Law Enforcement: Applying Principles

Law Enforcement: Applying Principles

Your blogger lives near the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. In the last five years, this area has been the unhappy home of George Floyd, as well as Derek Chauvin. The home of Daunte Wright and Kimberly Potter. The home of Justine Diamond and Mohamed Noor. The home of Philando Castile and Jeronimo Yanez, along with many other paired sets of citizens and police officers. All were at the center of cases in which a Twin Cities resident was killed, with criminal charges filed against the officers involved.

As a result, when many think of “law enforcement” around here, the first place the mind often goes is to these sad cases. Some peoples’ conversations turn to controversies about what colors of lives matter. Riots look like protests, and protests look like riots, depending on who is seeing them. Support for the police can become a political asset or liability. The idea of “defunding the police” was proposed. All of this is a modern tragedy, playing out right here in our city, all over our newspapers and newscasts, in front of our own eyes.

Thoughts of law enforcement need not be like this. Moreover, when properly done, enforcement of the laws of our country is an entirely good thing. Politics really should have very little to do with law enforcement, and federal government politics should have far less to do with the subject.

In this post, Principle Based Politics will analyze how—if at all—elected leaders at the federal level should make decisions and take action related to law enforcement.

Federal Support for Local Police

Forty years ago, there was another kind of shooting in America when a young man named John Hinkley shot Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States, and others. Law enforcement, of course, was immediately on top of the case. The local police in Washington D.C. were at the scene, as were the federal officers of the United States Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Thomas Baker, who led the FBI efforts and ultimately was in charge of the case, later wrote that the “most important lesson of that day” was that “law enforcement cooperation is a force multiplier.” He was speaking of the good that occurs when federal and local officers work together.

We realize that most criminal cases do not result in FBI involvement. But what officer Baker’s comment raises for broader analysis is the topic of federal involvement in the policing efforts of our day. The political issue is this: what role can and should the federal government play to serve as a “force multiplier” for the benefit of both the residents and the police forces in our cities and towns today?

Of the key principles we have identified, those most applicable to this issue are law and justice, limited government, freedom, and protecting the vulnerable. Law and justice fit naturally with law enforcement, as does protecting the vulnerable. Enforcement of the laws is right at the heart of our federal, constitutional system of justice. Protecting the vulnerable, in turn, is the natural result of effective law enforcement. Similarly, the people of America are truly free only within boundaries clearly established through laws, the enforcement of which is necessary to preserve our individual freedoms.

The principle of limited government speaks to the allocation of efforts between the federal government, private parties, states, charities, and other facets of our society. And, of the applicable principles listed here, the one most significant to the issue of federal involvement in local law enforcement is limited government. Our analytical approach to limited government is to ask whether a problem is so big that something significant needs to be done (by someone) to improve the situation. If so, then we ask whether only federal efforts can solve the problem. If either criterion is absent, the federal government should use its resources elsewhere.

We think it is clear that strong enforcement of the laws is necessary in every city of the United States. But we also believe the states, and particularly their county sheriffs and local police forces, are fully capable of performing nearly all aspects of their very difficult job. Our conclusion is that most of what goes into law enforcement in America is and should remain under local control. 

One exception could be the establishment of a national standard for police training. This is something that, by definition, only the federal government—working hand in hand with representatives from the cities and states—can do effectively. A joint federal-local group, with federal officials acting as leaders in coordinating the effort, could provide training materials, guidelines, and even standards for police conduct. Important topics for the standards and training should include law enforcement without bias and without unnecessary violence.

This type of cooperation and coordination would indeed act as a “force multiplier” for law enforcement across America.

Enforcement of Federal Laws

While states have many laws that must be enforced by their own police—robbery, trespassing, homicide, drunk driving, assault, etc.—there are federal criminal laws, as well. These federal statutes generally are enforced by the United States Department of Justice and other federal agencies. This is done pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, which makes the President responsible to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Federal enforcement of our national laws should set a spirited and ethical example for all. Corruption, racism, incompetence, and political motives should be nowhere to be found in federal law enforcement. Elected officials in the White House and Congress must do everything in their power to ensure this. They can do this by appointing principled people to lead those agencies, holding them accountable, and supporting their proper law enforcement efforts.

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics. 

Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

Future political issues to be analyzed under our principle-based method include: taxation, climate change and the environment, deficits and national debt, health care, and foreign relations.

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