Who Watches The Watchers? And Who Kills The Killers?

Randall posted about this terrible case, When Killer Cops Walk:

On November 6, 2006, U.S. Marine Derek J. Hale, back from Iraq on a combat-related discharge, sat peacefully on a friend's porch in Wilmington, Del. in the late afternoon. He was in town to participate in the Toys for Tots program and was house-sitting for the friend. He had no criminal record, but he had recently joined a motorcycle club that, unbeknown to him, was being investigated for drug dealing. Without any warrant for his arrest or to search him, a team of at least eight undercover state police officers approached him from their unmarked SUV, commanded his friend's ex-wife and her two kids to keep back, and tasered him seven times without provocation. As Hale writhed on the ground, vomiting and convulsing from the tasing, police Lieutenant William Browne closed in and shot him, point blank, three times in the chest.

Like Webb, Browne claimed self-defense. But Hale was no threat to anyone when he was killed. He didn't resist arrest. He had no weapon. He had no chance. Again, had an Iraqi insurgent killed him, even in far more ambiguous circumstances, most Americans would have assumed he was in the right and his killer in the wrong. But when an American police officer shoots him in an act of cold-blooded murder, there's nothing to see here, please move along. The Delaware attorney general cleared Browne of criminal charges; he's back on duty, and just last week the Wilmington Police Department announced that he had not even violated police procedure or policy.

When our cops are shooting and killing our troops, perhaps we should wonder about giving either group unquestioned faith. When different rules apply to police officers than to everyone else, what exists is a police state. The seeds of totalitarianism are planted when the state's agents have a different moral code than the rest of us.

(a more detailed article from LRC)

I am sympathetic to the criticisms expressed in the comments to my revenge Livejournal post linking to this EconLog post defending revenge: that revenge tends to attract hotheads and create fueds, and ceding violence to the state is a win because it is dispassionate and the feud ends tehre. But for certain types of crimes - namely, those perpetrated by agents of the state - the state is notoriously and consistently lax at punishment. To give up completely on redressing those frequent wrongs seems like more than a small step in the direction of a police state, a two-tiered society of wolves with badges and sheep who they both protect and abuse, depending on circumstance.

Now, I'm not going to just naively make a slippery-slope argument and say that because of this, vigilante justice against the state is always wonderful because otherwise we're totally screwed and will end up in a totalitarian dystopia. I acknowledge that there are substantial advantages to police rather than vigilante justice, and so even with some amount of abuse, it can still be a good system. Yet surely it is also true that with less abuse, it would be an even better system, that cases like this demonstrate how little incentive against abuse there is, and thus that it is worth thinking about how such excesses can be checked.

Let's consider one solution for this case: a group of Derek's Marine buddies get together and assassinate Browne. It is not clear to me that any of the objections raised apply to such a case. There is detailed court evidence which can be used to ascertain what happened, and thus no need to worry about kangaroo courts or hotheads asking without evidence. It might start a cop vs. Marine feud - but seems more likely to just make cops be a bit more careful about who they murder. And because it is specifically focusing on an area (prosecuting cops) where the state has abdicated its duties, would it really threaten the good system we currently have?

Maybe we haven't gotten to that point yet. Maybe more killing won't help. I dunno. All I know is that it makes my blood boil when people get away with murder, not because they didn't get caught, not because the evidence was unclear, but because they have a badge. And while it may be "vigilante" justice, I have a tough time believing that private action to redress such terrible wrongs would really make the world a worse place. Shouldn't those who dispense death be the most worried about receiving it, lest they dispense it too freely?

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I'm confident this would

I'm confident this would constitute tyrannicide, in the Juan de Mariana sense. Maybe it wouldn't help. But the current evidence shows that not doing it is not helping anyway.

There's a reason it could work, though, and it's based on Game Theory, on the iterative prisoner's dilemma, to be precise. People who know they will be facing consequences for their acts tend to choose cooperation over predation much more often.

Game Theory Support of Tyrannicide?

There's a reason it could work, though, and it's based on Game Theory, on the iterative prisoner's dilemma, to be precise.

Do you have a reference to this I could read?

My intuition says that the most natural response to violent attack is violent retribution. This makes it easy for two moral agents to become involved in a cycle of revenge violence until the resources or will of one of the agents is depleted.

As satisfying as the violent Braveheart fantasy of dropping a flail on the murderers in their beds may be, I believe the best strategy in the current context is to publicize the events and to pursue justice procedurally through the organs of the state, using continual pressure through the press to compensate for the state's otherwise lax punishment of their own agents.

It may not be out of place to rattle sabers in a semi-anonymous forum, but it would be counter-productive for someone to threaten violence credibly enough to make the police feel threatened. They will merely impose a crack-down that will result in more violence to innocents, and whose only advantage could possibly be to involve enough of the public in a call for reprisals against the police until the will of the police breaks. I believe their will could be tested and broken without the descent into violence.

Of course, actually deciding who would try to kill the accused police officers is a free rider problem--who's going to risk so much for so little personal benefit? Also, when read within the context of Patri's post here, I realize that the actual chance of being murdered by a policeman is pretty remote for most people--it just happens to hit our own libertarian "pessimism bias" buttons rather squarely.

Psych Test

Too bad there isn't some test that the Police Academy could administer to weed out recruits who enjoy driving around killing random people. Until this happens or your idea gains a following, we will just have to live with this epidemic of cop murder. Keep your head down!