Some thoughts on the latest big police disaster headline
Hello liberty lovers of Riverside County!
In the News: Tyre Nichols
Tyre Nichols’s death was a major piece of the news cycle for a bit. If you are unaware of this situation, a few minutes of googling will bring you all the details you can stand, including multiple bodycam recordings. The short form of the story, however, runs thus: Nichols was pulled over in Memphis for “reckless driving,” and was almost immediately attacked by police. He ran away from the first few officers after they pepper sprayed and tased him, but was caught a few minutes later by another group, who essentially beat him to death.
Let’s discuss all this a bit from the Libertarian perspective, because this is a place where some thinking from outside the authoritarian-duopoly box may suggest important lessons and solutions.
Before we get into that, though, let’s get the two competing narrative truths involved here out of the way. Based on statistics around such incidents, it is demonstrably true that if Tyre Nichols had been fully compliant right from the start his chances of death would have been extremely low; he would have been deeply inconvenienced (and rightfully insulted) by the whole thing, but would have made it home. Based on the bodycam footage, it is also demonstrably true that the Memphis police went out of their way to be terrifyingly, aggressively confrontational from the moment Nichols put his car in Park; they turned the traffic stop into a horrifying assault, giving him no real reason to be fully compliant and every reason to fear for his life. Those things can both be true, and are both true. Unfortunately, for the authoritarians on both the right and the left this is the whole argument, which misses several very important factors.
With that dealt with, let’s talk about a few things that jump out from the released footage and the details we have at this stage:
The Implications of Unmarked Police Cars
The cars in the initial stop look unmarked, and the cars driven by the pack of cops that ultimately killed Nichols look mostly unmarked. In fact, it has been revealed that this group is part of a “special task force” that cruises around in stealth mode pulling people over more or less at random to check for illicit activity. Putting aside that this is just stop-and-frisk perpetrated in traffic, the whole idea of an unmarked police car is atrocious. You should be able to spot a police car from space. If the police are genuinely about public safety, they should be as visible in their operations as possible. What this unmarked interdiction patrol implies, however, is that some part of the Memphis police department isn’t really about public safety. They’re about sneaking around to surprise people. That’s not policing, it’s gang thuggery behind a badge.
The Blessing of Bodycam Footage
Fortunately, we have the bodycam footage from the officers involved. This is the single greatest policing innovation of our modern era. Without it, Tyre Nichols is a sad statistic: another random black man dead in a tussle with police. With it, we see a pack of predators working over a terrified citizen (ultimately killing him) and congratulating themselves about it. While we Libertarians would prefer to see quite a bit of the police edifice dismantled, if it’s going to exist then it must exist in a way that ensures maximum transparency. That transparency is non-negotiable, because it is the only path toward the true greater good: personal accountability.
(And it is worth noting that bodycams protect the police from wrongful and abusive allegations, too. That cannot be denied, but it is outside our scope here today).
The Crucial Importance of Personal Accountability
The biggest problem with the huge government that we’re burdened with today is that it enables the collectivization of accountability. More simply put, government allows things to not be any specific person’s fault; instead, things are the fault of “the system.” This is why all the culture-war arguments about this kind of thing (“not all cops!” “defund the police!” “what if they were white!?”) are ultimately meaningless: they are arguments about “the system” and not the specific people involved.
There are seven specific people involved here: Tyre Nichols and the six men who killed him. Who they all were and what system they were all working within are downstream of that, but watch the news coverage around this carefully to see the system become the focus instead of the people. Everybody’s going to focus on the system, because we’re all trained to not focus on individuals, but focusing on the individuals is exactly what needs to happen here. Fortunately, there is a Libertarian solution to the “system” problem that allows the individuals involved to stay in focus.
End qualified immunity. QI is the system-shield behind which goons with badges hide. QI is the only reason ninja-cops in unmarked cruisers can trawl Memphis and randomly yank people out of their cars. It immunizes officers from prosecution for all but the most heinous abuses of power. That needs to end. Equality under the law must be sacrosanct. Police officers need to be individually accountable for their actions, just like every other citizen (and they are citizens. We’re all “civilians,” and police officers using the term need to remember that).
And accountability here isn’t just criminal liability, it’s civil, too. Tyre Nichols’s family is assuredly headed for a multimillion-dollar payout from the city government of Memphis. Who pays that? The citizens of Memphis. After the citizens of Memphis pay the salaries of the prosecutor and the judge. After the money soaked off the citizens of Memphis by the police union is spent paying for union defense attorneys. After all the citizens of Memphis have already paid into “the system,” they will now be put on the hook for 7 figures in wrongful death compensation to the Nichols family. Why? Qualified immunity.
In a world without QI, police officers would be responsible not just for their own criminality, but for their own civil liability. Individual officers would need to be individually bonded, purchasing malpractice insurance just like doctors (and lawyers, and plumbers, and tree-trimming guys, and all kinds of contractors whose screw-ups might cause you harm). They would be on the hook themselves for their misconduct. Just like you are.
The Local Angle
What does any of this mean here in Riverside County? Well, we’ve got a sheriff’s department and a host of city police departments that can hide behind QI just like the Memphis cops can. Maybe it’s time for that to get looked at here.
Credit where it’s due: Sheriff Bianco was quick to denounce Nichols’s death and call for the prosecution of the officers involved. That’s good, but it’s also easy to do when it’s happening “over there.” It’s much harder to do that when it’s happening right here. Calling for accountability from “those officers” is easy. Looking a real person in the eye and demanding he be accountable is hard in our modern age.
The police shoot people in Riverside County and its cities on a regular basis. The police conduct shadowy operations and raids on a regular basis. All that behavior must be transparent, so that bad actors can be held accountable. If it can’t be made transparent, it’s too dangerous for “the system” to be trusted with it.
And this transparency is as much a protection to the good cops as it is to the normal people victimized by bad cops. Riverside County Deputy Sheriff Isaiah Cordero was shot and killed recently by a violent felon who should have still been in jail. Cordero’s killer was enabled by “the system” every bit as much as the six monsters who executed Tyre Nichols. “The system” allows individuals (be it the Memphis cops or a San Bernardino judge) to escape responsibility for all but the most heinous deeds. It’s going to take all of us pushing hard for maximum transparency to start correcting that. Libertarian National Committee Chair Angela McArdle has even more thoughts on this.
LPCA 2023 Convention 2/17-19/23. Held this year in Sacramento, this is the annual state officer election and business meeting. It also has a raft of great speakers every year. This year includes Spike Cohen, Larry Sharpe, and Connor Boyack. The full schedule is here. Most of the RCLP Executive Committee are going, and we’ll share a report of the highlights once we get back and get our thoughts together.
Closing Thoughts from the Chair
There’s a lot in this newsletter about government transparency. But what does that mean for you, a normal libertarian (or libertarian-leaning) citizen of Riverside County? What can you do about “the system”? I invite you to become a Liberty Lookout in your community. You have an opportunity (and some might say responsibility or even duty) as a citizen to be part of the transparency that government requires. It has to be watched by somebody, and you need to be one of those somebodies. Find a local government institution that interests you and shadow it. Maybe read your city council’s agendas, or watch your school board meetings. Figure out what the water board even is. Pick something, and become the liberty lookout that watches it for trouble. As you find that group doing something stupid (and you will) contact us, and let’s see if we can work together to make some noise about it.
It takes everybody in the village to make sure nobody becomes the village tyrant.