Government officials are fond of deferring to the opinion of police officers when defending restrictive laws and intrusive procedures. Time and again, we’re told that “rank-and-file police officers overwhelmingly support this law banning the sale of X” or “police officers overwhelmingly favor the extension of this law requiring Y.” That’s supposed to be the conversation-killer. Cops want this or oppose that, and so the debate is finished!
The presumption, of course, is that it not only matters what police officers think, but that the preferences of the folks in blue (and plainclothes) should carry overwhelming weight. That’s a dubious premise, but one that goes, all too frequently, unchallenged in debates over public policy in the United States. To hear politicians talk, you might as well replace legislatures with random delegations from local police departments and scrap public-opinion polling in favor of whatever you can overhear at a neighborhood cop-bar.
But even for people who accept the unassailable value of the political and legal preferences harbored by the gendarmerie, the assumption is that we actually hear and know what police officers think — that we have been presented an accurate representation of their beliefs.
But what if what we’re hearing is bowdlerized to the point of being unrepresentative? What if many cops are afraid to speak their minds, so instead hold their tongues or feed us bullshit?
That’s the question raised by a New York Times article that tells the whole tale in a headline: “Police officers find that dissent on drug laws may come with a price.” The article features stories such as that of a Border Patrol officer who found his pro-legalization musings had pretty stiff consequences:
Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.
Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”
After citing similar cases, the Times quotes an anonymous police officer who sees such penalties for ideological non-conformity breeding a culture of closed-mouths among law-enforcers.
Among those not yet ready to publicly urge the legalization of drugs is a veteran Texas police officer who quietly supports LEAP and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “We all know the drug war is a bad joke,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we also know that you’ll never get promoted if you’re seen as soft on drugs.”
It’s not only drugs, either. In 1994, the Free Lance Star of Virginia reported that the police officers who had publicly appeared in support of the just-passed federal “assault weapons” ban hadn’t been informed of the nature of the photo-op until they arrived. And they weren’t all on board with the gun ban to which they were supposed to provide a supportive backdrop.
Not all of the officers supported the ban, however, and one of them, John Donaggio, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria that claims [Chief] Stover violated his rights.
Donaggio, 29, said he was ordered to go to the Capitol, stand on the steps, pose for photographs, and keep his objections private. His lawsuit says that the chief and the county illegally forced him into political activity and violated his right to free speech.
It’s not hard to extrapolate from cases like this to others involving high political stakes. If police officers can be disciplined for opposing the received wisdom on drug prohibition and gun control, why wouldn’t they also face consequences for dissenting on search and seizure, SWAT tactics, immigration …
Police officers work under tight discipline in government agencies under leaders who are political appointees, or politicians themselves. That’s not a good recipe for the fair airing of unvarnished opinions that oppose those of people further up the hierarchical food chain.
So, police officers overwhelmingly support Policy X when they’re ordered to? Or, at least, when they fear for their job security if they don’t?
That’s a somewhat less compelling argument, don’t you think?