I am still not very confident about what really happened regarding the shooting of Mr. Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
For all I know, the events went down somewhat along the lines as the police say. But Ferguson’s police department has been so incompetent about investigating, collating and releasing information that might make their public stance easier, one has to wonder about everything they say.
How the police handled the protests and journalists — and looters — was even worse.
Indeed, cracking down on peaceful protests, harassing and locking up journalists, while letting looters run wild, shows a remarkable set of skewed priorities.
Could it be that police lack incentives to do the jobs that most need doing?
Some temptations must be resisted. We all know that. For example, it would be easy to get caught debating the subject of race, since it is obvious that black and white populations inside Ferguson (as well as outside the suburb) react so differently to the basic Ferguson story. But, though the proverbial “frank and honest discussion about race” might be good to have (if almost impossible to conduct, given the touchiness of the subject), what America really needs is a frank and honest discussion about incompetence.
We are all aware of government inefficiency, at some level. But how widespread it usually is too often gets missed.
Some of this blindness is the result of partisan commitments.
Conservatives tend to like their local governments (at least the police force); liberals tend to cheerlead for the federal government (at least when Republicans aren’t in charge).
Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s most popular social conservative TV journalist and commentator, flew into a rage this week over the calumnies that he felt were being directed towards the “police community.” Meanwhile, President Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder to save the day, though there was scant reason for federal action. It appears the typical left-approved “solution”: make it a federal case, since the federal government is good, local government, bad.
Sending in the feds, of course, was premature. And pointless. No local investigatory malfeasance had emerged. The local review processes had barely begun. Even assuming Holder to be competent on this issue (I see no evidence that he is; his mind seems made up in advance of his investigation), there is simply no call for his presence. Except from “the left.”
But the right’s knee-jerk pro-police stance is just as absurd. If ever a police department proved itself incompetent, Ferguson’s has been since the moment of the shooting of Mr. Brown. Every element approaches absurdity. Were not so much on the line, we might say their antics seem to fly from the pages of a Tom Sharpe farce.
And yet Bill O’Reilly angrily floated the argument that, since there are over 12 million arrests every year in this country, and only 400 or so fatal shootings of citizens by police, the police are, O’Reilly says, “efficient.”
Strange metric of efficiency.
No mention of justice. No mention of conviction. No mention of speed of the process, or accuracy, or safety in anything but fatal gunfire.
I confess: I don’t see how it is possible to talk up police efficiency in an age when the legal system itself is oppressive to the lower classes, especially African-Americans, when America can “boast” the largest prison population on the planet, and the largest in per capita terms, too. A “free country” doesn’t mesh well with a huge captive population. Or whole subcultures living in fear.
It’s not easy bringing competence back into government. It’s hard to organize many people to do complex tasks. But there are a few things we could do.
One: Make it simpler. Narrow the purview of the police.
How? Halt the War on Drugs, for starters. It gives far too many reasons for police to enter African-American communities, as John McWhorter recently argued on Fox Business’s Stossel. And thus flavor several generations with a negative view of the police. Besides, as opponents of this insane war have been saying all along, without the war, the temptation for “easy money” through illegal activities would incentivize nearly everyone to more peaceful activity.
Two: Provide immediate oversight. Put video cameras on police.
Where it’s been tried it’s worked: police resort to force goes down, citizen complaints plummet. In the Ferguson case, had the officer who shot young Mr. Brown sported a recording video camera, we’d have better evidence than the current he said/she said.
On the bright side, there is a current campaign to bring cameras to the police force. Well, I should say to make Ferguson police wear the cameras they have already obtained, but are not being used. It’s an initiative campaign spearheaded by the Liberty Initiative Fund; citizens should get on board now.
We aren’t going to solve all our problems overnight, of course. Government is inherently a cumbersome instrument, and not uniformly for the good. We don’t recognize this, often, because our hope blinds us.
Indeed, our loyalties to our governments and our commitments to our parties and ideologies often do more than blind us. They cause us to hallucinate. And, dazed and confused, run by dreams more than reason, our political instincts do little more than provide aid and comfort to both the grossly inefficient and the astoundingly corrupt.
For my life time, the usual response to discovering inefficiency and corruption was to … increase budgets without establishing any new check or balance. That is, reward incompetence and corruption.
Hardly a solution at all.
The great truth of government, known at least since the Enlightenment, is that as much as we may want government to serve everybody, it really works better at serving some at the expense of others.
That’s why we talk about “eternal vigilance.” Good government doesn’t come easy. It requires citizens to lead.
The events in Ferguson show that all too well.
August 24, 2014
This column first appeared on Townhall.com.