Public support for law enforcement has become a lot more visual than in previous years — Vehicles with blue tape or “thin blue line” bumper stickers voicing their support for law enforcement, Facebook articles or statuses speaking out about how disrespect for law enforcement is antipatriotic or supportive of criminal activity, and so forth. And while it’s easy to sympathize with these statements — after all, law enforcement officers are people too — there is something not being highlighted by this unwavering support that has me both concerned and frightened.
The one major flaw to any of this hero worship could be put simply: law enforcement upholds and enforces laws daily, and while we may support law enforcement officers and their acquaintances, we must be cautionary to defend them at every turn and avoid criticism of their actions. Let me break this down further.
Law enforcement upholds laws, and in the United States they take an oath that states they “will always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.” Allow me to ask you this, dear reader: what if the laws they are enforcing are unconstitutional? Would they be obligated to continue their work despite criticism towards their superiors or legislators? Refusing to enforce these laws could result in termination or even criminal prosecution. Suddenly, the law enforcement officer finds themselves in a puzzling place: they may disagree with the law, but must enforce it as part of their work, otherwise they face grave consequences. What power then does law enforcement have over this issue, besides being an accomplice to the problem? Not to mention that enforcing unconstitutional laws would not only harm everyone in any community, but the oath an officer takes would become contradictory.
The other possibility is that law enforcement could support laws that may not immediately seem unconstitutional, but do violate the Bill of Rights — aws allowing for random search and seizure (“stop and frisk”), laws that restrict firearm ownership in unnecessary ways or that don’t improve the safety of the community (magazine limits, waiting periods, etc.) or laws that restrict an individual’s right to free speech (the outlawing of Holocaust denial in many European nations, blasphemy or hate speech laws). If the police are conscious of the unconstitutionality of the laws they must enforce, but enforce them anyway, are they not complicit in violating our civil liberties?
Another scenario has me even more alert than the first — what if the Constitution is amended in such a way that one of our previously upheld civil liberties becomes restricted, or flat out repealed? Constitutional amendments that have restricted the rights of others are not a fringe possibility. After all, one of the most disastrous amendments to our constitution was the 18th amendment, which made the consumption or production of alcohol illegal. The result of this amendment was the proliferation of gang activity, a public outpour against “vice squads” and other organizations akin to them, and — ironically — created new and deadly challenges for law enforcement that had never been seen on such a large scale. Thankfully, the amendment has since been repealed, but the ability of the powers at be to amend the constitution to restrict our rights or make laws that violate our basic civil liberties — yet defended by an amended constitution — is an ever-present possibility.
We shouldn’t damn our local Joe or Joyce Policeman — they do an incredibly challenging job that few of us would be lining up to do. However, the system of power they are a part of — the enforcement of laws — places them at a sharp razors edge. The protection of our civil liberties, and the defense of those liberties set in stone by our Bill of Rights, is dependent on what laws are passed and enforced, if not what amendments are added to the constitution. We must be ever vigilant to those who wish to file at our liberties and those who might serve them, including all of our law enforcement agencies. They may act as a “thin blue line” against crime or anarchy, but they also must act as a resolute barrier against corruption, oppression and the erosion of our rights. Otherwise, they will merely be another tool of these ever-looming threats.