Given the history of brutality by the Minneapolis police department, especially against blacks, with the killing of George Floyd being the most recent example, the Minneapolis city council has signaled its intent to abolish its police department. The mayor of the city, Jacob Frey, opposes the idea, instead favoring police “reform,” an idea that has been tried repeatedly in the past, with dismal results.
So, which is better — abolish or reform?
Actually, there is a third alternative, one that focuses on a critically important question: What is the role of government in a free society?
Why do we need government in the first place? One reason is to protect us from people who initiate force or fraud against others. In every society, there are going to be murderers, rapists, burglars, robbers, thieves, and others who violate the rights of peaceful people. One purpose of government is to target people who commit such acts and arrest, prosecute, convict, and punish them.
That’s what the police are supposed to do — protect us from the bad guys. If someone has trespassed into your house in the middle of the night, you would like the police to respond within a few minutes after calling 911.
The big problem, however, is that the police have been charged with doing much more than targeting violent people. They have also been charged with targeting non-violent people, which consumes a lot of their time, attention, energy, and resources, which then interferes with their ability to protect us from the violent people.
The drug war is the premier example.
We can concede for argument’s sake that drugs are harmful, destructive, and dangerous. But the fact remains that when people possess, ingest, or distribute drugs, they are not violating anyone else’s rights. Smoking dope, snorting cocaine, drinking liquor, or smoking cigarettes are not the same as murdering, raping, or robbing other people.
One of the big problems with the drug war is that it attracts racial bigots to the DEA and police departments. Why is that? Because this is one area where bigots can legally exercise their bigotry to their heart’s content and even be praised, thanked, and glorified for it.
That’s not to say, of course, that everyone in the DEA and in police departments is racially bigoted. We know that that’s not true. But it is to say that there are some racial bigots in the DEA and in police departments because the drug war gives them the legal latitude to target blacks with harassment, abuse, humiliation, and even frame-ups. Moreover, when the bigoted ones use the drug war to exercise their bigotry, oftentimes the rest of the cops come to their defense out of a warped sense of police loyalty. If drugs were legal, cops would no longer be in the drug-enforcement business, which would mean that the DEA and police departments would no longer serve as magnets for racial bigots.
The fact is that government has no business targeting people who are engaged in purely peaceful (and non-fraudulent) behavior. That includes not just the possession, use, and distribution of drugs. It includes all crimes that are known as “vice,” such as prostitution and gambling.
So, before we abolish the police, which would be a day of celebration for murderers, rapists, burglars, and robbers, let’s instead limit the power of the police to target only people who commit acts of violence against others. Let’s get the police out of the business of drug enforcement and enforcement of other non-violent crimes by legalizing drugs — all of them — along with prostitution, gambling, adultery, coveting, fornication, and other peaceful or consensual acts that some people might condemn on moral or health grounds but which do not involve the initiation of force or fraud against others.
In other words, let’s keep the police but limit their power to do what government is supposed to do: protect us from those who initiate force or fraud against others, so that the rest of us can be free to pursue happiness, each in our own way.