Many libertarians argue that "good cop" is a contradiction in terms, at least by the standards of the nonaggression principle. According to this position, any job that requires a person to aggress against his fellow citizens is bad for society. And every cop will probably be required, over the course of his or her career, to initiate force: to issue traffic tickets, to detain an innocent suspect, to apprehend someone for a nonviolent crime. So while individual police officers may be good people off the job (they have families, friends, people they care for), in their professional roles, they are necessarily bad for liberty.
This is a powerful argument, but it is too simplistic. The initiation of force isn’t the be-all and end-all when determining whether one is a good or bad police officer.
First, not everyone who initiates force is automatically immoral. Morality is at least partly determined by intentions, rather than results. A burglar is surely less moral than a drunkard who unintentionally stumbles into the wrong house. The facts of the case — unlawfully entering someone’s property — are the same, but intention makes all the difference.
If cops give out traffic tickets because they believe that speeding kills people, we may try to change their minds. But we cannot fault their intention to make society safer, even when it manifests as forceful actions with which we may disagree.
Second, an officer who initiates force may still provide a net gain for his “customers” (in this case, society at large). Imagine a cop hunting a serial killer. As part of her investigation, she pulls an innocent man in for questioning. Later, she also catches the serial killer. The cop clearly initiated force, but she also made society safer. One innocent man is worse off for having been detained and questioned, but thousands of people who live near the killer — unseen victims of his future crimes — are now safer. If she were employed by a private protection agency, the community that hired her would call this cop a hero and recognize the net benefits of her service.
This argument is admittedly utilitarian. But if a company you hire for X service does something wrong, you would probably not immediately terminate the contract. Rather, you might weigh the wrong against the other good they do you, engaging in a consequentialist calculus to decide whether they provide value to you. We should apply the same analysis of trade-offs, not to police forces as a whole, but to individual officers.
But are there actually cops who make society better? Many libertarians don’t think so. Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant secretary of the US Treasury, asserts that all police officers are “psychopaths.” It’s common in libertarian circles to call the police “a gang of thieves.” This argument fails to respect the inherent diversity in any profession.
In Thinking As a Science, Henry Hazlitt points out that when we think of a concept, our mental construction of the concept is limited to an amalgamation of specific examples we have encountered, experienced, or imagined. When I say the word “cop,” you think of cops you have known, cops you have seen or read about, cops in a specific context. We can each think of the same word, but we are actually imagining vastly different individuals. I might imagine a man hunting violent gang members, while you might imagine a white cop killing a black person for a victimless crime.
Both of us are drawing on our unique experiences to assemble a mental concept. We are thinking of one cop, or a combination of some of those that we’ve met or heard of, and projecting our experience onto all 900,000 officers in the United States. Anyone asserting that there are no good cops, cops are psychopaths, or the opposite (all cops are saints), is making an unjustified assumption.
Indeed, many of our individual concepts are skewed, because most people only ever hear about officers who behave badly. Heroic cops sometimes make the news, but their stories don’t go viral like videos of police brutality do. Additionally, most people don’t interact with police officers who are helping them — if you see those flashing lights in your rearview window, you’re mentally gearing up to lose at least $150 for a traffic offense. That we are inundated with experiences and stories of bad police but not good ones gives us a skewed perspective when we’re creating our concept of the word “cop.”
That makes it easier to make sweeping statements like “cops are a gang of thieves.” But it also means these assertions are unjustified.
Some critics go another route to argue that all police are bad: if there are good officers, they ask, why aren’t they out there denouncing bad cops? But the fact is that these whistleblowers already exist. Detective Joe Crystal testified against other officers in a misconduct case. Officer Regina Tasca pulled her abusive coworkers off of an unarmed 22-year-old they were punching.
It is not to the credit of the police that these two officers were punished for standing up to their brethren. Crystal found himself “a target of intimidation” for his actions, and Tasca was fired. But most police who stand up to their fellows only make the news when they’re then punished: that story fits a pre-existing narrative that drives website traffic. A cop who reveals police corruption and stays on the force isn’t newsworthy, so we rarely hear about it.
None of this is to say that all cops are good. Many are abusive, bullying, or even racist. I hear stories every day of police engaging in appalling behavior. But the activities of bad police are becoming increasingly public, while heroic officers usually only make the local news.