In recent discussions here on police use of force, it has been suggested that since cops know they’re doing a risky job, they should wait longer than a civilian might before using force to defend themselves or effect an arrest.  After all, don’t they have more equipment and training? And didn’t they “assume the risk”?

Um…no.  Here’s why.

First, we all remember Spiderman’s Uncle Ben wisely advising him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That’s true as far as it goes, but it only goes halfway. As I’ve taught my students for decades, police and civilian alike, power and responsibility must always be kept in a dead-equal balance.

Power without responsibility tends to lead to tyranny.  But responsibility without the power to fulfill it is the very definition of futility.

One commentator here longed for the days when police were “peace officers” instead of “law enforcement officers.”  News flash: Police have always been both. The purpose of law enforcement is keeping the peace, and the peace cannot be kept against violent criminals without the power to enforce the law.

Historically, society has given the cop and the private citizen different standards of justifiable use of force:  “Equal Force” for the so-called “civilian,” and “Necessary Force” for the cop.  Picture Lady Justice holding her scales, with power on one side and responsibility on the other.

It’s “equal force” for the private citizen because their responsibility is only to stop the attack and prevent harm: if, for instance, the suspect flees, they have no duty to capture him and their right to harm him ended when he broke off his assault.  But it’s “necessary force” for the police officer, because his or her duty is not merely to make the “bad guy” stop threatening them anymore: their sworn duty is to pursue, overpower, capture and disarm and restrain him, and transport him to jail.

All of which, the first time you try to do it to a criminal who doesn’t want it done, turns out to be a helluva lot more difficult than simply dissuading him from screwing with you anymore. It is why, for example, in a fistfight with a man his own size the cop is allowed to strike him with a baton and a citizen who did the same would likely be charged with aggravated assault.

We all wince when the cop has to injure or kill a drunk, a mental patient, or someone drugged out of their mind. How the Hell do you think the cop himself feels about that?

But the cop has no way of knowing what has motivated his opponent’s violent behavior, and if he did, it wouldn’t matter. It can’t matter. His duty is to restrain the violent person to protect the public, no matter what triggered that behavior.

Cops should take more risk? They did that already when they became the person others would call to stop violent criminals. Their exposure rate is already vastly higher.

Every cop understands that risk is part of “The Job.”  The public they serve needs to recognize that sacrificing life and limb on the altar of Utopian political correctness is not in the contract.


  1. Tahn, I’m afraid what you present is apples and oranges. You’ll have to look pretty hard to find a cop who believes that arresting heroin dealers violates their Constitutional rights, and that laws against peddling it are unjust.

    And, please, don’t compare cops arresting heroin dealers or shooting violent criminals in self-defense to concentration camp genocide. It’s ludicrous, and it lowers the overall IQ of this discussion thread.

  2. Mas,

    My reference to “war Crimes” in Nazi Germany was to indicate that there are potential repercussions to even those who are following “legal” orders and that the “legal system” was instrumental in facilitating the travesty of justice. At least Germany had changed its “constitution” (1933), giving full authority to the president (1934) for such behavior, while here in America, the Constitution has not been so changed, although in my opinion, it has certainly been ignored.

    As I have stated, I am not a writer, so I apologize if it seemed I was comparing the terrors of Nazi Germany to today. Having said that, forty years of a war on “some” drugs, and still some 1.5 million arrests per year in the US alone with 500,000 arrests resulting in incarceration is not an insignificant number. This does not include some estimated 100,000 killed in the last ten years in Mexico alone, (not including the damage to other countries and their people). While this is certainly NOT a comparison to the Nazi evils, it does sadly have some similarity.

    Concerning “shooting violent criminals”, any human on Earth has a moral (if not legal) right of self defense when threatened with violent kidnapping or robbery. To call them “violent criminals” is an attempt to label them the same as those who commit “mala in se” crimes against persons, such as murder or rape. They are not the same.

    As I understand it, the recent increase in opioid use was that which was manufactured by pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by Doctors, rather than being processed from a natural plant and sold on the black market.

    Do police officers feel that the Constitution justifies them in arresting the Doctors or raiding pharmaceutical plants?

    I agree with your statement that I won’t find many officers who “believe” it is wrong to incarcerate “some” dope dealers and this is the major problem and one I continually address. It is wrong, both morally and Constitutionally and totally contrary to the concept of Freedom, America was built on but it has built slowly from the start and now, drug prohibition and incarceration is a major industry in itself.

    “Laws” against “some” drugs did not begin being enacted until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, oddly enough in a time period similar to those “laws” restricting other freedoms in respect to firearms. Are officers merely enforcing the law or is it, as you indicate, a belief system?

    Either way, officers have an oath to the Supreme Law of the land AND a chance to peacefully stop the abuse by refusing to enforce “mala prohibita” rules of private conduct. Such refusal would remedy much of the conflict between peaceful citizens and the police and could help restore the respect for true law, which has diminished in our land.

    I am certainly NOT an expert on these statistics and NOT promoting drug use of any kind. I DO believe that police refusing to enforce prohibita would free hundreds of thousands of Americans from prisons, free many lower income people from the terrible debts and repercussions of having a record and help restore a positive attitude between the police and all citizens, especially minorities, which are disproportionally affected.

    Thank you again Mas for allowing views contrary to yours to be expressed. I only wish I could express them better.

    “It is not only vain, but wicked, in a legislature to frame laws in opposition to the laws of nature, and to arm them with the terrors of death. This is truly creating crimes in order to punish them.”
    Thomas Jefferson

  3. @Tahn Just so our host doesn’t have to carry the whole load. I agree with your point that many laws are unjust and/or just bad policy. But it is not the job of the police to make that determination. Do that and you have a situation where the police and the police alone determine what is legal. In other words, a police state. I don’t want that and I don’t think you do either. Eric Garner died while resisting arrest under a law that was definitely bad policy (underlying health problems probably played a part). But the cops didn’t make that law. Bloomberg and his cronies did. If the law had not existed, there would have been no grounds for the arrest and thus no death.

  4. Richard,

    Certainly, many laws “are unjust or bad” and I agree that this Bloomberg law was one of them. The bad law created Garners death and there are many, many “bad laws” enacted all over the country. One thing to remember is that without officers on the street to enforce such bad laws, the “would be” tyrants issuing them would be impotent.

    I agree that neither of us want officers (or courts) alone to decide what the law is but I respectfully disagree with your position that officers should not enforce “bad laws”. In fact, via their oath to the Constitution being the “Supreme Law of the Land” (Article VI, Supremacy clause), they are required to uphold the Constitution, again as the “Supreme Law”, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

    America is a unique experiment in the world, A Constitutional Republic, “if we can keep it”. Rather than a totalitarian country where orders or laws from “on high” are blindly followed, the Founding Fathers decided that the Constitution was the standard by which EVERY officer, every judge, soldier and citizen should uphold and as Jefferson said and SCOTUS has upheld, every law contrary to the constitution is null and void upon issue. This is a decision (whether Constitutional or not) that every “judge and Judicial officer” is bound to decide.

    There are those that would argue that this process should only be decided by the courts, perhaps even only the Supreme Court but EVERY officer is required to take and uphold their oath, not just the Judges. As an extreme example, (which I hope is never issued) if an order came down for officers to burn every synagogue or every mosque, or even break their windows, would you still feel that “it is not the job of the police to make that determination”?

    While that is indeed, an extreme example here in America, it is the type of orders from “on high” that has been used in the rest of the world, where the police are expected to OBEY, such as you imply is proper! America has been given the opportunity to allow freedom for all, within the equal rights of others freedom. I believe that the thin blue line has a unique opportunity to restore that freedom, by refusing to enforce those laws contrary to the Supreme law.

    IMHO, ALL “mala prohibita” (victimless) laws are contrary to the Constitution and to equal rights and freedoms and should certainly be refused to be enforced. It may be the last chance we have to PEACEFULLY restore America to the land of freedom and a Constitutional Republic.

    Richard, Thank you for your interest and valid question. I hope I have answered it.

    “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution;…”

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