chased.

ZC writes:

So because criminals things that may endanger the lives of others to avoid facing the consequences of their actions, we should let them all go?

Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) was caught when he was pulled over for his car not having a tag. Ted Bundy, Randy Kraft, and 'The Night Stalker' Ramirez -- serial killers all, we're each apprehended during traffic stops for initiated for minor violations.

How many more people would each of those guys have killed if not apprehended when they were? Sure, apprehending criminals can be dangerous business, but sometimes you've got to risk a little to potentially gain a lot.

Do you advocate that anyone who runs gets a free pass? What if a known murder/drug dealer/serial killer lives with children or other innocent family members, can we ever go arrest him?

And with regards to the specific case of your wifes 'almost' unfortunate incident -- drunk drivers kill thousands and maim tens of thousands of people per year, in addition to incurring billions in direct and indirect medical costs, yet society does woefully little of real consequence to stop them. How many innocent bystanders die in police chases annually? Probably not very many, so it seems it would behoove society to address the larger problem first.

Joe Cushing writes:

What about the standard procedure where cops shoot your dog when they dynamite your door and look for pot? Why isn't that a crime? They created the situation the dogs were put in. It's not self defense.

I wonder what happened to the cop who shot off that baby's hand in a similar raid.

The run chase thing is a debatable issue that is difficult to have a good answer to but cops do plenty of other criminal things. So does the state, when they steel anything that may or may not have been involved in a crime without a trial.

Clay writes:

I'm absolutely shocked that you fault our law enforcement system for chasing a fleeing suspect.

What do you propose the police do: let any suspect flee the police for any reason? That would effectively eliminate the ability of the police from pulling anyone over ever. I don't think you understand what you are talking about.

Regardless, that isn't even a case of a police officer breaking the rules and doing something unlawful. In that scenario, the officer is doing exactly what he should do. If he didn't pursue the fleeing suspect, he would be negligent in his work.

After reading this blog for years, this is one of the most outrageous and ill thought out posts that I've read.

David R. Henderson writes:

Clay writes:
What do you propose the police do: let any suspect flee the police for any reason? That would effectively eliminate the ability of the police from pulling anyone over ever. I don't think you understand what you are talking about.
I'm not sure what I propose. What I am sure of is that, given that the thing that caused him to chase was an expired license tag, that was too much.
Moreover, even if I did propose that cops in a chase not be allowed to go above, say, 80 mph--and I'm not necessarily proposing that--what you say would follow is certainly false. I know that I, for one, would still stop when I see the lights in my rearview mirror. But I gather that you're saying you wouldn't?

Kevin Dick writes:

@Clay. This seems pretty obvious. You don't engage in a high speed chase over a simple traffic violation. You take down the license number and vehicle description, then initiate an investigation.

If the precipitating offense is a felony, perhaps you pursue. But for expired tags, going 10 mph over the posted speed limit, or rolling through a stop sigh? I think not.

Clay writes:

When suspects lead a high speed chase from a simple traffic violation, there is almost always a more serious offense underneath.

Sure, as a completely lawful honest citizen, I would stop if the police tried to pull me over, but if I were a criminal involved in a more serious crime, and I knew that the police weren't allowed to pursue, I would definitely use that to my advantage and flee.

And yes, it's terrible that innocent people are subject to the dangerous behaviors of the irresponsible, but that's the case no matter what the police do. Overall, police do a lot to reduce that type of danger.

Clay writes:


Your wrong on this one and this has been shown time and time again in court prior to the paranoia which engulfed our nation post-2001 though I had to admit I started noticing the shift in the early 90's where cops, in the media, went from being portrayed as they actually are (corrupt and bullies) to hero's who should be praised for their thuggery.

Nearly every statute that gives policy the right to break the law in pursuit has a public safety clause that requires measuring the threat of that chase against innocent bystanders. It is something folk seem to have forgotten lately and something the IG/IA regularly ignore.

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