By Alfred Regnery, LE Action Chairman
Protesters, this time in St. Louis, have once again rioted following the acquittal of a white police officer for the 2011 shooting of a black drug dealer during a high-speed car chase. The officer, charged with murder, was acquitted after a lengthy investigation and bench trial.
It is ironic that the St. Louis protests occurred on Constitution Day—the 230th anniversary of the approval of the Constitution by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The riots give us reason to look at what this unique document has to say about policing and the rule of law.
Police are the government officers most often encountered by Americans. They are, in that regard, Americans’ first defenders of the rule of law—the single most important factor that preserves and maintains a free, just and civil society. In countless cultures and countries, the police have been and many still are the tool of dictators and tyrants, abusing the citizenry at will and without restraint.
But since its ratification in 1788, the United States Constitution and the body of law that has developed from it, American citizens are protected from abuse and unreasonable behavior by the police, and provided with access to a (mostly) fair and reasonable system of justice. Where abuses have occurred—and to be sure, there have been many abuses—they have largely been corrected by the courts, often in cases that have forever strengthened the law protecting citizens.
Use of force is a necessary and crucial component of policing. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study reports that approximately 44 million Americans had some sort of face-to-face contact with police each year between 2002 and 2011, and that about 700,000 of those experienced the threat of or actual use of force by the officer. No doubt each one of those threats or actual use of force was a little different, and different calculations went into the determination, on the part of the officer, whether to threaten, whether to actually use force, and if so how much force and with what sort of instrument—be it a nightstick, Taser, pepper spray, simply a hand or a handgun—should be used.
Contrary to the beliefs and accusations of the St. Louis protesters and their many sympathizers, the use of force is not something taken lightly by any law enforcement officer, and it is highly regulated. Originating with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures, a large body of law has developed that dictates what police can and cannot do.
In crafting that body of law, the courts have carefully balanced the interests of the police and the public against the rights of those arrested or against whom force might be threatened or used. In addition, many jurisdictions have developed their own sets of standards, some stricter than the established law, which provide guidelines for their own departments.