This is not a common topic in the skeptical discourse, but it is something I have been thinking about for a long time. I have had these sorts of experiences that are no doubt commonplace to Americans:
• I notice a police cruiser with lights flashing somewhere in the distance down the highway behind me. I know that I’ve committed no crime, my insurance and registration are current. I nonetheless immediately feel anxious and afraid.
• A cop pulls me over for a legitimate infraction, speeding, then asks to search my vehicle. I know there is nothing for him to find, but I politely refuse anyway. He then fabricates a silly excuse for “probable cause” and searches it anyway, proving his disrespect for both me and the constitution. (In one case, “probable cause” was that I had discarded an empty Pepsi can in the trash at a tollbooth which may have been me “ditching contraband”.)
• Late at night while driving in the Chicago suburbs I was once followed and then pulled over for absolutely no reason but that I was the only car on the road. The officer stated I had made a “wild” left turn, even though he had been following me for 5 blocks before that and I, having noticed, made a perfect and measured turn. The officer questioned me for a few minutes, found absolutely nothing wrong, and let me go.
• On another occasion my car went off the road during a very nasty thunderstorm, after losing traction and hydroplanning. I was given two tickets: one for inadequate tread/unsafe tires (which I fully stipulate to). The second? “improper lane usage”. I kid you not. I had apparently used the lanes improperly during the time in which I had no control of my vehicle. In court, I immediately questioned this absurd charge. It was dropped, if I pleaded no contest to the first. That was the purpose of the trumped-up charge- as leverage to pressure me into acquiescing to the first.
It is worth noting that I am a white male. I am confident that everyone else, who is not, gets it much worse than I do. It’s also proof that these events are not merely racism or sexism- they affect everyone.
My observation is that police in the United States generally operate in harassment mode. This is the mental disposition that their job, not merely their option, but their duty, is to harass citizens. I define “harass” here as the detaining, questioning, searching, interrogating, and interruption of peoples’ lives with no reasonable justification based in either safety or criminal prosecution. Further, I assert that it is not entirely the fault of the men and women in law enforcement themselves because their jobs have been tailored to harassment mode. Several components of police culture foster harassment mode.
The first, is that there is such a thing as a “routine traffic stop”. It is culturally and professionally acceptable and expected for a police officer to momentarily detain and question citizens for the most mundane and harmless of offenses, such as not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, turning right on red even after making sure the way is clear, or breaking the speed limit by 4 MPH. None of these are safety-related. They are minuscule, harmless transgressions. What could a brand new police officer conclude about their job, when such events are common excuses to for street-side interrogations? Only that their duty is to stop and harass people at nigh-random (because all people break small traffic rules at times) in the hopes of either babysitting them into safe driving or uncovering more serious crimes.
My proposal: ending harassment mode
I don’t claim that what I suggest is a silver bullet. Harassment mode is deeply entrenched in police culture, but I think the following represents a step in the right direction toward changing that culture.
Part one: First, we should have no more traffic cops, period. I don’t mean officers on patrol, but officers paying undue attention to minor offenses which entail zero threat to public safety. Yes, a car zigzagging erratically down the highway should be pulled over. A car that rolls slowly through a stop sign? No. How do we accomplish this? First, by questioning police departments, including Sheriffs running for re-election, about why tax dollars need to be spent on cops trying to babysit citizens into driving safely, instead of focusing on criminals that pose serious threats to persons and property. Having traffic cops in harasser mode is not just unjust, it is hugely expensive. What about traffic violations that do pose a public safety threat? In the case of obvious reckless driving, such people should be stopped. The most common safety-related violation of traffic rules is speeding and the running of lights- both of which can be cheaply remedied by traffic cameras which have the side benefits of fairness (they don’t see race or sex) and being preventative not reactive. Isn’t it better to have fewer accidents than to fine and arrest more people who cause them?
Minor traffic offenses do not cease to exist- when motorists cause an accident or are otherwise stopped for any reason, they are still liable for all violations. In Germany, even when driving on the autobahn with no speed limit, a person can get a ticket for driving excessively fast if they cause an accident of any sort.
Further, drivers education needs to be longer and more intensive. In the United States, driving is a bit of a joke. In some parts of Europe, young would-be drivers train for many months. They get more intensive classroom instruction and subsequently must be observed driving in different conditions for a total of 6 or more hours. All drivers must be expert at driving a manual transmission, parallel parking, and so on.
Part two: Police officers should be required to have a 4-year degree. Think about it: the people we give guns and a literal licence to kill in our society. Should this group include GED-holders who couldn’t quite hack it in high school? Should they have so little exposure to history and the liberal arts? These are other benefits, too. It would raise the bar on what it means to be a cop. It would send the message that being a police officer is a privileged position that requires a basic, but complete, education. It would make new police feel like pulling people over for exceeding the speed limit slightly is beneath them, an insult to the dignity of their job, which it is.
It would cost more per officer, naturally. Bear in mind, though, that without the need for harasser traffic police and with the use of traffic cameras, we don’t need nearly so many officers to do the same job. In all, I expect the cost will be greater, but not massively so.
Can this work?
It already works. I’ve been heavily influence by the three years I spent living in Germany. I was never once harassed by a German cop, and I often drove like a crazy person out there. I was in a car that was pulled over just once, immediately after leaving a city Fasching celebration. They were screening for drunk drivers, and quite sensibly so. The officer was polite and quickly determined my friend who was driving (I was ripped) was not intoxicated and sent us on our way. The stop was perhaps 2 minutes in total.
Like all professions, some German cops are jerks and will abuse their position. But I can nonetheless report that, generally, the Polezei are better educated and do not concern themselves with the petty infractions of motorists.
Why do we put up with this?
This post is not about being inconvenienced or even harassed sometimes. It’s about the design of an effective, efficient police force. It’s about bringing out the best and not the worst in the decent men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe. It’s about racism and sexism, because harassment mode unduly effects women and minorities. Lastly, it’s about law-abiding citizens not living in fear because police have a self-entitled duty to insert themselves into your life and hurt you merely because they can.