Being a cop in America isn’t so cool anymore.
I began wearing a badge and gun in the spring of 1997 working as a full-time deputy sheriff in my home county. I followed in my father’s footsteps; he had worked as a lawman in our hometown for 23 years. Today, if either of my two teenage sons expressed an inclination to enter the same field, I would strongly discourage them.
Worth noting, considering what follows, is that I am a right-wing, traditionally minded, white Southern Christian male. My political viewpoint is paleoconservative and many of my convictions and values are far from the mainstream cultures of both secular society and the police force. That being said, I submit that there is a lot wrong these days with the criminal justice system in America.
The power of the police has always been a matter reserved to the states by the United States Constitution. The federal leviathan, having never seen a power it did not covet, has been working steadily to conform local police powers to its will by incorporating them into a national enforcement regime. “Uniformity” and “justice for all” are federal code words for a program of policing consolidation and centralization. An overreach of this kind was what the republican Founding Fathers attempted to prevent, using what Jefferson, in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, referred to as the “chains of the Constitution.” Those days are long gone.
God ordained the state to be a ministry of justice, with a proper authority over the citizenry. The Apostle Paul taught in Romans 13:1-3:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.
Unfortunately, these verses are often misinterpreted and misused by religious Americans to justify blind submission to everything government does.
When studying any biblical commandment to submit to authority, we should begin by presupposing that God would never exhort His children to do evil or to support evil. My wife and children are bound to be submissive to my authority, for example, only if I act within moral boundaries in exercising that authority. I cannot direct them to commit an evil act and then point to Ephesians 5 and 6 (where Paul exhorts their submission) as justification for my command. This same principle must be applied to government.
Paul wrote that civil magistrates are appointed by God and thereby ordained as His ministers, with duties not independent of His will. The ruler is to be an instrument of justice for God’s glory and for the public good—he is the defender of righteousness and the punisher of evildoers. He wields “the power of the sword” and is never a “terror to good works, but to evil.” Can we honestly assess that the modern-day American state lives up to this standard?
The federal government has a longstanding practice of grabbing power in the guise of benevolent action. Congress cloaks its actions behind a seemingly noble cause, such as “police reform,” and then imposes onto the states regulations that are outside the scope of powers delegated to the federal government by the Constitution. In a form of blackmail, if any resistance from the states is met, the feds gain compliance by threatening to withhold federal funding. Citizens must realize their state governments are being bullied and coerced with their own money; this is the case in the criminal justice field with everything from vague “civil rights” statutes to seat-belt laws.
One particular example of this practice is worth a critical look. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act. The agendas of legislative acts are often betrayed in their titles. Opposing the surveillance state measures in the Patriot Act makes one seem unpatriotic, by its very name. Just so, the public is persuaded to assume that to be against the Violence Against Women Act means that one is in support of sweaty, beer-swilling, tank top-wearing neanderthals smacking their old ladies around.
But here’s what the Act really does. As a result of the mandates created by this federal legislation, virtually all states now have some form of what is commonly known as a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order available to victims of domestic violence. In my experience, any citizen can go to the courthouse and meet with a Victims Service Officer (VSO). This person is often not a police officer but someone hired by the district attorney’s office (the prosecuting agency). VSOs are frequently hired through grants funded by (you guessed it) the federal government. In grant positions, “productivity” (read: high numbers of paperwork transactions) provides the justification for the grant and, thereby, equals job protection for VSOs.
So a citizen consults with a VSO, who serves as a liaison to advise the individual and, in the words of our local district attorney’s website, attempts to make her “feel comfortable.” The VSO assists the citizen with writing a petition that is then submitted to a judge, who determines if a protection order is necessary, in light of the circumstances. To many involved in the process, the judge’s signature is largely seen as a rubber stamp at that point. A denial of a petition is very rare. I often caution people about driving through the courthouse parking lot too slowly with a window rolled down—someone is likely to throw a PFA into your car.
Everything may seem fairly benign to this point, but when the incredible scope of restrictions contained in the orders are beheld, issues of justice clearly arise. The PFA is usually a very lengthy packet of enjoinders, which begin with various no-contact prohibitions but normally also includes two particularly oppressive demands. The defendant is ordered to surrender all firearms to police upon service of the PFA, and he is also ordered “removed and excluded” from the residence of the plaintiff, regardless of ownership.
These orders are marked temporary by the judge, with one page notifying the defendant that a final hearing may be scheduled upon request. In the meantime, the temporary order is in effect for a year (most often), two years, or as long as the judge deems it necessary.
The Alabama state law cited to support the order is “Certain Persons Forbidden to Possess Firearms (13A-11-72),” which mandates that anyone convicted of certain crimes, or “anyone who is subject to a valid protection order for domestic abuse” is subject to the injunction against possessing a firearm.
However, buried within the text of that law is the definition of what it means to be “subject to a valid protection order.” Section (m) reads:
The term “valid protection order” as used in this section means an order issued after a hearing of which the person received actual notice, and at which the person had an opportunity to participate.
Therein lies the rub. The vast majority of defendants served with these PFAs have not been to a hearing. They have not received notice. They have not had an opportunity to participate and defend themselves. There is no due process. The PFA is issued on the one-sided accusation of another citizen through a VSO. In most cases, not only has the defendant not been convicted of a crime associated with the allegation, but he has not even been arrested!
Yet, via judicial edict, all the defendant’s firearms are ordered “surrendered” (a word that sounds less totalitarian than “confiscated”). And, to top it off, the defendant is further ordered removed from the residence if the plaintiff lives there. Thus, there are instances where, without due process, an allegation is made, an order is signed, and someone is served with papers and instantaneously disarmed and removed from his home.
Where is the deliberation here? Where is the judiciousness? Where is the impartiality? Are there not at least two sides to every story? Was not our system founded on the right of the accused to face his accuser? Remember well the caution in Proverbs 18:17: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
Let me be clear: domestic violence (or any kind of physical violence perpetrated by a man or a woman, outside self-defense or the protection of innocent life) is not acceptable in a civilized society. There should be punishment for crimes. But there should also be a just process. Because sometimes people will go to a judge, aided by a VSO, and fabricate details or outright lie in order to exact revenge when scorned or to gain an upper hand in an upcoming custody or property dispute, or for any number of other reasons.
It’s true that the citizens, through their state legislatures, can decide what “exigent” circumstances justify immediate action. But what occurs with many PFA defendants is not justice. And the people entrusted with carrying out these actions and facing the ensuing repercussions are local police.
Also consider what used to be called “capias” arrest warrants, referred to as bench warrants in some jurisdictions. These warrants are issued by a judge who holds the defendant in some type of contempt (e.g., failure to appear or failure to pay) ostensibly to make sure a defendant honors his obligations upon a conviction.
Many of our arrest warrants are for failure to pay on traffic citations issued years prior. We recently had a warrant to arrest a man for failure to pay on a traffic ticket that was 15 years old. Now, look—I am all for holding people accountable for their driving errors and ensuring they suffer the consequences of a conviction. But arresting someone for inaction on a ticket from decades past is ridiculous.
Speaking of traffic tickets, I have been asked numerous times over the years if police departments have a ticket quota. Such quotas are illegal, I inform them. However, most of the agencies I know have the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program or some other federal grant program. As I mentioned earlier, these programs require high-volume documentation of contacts with the citizenry to keep the money flowing. I have heard many officers being counseled about their lack of contacts while working the programs. The counseling consists of various reminders that these programs are self-sustaining and that, in order to not lose the money, activity must be shown. Forgive the skeptic for thinking that this sounds a lot like a quota system.
Basically, to circumvent restrictions imposed by the legislative branch (the one closest aligned with the people and the only one invested with the power to
create law), the executive branch will redefine terms while the judicial branch issues contradictory court orders.
Again, I stress I am far from a bleeding-heart liberal on matters of criminal justice. I believe most inmates are in jail because they deserve to be. But I also believe that the system does not always have the best interests of society or the inmates at heart.
I have seen lower-income inmates come to court and beg a judge to allow them to serve out their time to the end of their sentence so that they can be free and clear of the charge. They will explain that they cannot afford court and probation fines, and that they also find maintaining employment difficult with the burden of being on probation. Nevertheless, the judge will release them on probation, anyway. Sure enough, a few weeks or a few months later, we see these same people back in jail, incarcerated for probation-violation of unpaid fines, now unable to work—and with compounded fines to boot. Incidents like these are what harden the hearts of petty criminals who honestly want to turn their lives around, but feel that the circular nature of the system is set against them.
Prison and jail overcrowding remains a chronic problem, often caused by the so-called war on drugs. Unlike most of my colleagues, I have a strong libertarian bent on most matters of crime. The fact that we still incarcerate people in Alabama and elsewhere for possessing a plant baffles me. I have worked with officers who could not go 30 minutes without a cigarette or a cup of coffee, and who may be alcoholics, but they seem to have no qualms about locking up other people for different addictions or choices of consumables.
Ultimately, we all must answer to God for our moral choices, but criminal laws should be for those who are committing a wrong against another person or who are truly interfering with the administration of justice. If we would stop incarcerating people for doing things that are not harming someone else, our jail and prison overcrowding problems would be remarkably alleviated.
But the biggest problem with policing I see in my area is how difficult it has become to staff law-enforcement agencies. There are so many easier and/or less stressful jobs in which one can make a lot more money. We used to be able to count on the allure of the job. When I first began taking civil-service exams for the position in the mid-1990s, I sat in auditoriums filled with over a hundred other applicants. Only the top three or six scorers were granted an interview. Nowadays, the pool of applicants is so shallow that tests are given individually upon application submission, and simply passing an exam qualifies for an interview.
Before the days of electronic screen addiction, our young boys played cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers. Being a cop used to beckon young boys with a martial spirit and a heart for service. There has never been on an American playground an assembly of boys who enthusiastically gathered for a contest of accountants and auditors.
But the old westerns and cop shows have been supplanted by false narratives and news broadcasts roasting the peace officer. Being a cop isn’t so cool anymore. After I was fired by the municipality I served in 2015 as a result of being attacked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an experience I have described in these pages (“Cop in the SPLC’s Crosshairs,” August 2019 Chronicles), I was blatantly told by the internal affairs investigator that I was being investigated because “the city is reacting to the public reaction.” In other words, the city was succumbing to mob justice.
As I pointed out then, public reaction should have no relevance to the facts. If public reaction had been the determining factor in the case of Officer Darren Wilson and his actions against Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Wilson would still be in a prison cell to this day, because the mob destroyed the city.
The great disillusionment of my career came when I saw just how thin the thin blue line really was at the time of my dismissal. Bosses cowered. Friends disappeared. I was distanced, blackballed, and thrown under the bus. It turns out that there is no line at all—thin or otherwise—and when the heat gets thick, cops are pretty much like any other group of fallen human beings.
Still, most of the problems with the criminal justice system today are not the fault of what is left of the rank-and-file law-enforcement officers. I have attended many academy graduations and seen the vigor and hungry look in the eye of the average cadet. I am reminded of myself back in 1997 with my polished boots, my pressed uniform, my father’s Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum on my side (I was among the last to tote a “wheel gun”), and all my idealistic visions of law and order and the camaraderie of that thin blue line.
Now, more than ever, that idealism has become unsustainable, yet the demand for police intervention goes on unabated. Call volumes and requests for services are much higher than they were when I started. Situations people used to handle themselves are now relegated to police.
When I was in high school, for example, there were no such things as “School Resource Officers” (SROs). The principal and his staff handled student discipline. Not anymore. The agency I began my career with got its first SRO in my second year. Now there is one for each county school and talk of more coming. We often have twice as many officers in schools than we have working on the road.
We have constant calls for security—from athletic events to weddings to county fairs. Even churches have gotten in on the act, spending the congregants’ money to hire off-duty police officers as security for worship services. Perhaps this is just a sign of the times, given our devolving culture, but forgive me for saying that if you call yourself a Christian church, the men of that church ought to be in charge of security.
Our culture has turned its wrath on the police and used them as scapegoats for the ills of society, but at the same time called on law enforcement to be more and more responsible for the preservation of peace and justice. People want the police to do more without increased pay. “Defund the police!” shout the more vociferous, who then cry, “What’s taking so long?” when stuff hits the fan.
It is getting harder for good young men to observe all this and seriously contemplate the prospect of entering the field of police work. Which is precisely why more of them are choosing not to do so.
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