Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » The Ferguson Distraction

FFF Articles

The Ferguson Distraction


Ironically, the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by white Ferguson, MO, police officer Darren Wilson is a distraction from the racist police brutality that ravages America.

Whether or not Wilson shot Brown unjustifiably, and whether or not Brown provoked the shooting by grabbing for Wilson’s gun, the police — and the government officials who employ and arm them — are a big problem in this country. (The Eric Garner chokehold killing has none of the ambiguity of the Brown case.)

Unfortunately, it takes a shooting such as the one in Ferguson to spotlight the problem. And that presents its own problem. The claim that the police are routinely dangerous to innocent people — mostly blacks and Hispanics — appears to stand or fall with the headline case of the week. But that can’t be the correct way to judge the bigger issue. As Jason Lee Byas writes,

The way people are talking about this case seems to imply that if Wilson’s use of force was not in necessary self-defense, the police are out of control — and if it was, everything’s fine.…

Even if Darren Wilson turns out to be a near-perfect moral exemplar, the police are out of control.

Reuben Fischer-Baum writes that the shooting in Ferguson has “drawn attention to a remarkable lack of knowledge about a seemingly basic fact: how often people are killed by the police.”

The national government purports to keep count of “justifiable” police homicides, but that’s apparently all. “‘Unjustifiable homicide by police’ is not a classification,” Fischer-Baum notes.

Among the problems with the collection of data,” he writes, is that the “FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which compiles the SHR [Supplementary Homicide Report], relies on voluntary involvement of state and local police agencies — a fact that may raise some questions about the integrity of the data.”

Thus, he concludes, “the SHR’s ‘justifiable police homicide’ number [400] is not a useful approximation of how many people are killed by the police.”

The Wall Street Journal agrees:

A Wall Street Journal analysis of the latest data from 105 of the country’s largest police agencies found more than 550 police killings during those years were missing from the national tally or, in a few dozen cases, not attributed to the agency involved. The result: It is nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.

The Journal quotes Columbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan: “When cops are killed, there is a very careful account and there’s a national database. Why not the other side of the ledger?”

Data do show that blacks are more likely than whites to fall into police clutches for drug and gun offenses, even though whites are more likely to commit these victimless so-called crimes. Does anyone doubt that young black males walking down the street are more likely to have a police encounter than young white males are? If you doubt this, you’re not paying attention.

The ultimate cause of this problem is that the police are the domestic armed troops of America’s rulers — falsely called “representatives” — and the rest of us are the ruled. They know it, and we are increasingly coming to know it. Most of the “laws” they enforce against us violate our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The chasm between rulers and ruled exists everywhere in the country, but it exists on a spectrum from the barely noticeable to the extreme. Obviously, it’s most extreme in poorer black communities, where race and class prejudice sit atop the general disdain for the ruled. (St. Louis County, MO, has gone to outrageous lengths, as Radley Balko shows.)

Some critics of police brutality and racism assume that ending prohibitions on drugs and guns — both worthy ends, of course — would eliminate or reduce police abuse. I’m not convinced. Too many young blacks have been harassed or worse by cops claiming that the “suspects” appeared to be casing a store or engaging in some other suspicious activity having nothing to do with drugs or guns.

Repealing victimless-“crime” statutes is imperative, but we also must rethink the top-down model of policing. After all, London didn’t get a police force until 1829. We could declare the experiment a flop and move on.

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.