By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Laws are not made to be broken but they are made to be changed. Values shift, political winds blow, and priorities change. The fundamental question of fairness, depicted by the iconic blindfolded Lady Justice, is part of America’s recurring debate. One growing effort to short circuit the debate on justice reform is for law enforcement to stop enforcing the law.
New York State’s Attorney General Letitia James contends that traffic stops for minor infractions often end in violence. Citing the case of Allan Feliz’s death last October after he was pulled over for a seat belt violation, James claims the incident “further underscores the need for this change.”
James’ report on the matter concluded that the officer’s use of deadly force was justified but would never have happened if the police had not stopped Feliz for a minor violation. James goes further by stating that officers should not automatically arrest persons for warrants for minor violations that pose little danger to the community. Warrants command police officers to take a person into custody on order of the judge of the appropriate court. It is not likely that judges will be content to allow anyone else to usurp that power, and not likely that police officers will fail to obey a court order at their discretion.
AG James is following the same twisted logic of so many who blame law enforcement for the actions of lawbreakers. Doctors don’t cause appendicitis. Dentists don’t cause cavities. Plumbers don’t cause toilets to leak. Police officers do not cause people to break the law.
As the FBI and Los Angeles Police comb through footage of rioters and looters from that city’s disturbances, Nikhil Ramnaney, the head of LA’s public defenders’ union, complains that retaining videos of these crimes in progress is an invasion of privacy.
Academics and activists justify looting as a legitimate means of working toward social change. Advocates for looters claim that they should not be charged, or at least should not be required to post bail for this minor offense. Portland’s Multnomah County prosecutor pledged in August not to prosecute disorderly conduct, interfering with a police officer, or rioting. Chicago’s prosecutor Kim Foxx has refused felony charges for theft and shoplifting during civil unrest in that city, drawing the ire of even reform minded politicians. Alderman Brendan Reilly (D), whose ward encompasses the areas where the looting took place, said in letter to residents “When there are no consequences for these criminal acts — large or small — it only serves as further incentive for these criminals to repeat these crimes over and over.”
The most accurate word for the supposed non-violent, low-level offense of looting is burglary. Without the context of a protest turned violent, the act of throwing a brick to gain entry to a building to enter with the purpose to commit another offense would certainly be prosecuted as a felony. It is hardly a victimless crime, hardly a minor one, and certainly not Constitutionally protected free expression.
AG James’ contention that traffic enforcement and car stops and arresting person on warrants results in police violence, she is right. It results in violence against police. Over 20% of felonious and fatal assaults on police in 2019 occurred as a result of police making car stops, investigating a crash, or even stopping to assist a motorist. Did these officers provoke their own murders?
Any state trooper will tell you that criminals drive, get into crashes, and have car trouble. Scofflaws are not specialists. Their lawlessness often extends to their driving behavior, causing risks to other motorists. As the City of Berkeley California become the first in the United States to take police officers out of traffic enforcement and replace them with unarmed employees of a newly formed Department of Transportation, experience will likely prove this out in potentially tragic ways.
Traffic enforcement is important. Anyone who has driven in the United States and has also observed traffic in less developed countries will appreciate traffic enforcement for driving behavior as well as equipment violations. No licenses, no equipment requirements, no financial responsibility make for a deadly combination. Even here on the well regulated roads and highways of the U.S. there were over 38,000 traffic deaths in 2019 and an estimated 4.4 million injuries serious enough to require medical attention. Vehicle crashes are the biggest killers of children, and cost over $870 billion annually.
When those who are appointed to enforce the law, and who are trained and equipped to do so, and who must do so in compliance with the law are told to abdicate their duty for any reason, they must not. If the law needs to change there is a mechanism for changing it, and that mechanism does not begin by asking law enforcement to avert their eyes from crime.