It is only the immediate threat of arrest that keeps most people relatively civilized. People are capable of a lot in terms of criminal activity, but the fear of jail time keeps most of that behavior restrained. There are a surprising number of law-abiding citizens who can suddenly switch over to being violent, out of control opportunists if the scenario changes. Sometimes we see this at sporting events when there's a crowd mentality and people storm the field and tear down the football goal following an emotional victory. People do strange things when they feel they are anonymous and that there is little or no risk of being caught and punished. In essence, what I'm saying is that if we did not have local law enforcement, most cities in the United States would be in a state of chaos. I think we'd have a situation of high violence, gangs and warlord control, sort of like we see today in Somalia.
A lot of people say "Oh, that's ridiculous, that couldn't happen in the United States... people are polite and mild-mannered." And I think that sort of statement misrepresents human nature and the capacity of populations to shift from peaceful, polite populations to out-of-control mobs. The "mob mentality" changes peoples' behavior. People will do things as part of an anonymous mob that they'd never even consider doing on their own. And it's not that I don't have faith in human kind, it's that for most people, when they're given an opportunity to steal from a person, or to harm someone else for their own personal gain without the risk of getting caught, far too many people will pursue that line of action. What are you capable of doing if you were guaranteed you'd never get caught?
We see this sort of human nature at work in the corporate world. We see people at Enron and WorldCom defrauding not only the public, but all their employees in order for a few top executives to take home several hundred million dollars in illicit bonuses and compensation. We see this criminal mentality in the pharmaceutical companies, where people are engaged in the business of essentially poisoning the mass population in order to generate a profit. They actually invent fictitious diseases, things like 'fear of public speaking' or what they call 'social anxiety disorder' in order to create a market for synthetic chemicals that they try to convince people to take for a lifetime. And the amount of harm that's done by these drugs is immeasurable. And yet it's all done in the name of profit.
The bottom line is that the impulse to steal from others for your own personal gain is, sadly, hardwired into human behavior. If you think back to our ancestors, it was to their advantage to steal food and resources from others, because if they could steal food then they wouldn't have to expend the calorie investment required to get their own food. Stealing and exploiting others is, technically, a survival strategy. As such, it's part of human nature today.
I'm sure psychologists can argue one side or the other on this issue all they like, but the bottom line is that human nature really is hardwired in a way that motivates individuals to primarily think about themselves -- to put themselves first, rather than the good of the community. The way that plays out in large cities when there's a lack of law enforcement capacity is that people go on rampages, they commit crimes, hijackings, rapes, burglaries and so on. And part of the evidence supporting this argument is the very fact that some people are so motivated to exploit others for their own personal gain that they will engage in these types of illegal activities even when law enforcement is operating at a high level and the threat of arrest is imminent. Some people will risk jail in order to steal a TV or a VCR from someone's home. Some people will risk a 10-year jail sentence to steal a vehicle. Some people are so violent that they will risk physical harm and imprisonment in order to rape or murder or physically harm another human being.
It is local law enforcement that keeps these people in line, and if the pressure of local law enforcement were removed, we would see a rapid expansion of the criminal element in our local communities. Criminals would seem to come out of the woodwork, and they would pursue all sorts of activities that would cause both physical harm and damage to private property. So that, in a nutshell, is why I strongly support local law enforcement.
You see, the label of "criminal" is misleading. It's not accurate to point at someone and say, "He's a criminal," or "She's not a criminal." Criminality comes in shades of grey. Under the right circumstances, almost everyone is capable of certain acts considered criminal. When you change the risk vs. opportunity equation, you initiate criminal behavior from people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens. This is especially true for property crimes.
If you don't believe this, ask yourself how many people you think might return the cash found in a lost wallet. Taking that cash is a crime because the cash obviously belongs to the owner of the wallet. Yet it's a crime with near-zero risk, because the finder can always say there was no cash in the wallet when they found it (or they can just take the cash and throw the wallet in the trash). What percentage of people do you think will steal the cash?
Let's say that number is 30%. This means 30% of the population has the mentality of "opportunistic crime," meaning that they will steal from others under the right circumstances. And that number, of course, will go up or down depending on how much cash is in the wallet. If you found a wallet with $1,000 in it, would you keep $500 for yourself a call it a "finder's fee?"
Fortunately, there are some people who would return the wallet and the cash. Those are people who operate from an internal code of ethics and honesty. These people don't need law enforcement and, in fact, they tend to be annoyed by law enforcement. I'm one of these "internal ethics" people, and most reader of this site are as well. We know the difference between right and wrong, and we don't need a stack of law books to explain it to us. But the mistake that we tend to make is thinking that everyone else is like us. Because they aren't. There are people who would kill you for $10 without a second thought (or even a first thought, actually). They don't operate with any internal code of ethics, and they only respond to one thing: the threat of violence (being shot by a police officer) or imprisonment (arrest and jail time).
This is why communities need to invest in crime prevention and education. There are things that can be done to reduce crimes against property. There are opportunities for communities to invest in better law enforcement equipment that would help them more quickly process evidence in order to take truly dangerous criminals off the streets. In fact, there are many cities in which the equipment required to convict criminals is really not available, and many law enforcement officials are having to make do with shoddy, outdated equipment that's hampering their effectiveness. By investing in this equipment, the community would get far more convictions of truly dangerous criminals without having to hire any additional personnel. Better equipment really does make a difference.
One other point worth noting in all of this is that I don't agree with the current so-called 'war on drugs.' I think the drug war is a huge failure, that it wastes resources, that it populates our prisons with people who are not violent criminals but just potheads who would do far more good if they could be rehabilitated and put back into society to get jobs, pay taxes, and help support efforts to counter the truly dangerous criminals in society.
I don't think some basement pothead who's getting high and crashing out on his bunk bed needs to be put behind bars. What he really needs, probably, is a college education, and the sad thing is that you could give this guy a full education in the same amount of time and with the same amount of money that it costs to put him in prison. So why not put him in a university instead, and give the guy a future rather than making him an inmate of a federal penitentiary?
But back to the law enforcement issue, I think we owe a great deal to our local law enforcement officers in cities and counties all across this country -- these are men and women who are putting their lives on the line to keep our communities safe so that we can have the luxury of talking about subjects like nutrition, healthcare, physical exercise and how to be healthy, creative, productive human beings rather than spending time defending our homes against warlords and gangs like you'd see in Somalia.
Are there police abuses in this country? Absolutely. In every system of power and control, there is abuse of that power, and law enforcement is no exception. But by and large, local law enforcement provides a tremendous benefit to communities for which they are rarely recognized. Police get no thanks when the streets are safe, but they always get blamed for law enforcement lapses. In law enforcement, it's easy for the public to see when things go wrong, and almost impossible to notice when things go right. After all, if the police are doing their jobs, the community is peaceful and nobody really notices a crime problem. Thus, it's easy for the public to forget that it was, in fact, the local law enforcement presence that made peace possible in the first place.
Because, remember, perhaps 30% of the population harbors a hidden criminal intent if the right circumstances appear.