If I’m honest, my most common encounter with law enforcement on a daily basis is trying to guess where they might park to catch speeders and my maneuvering to avoid a parking ticket. I don’t encounter them at crime scenes or as the enforcers of more serious protection measures.
In all reality, I hardly think about it. I take for granted the fact that we have police, firefighters, and law enforcement officers who protect us. I don’t usually ask what they’re protecting us from or what they’re protecting us for. I mostly try to avoid those speeding tickets while still speeding. There is one intersection in particular that I used to drive to high school, then to college, then to work, where I would try to guess just how much I needed to slow down from my over-the-speed-limit MPH in order to avoid detection.
Once, I was on a plane reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is a love story taking place in the Japantown and Chinatown of Seattle at the beginning of World War II, when law enforcement meant the massive internment of Japanese-Americans. Then, I was back in books like Peace Like a River and To Kill a Mockingbird, where the easy connection between law enforcement and justice is tested and frayed.
I remembered a documentary that PBS ran called Prohibition: Unintended Consequences, where among the consequences of the “noble experiment,” as it was termed at the time, was the corruption of law enforcement. As the summary states, “The sums of money being exchanged during the dry era proved a corrupting influence in both the federal Bureau of Prohibition and at the state and local level. Police officers and Prohibition agents alike were frequently tempted by bribes or the lucrative opportunity to go into bootlegging themselves. Many stayed honest, but enough succumbed to the temptation that the stereotype of the corrupt Prohibition agent or local cop undermined public trust in law enforcement for the duration of the era.” Plea bargaining began en masse during the era, in part, because our legal and justice system couldn’t keep up with the number of cases being brought to trial.
And you’re asking, I’m sure, what do any of these things have in common? My avoidance of speeding tickets and Japanese internment in WWII and justice in To Kill a Mockingbird and Prohibition?
It’s that the enforcement of the law isn’t a given.
It’s that the just enforcement of the law isn’t a given.
It’s that a true and just society built on law isn’t just going to work, because the just enforcement of the law matters.
This year, Jefferson Public Radio (an affiliate of NPR) ran a story about citizen volunteer groups in Josephine County, Oregon that are filling the “public safety vacuum” left by budgetary cuts to local law enforcement and emergency services. The New York Daily News reported that, “Cincinnati and Detroit were among some of the big cities forced to fire scores of cops and firefighters this year after losing millions in funds from Washington.”
And here I am, thinking about my speeding tickets, oblivious to the fact that it is not just a given that the law will be rightly or justly enforced. In the stories I read, I’m asked to consider what happens when an unjust law is enforced, or what happens when law enforcement does not automatically mean a just outcome. And in Prohibition I’m asked to reconsider the assumption that law enforcement is insulated from external pressures and forces - because the law was often overridden and ignored, because bribery and corruption was more common in law enforcement than was justice. And in the story about Josephine County and other places, a lack of law enforcement leads to high levels of burglary and theft, and to the memorable and devastating story of a woman who couldn’t get help, who was not protected.
There should be more to law enforcement than my skills at slipping past a speed gun. I should be fighting and learning more about how to adequately support and resource a police department and what it means for taxes and for public support. I should ask myself the hard questions about the past and what it can teach us about what’s required to ensure that law enforcement is itself protected from corruption. I should ask myself the hard questions about how this connects to impoverished communities, to groups that systemically experience injustice in this system that is supposed to establish and maintain justice.
I should stop thinking about those speeding tickets, because if I want to enjoy the protections of the law, I should know how to keep the law as the sure foundation. I should know how law enforcement and justice are connected.
-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt