Police Chief David Brown has emerged as a national hero in the wake of last week’s Dallas cop killings. He explicitly rejected calls to militarize his force after the shootings and encouraged Black Lives Matter members to join his department. The Dallas Police Department has been a model of reform.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said at a press conference on Monday, according to the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Brown is right. Police are often asked to clean up the failures amassed by other parts of government. And while we must fix our schools and our mental health system, much of the problem with policing in this country comes from the fact that we have too many laws. Overcriminalization causes police to be overworked and diverts their focus from truly terrible crimes.
In 2014, after Eric Garner was killed by New York City police, Yale law professor Stephen Carter wrote a column for Bloomberg about how the law puts all Americans in the same danger as Garner. “On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you,” said Carter.
Carter pointed out that libertarians have been at the forefront of the fight against overcriminalization. Writes Nick Gillespie in the Daily Beast: “Clearly something has gone horribly wrong when a man lies dead after being confronted for selling cigarettes to willing buyers.” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, appearing on MSNBC, also blamed the statute: “Some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so they’ve driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive.”
It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the deaths of those the police seek to arrest: it’s every law. “Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right,” wrote Carter.
It isn’t just libertarians who warn about overcriminalization. The conservative Heritage Foundation published a report last year by former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey and Paul Larkin Jr. warning that “the sheer number of federal laws that impose criminal penalties has grown to an unmanageable point.”
If we want to reduce violent confrontations between citizens and police, we should reduce the involuntary interactions that cause them. Any offense that does not directly harm the life, physical health, or property of others should not be regarded as such. The civil code should instead be used to address those grievances.
Instead of treating citizens, who are often poor and minorities, as a revenue source (as was done in Ferguson), civil penalties such as wage garnishments should be used to collect tickets instead of jail. Or better yet, don’t have as many offenses that allow government agents to issue citations.
If we want to have a more peaceful and free society, we need to have fewer laws.