My life as a tyrant
I’m going to say something that will undoubtedly cause me to lose some police officer friends. But I feel it needs to be said anyway. I’m willing to take the heat for it.
Keep in mind, I became a police officer because I wanted to be a good guy. Even though we’ve all seen reports of police brutality and corruption, I still believe we cops are the good guys. I’ve seen cops perform brave, selfless acts for strangers on countless occasions. Even the worst cops I’ve ever known would risk their lives to defend the innocent. But I have to say this anyway. Before you start throwing shoes, hear me out. I have a good reason for saying it.
If you think our police are no threat to your freedom, you’re living in a fantasy world.
Now I’ll explain what I mean. I worked for the United Nations Police Mission in Kosovo for eighteen months. I wasn’t there as a soldier. I was a civilian cop, living in town, basically a Kosovo PD officer. For part of my tour I worked patrol with a group of international officers and local police. We had officers from America, the UK, Germany and Greece, plus local Kosovar Albanians. The Americans were regular street cops from police departments all over the United States.
One of the American officers in my station came from a very wealthy suburban police department. My cop stories were about murders, fights and chases; his were about citizens having garage sales without permits. For some reason, citizens selling things without permits aggravated him to no end.
In postwar Kosovo, many tens of thousands of war refugees lived in the capital. Not enough jobs existed to support them all. Many of them became vendors in a sprawling, dirty bazaar. They supported their families by selling cheap Turkish and Pakistani housewares and trinkets. Under old Yugoslav law, which was still the legal standard, those vendors had to have permits. Few bothered to stand in line at a dilapidated government building to pay for a permit.
This officer – I’ll call him Joe – became infuriated every time he patrolled the bazaar. He’d find vendors without permits, then ticket and berate them. He’d make note of other illegal vendors so he could ticket them later. He’d even drive through the bazaar off-duty to spot illegal vendors for future targeting. He’d vent his anger about illegal vendors at us, which always made me laugh. I didn’t care the least bit about vendors without permits, and thought Joe would eventually get over it. I was wrong.
Joe got so mad at illegal vendors that he researched Yugoslav law. We had been advised not to do anything that violated the Bill of Rights, but officially Yugoslav law was still in effect. And Joe discovered he could use Yugoslav law to do something about those damn illegal vendors.
Joe put a plan together. Officers from a couple of stations, along with some NATO troops, would go through the bazaar, identify which vendors had no permits, and confiscate all their merchandise. Local Albanian Kosovo Police Service (KPS) officers would assist. A large NATO truck would follow the officers so they could load all the confiscated items. All the seized property would immediately be donated to charity organizations.
When I heard the plan, I was amazed. Then I got angry. Why would anyone, in a country which had suffered through a horrible war less than two years earlier, think vendors without permits were such a big deal? We didn’t have a crime problem in the bazaar, the only reason we were going in there was because Officer Joe had a personal issue with the vendors. And wouldn’t an operation like that violate people’s rights?
I argued against the operation, and was overruled. Since Yugoslav law allowed it, we were doing it. I was ordered to take my team of KPS officers and participate.
The day of the operation, I forced myself to show up for work. My KPS officers were angry, frustrated and hesitant. They didn’t want to do to their people what we were about to make them do. But their jobs and livelihood, like mine, depended on following those orders. So we walked out of the station toward the bazaar.
An officer from a European country met me outside the bazaar, held out a stack of papers and sternly ordered, “Take these. You’ll need them to document what you confiscate.”
I kept my hands down. “I’m not taking them. I think this is wrong. We can’t just take people’s property.”
The officer held the papers out further. “It doesn’t matter. They’ve been warned. Take the forms.”
I didn’t move, or respond. The officer maintained his stern demeanor for a few seconds. Then, seeing that I wasn’t going along with it, he backed down.
“Okay, fine. Just take some forms, in case you change your mind.”
I took a few forms and stuck them in my pocket. The next time they came out, later that afternoon, I dumped them in the trash.
The operation began. Dozens of officers entered the bazaar, followed by NATO soldiers and their cargo truck. The vendors initially didn’t know what was happening. Then cops walked up to stalls and asked for permits. Nobody had them. The cops grabbed everything they had and threw it into the back of the truck.
Hundreds of vendors picked up their wares and ran. The slow ones were accosted and stripped of their possessions. KPS officers swarmed me, saying, “We can’t do this! This is what the Serbs used to do!” I stood back, watching the chaos in angry silence, and said something in Albanian. It was a phrase I never in my life expected to say.
“Ne jeme komunista sot.” We are communists today.
Our KPS officers were ordered, forced, to join in. They grudgingly helped take the property, although a few from another station were enthusiastic about it. Customers in the bazaar stood close by and yelled insults at the KPS officers, or screamed things like “Why are you doing this?” One KPS officer almost got into a fight he didn’t want to be in, over something he didn’t want to do, with one of the customers. Guilt was obvious on the KPS officer’s face. That was hard to watch.
I stayed back. Officer Joe, the illegal vendor hater, picked out an old man selling bananas. The old man, who looked about eighty but was probably younger, struggled to pick up boxes of bananas before the truck arrived. Officer Joe reached the old man’s stall, tore a box from the old man’s hands and threw it in the truck. The old man grabbed the next box. Joe fought it away.
I remember standing there in impotent frustration, thinking, So now we’re literally wrestling food away from old men. This is disgusting.
I finally managed to grab a handful of KPS officers and leave. I stayed at the station until the operation ended, angry at what we had done and at myself for being part of it. I had stood by and done nothing as a fellow cop turned us into petty tyrants. That still bothers me.
Joe beamed with pride when he came back to the station. As he promised, all the confiscated property was donated that day. No vendors had been ticketed. None received receipts for their property. None had recourse to recover what had been taken. If police did that here, they would be charged with a crime.
Later that day I argued my way up the chain of command that the operation had been wrong, we shouldn’t have done it and should never do it again. An Irish officer agreed with me. But a senior American officer listened to me with a disinterested expression and said, “Look man, it’s legal here. So I don’t have a problem with it.”
I learned a lot from that operation. Prior to it, I had been something of an idealist about cops. I thought American cops would go by what’s right and wrong instead of looking for what they can legally get away with. I know now that cops like Joe have no problem violating people’s rights, as long as they have some “official” way to do it.
Maybe you’re thinking, “But this was in another country, so it’s okay.” I don’t think so. I took an oath to defend the Constitution, not to enforce any law no matter what it is. If I go to Afghanistan as a cop, I’m not going to beat women for walking the street without a male relative, even if it’s legal there.
So why do I tell this story now? This might seem like an abrupt topic change, but it isn’t. It’s directly related.
I keep hearing we don’t need the 2nd Amendment. I keep hearing the 2nd Amendment is an anachronism. I keep hearing that it was written for a time long past, when we had to worry about foreign invasion and government tyranny. I keep hearing the 2nd Amendment should be repealed because there’s no threat of tyranny today.
I’ll agree that we don’t currently worry about foreign invasion. But we ALWAYS have a worry about government tyranny. Don’t tell me, “it can’t happen here.” I know better. I was there when Officer Joe stole people’s property, because he had a personal vendetta and knew he could get away with it. Don’t tell me police officers won’t engage in tyranny. I’ve seen it.
Joe was, in many ways, a good guy. He wasn’t a horrible, hateful man who just oozed evil from every pore. He and I had a lot of decent conversations about life (and a HELL of a lot of arguments about what limits our authority should have). No doubt he did good things for people in the past, and probably did good things after Kosovo. He likely never did anything like the bazaar operation in America. But he did it in Kosovo, because he COULD.
Our founding fathers were incredibly intelligent, insightful men. They knew an external threat of invasion could exist. And more importantly, they knew an internal threat of tyranny would always exist. They knew that even basically good guys like Joe can let their personal hatreds control their official actions. They knew that even Officer Chris Hernandez might maybe, once or twice, have a little nagging thought like, There should be an automatic death penalty for anyone who drives through a quiet neighborhood at 3 a.m. blaring gangster rap. They knew I better have threats over my head, to keep me from carrying out that death sentence.
The founding fathers knew guys like me and Joe need to be controlled. They wrote the 4th Amendment so we would have to follow rules when we took people’s property. And they wrote the 2nd Amendment so that if we ever decided not to care about citizens’ rights, the citizens could forcibly change our minds.
This nation was formed by armed rebellion. Our freedoms were maintained by armed resistance to foreign threats. Our police and military exist to protect the rights that many hundreds of thousands of brave, armed Americans died for. We serve the descendants, family and friends of those men and women. We call them “sir” or “ma’am”, even if they’re a laborer and we’re a police chief or 4-star General. We don’t bend them to our will, we don’t strip their rights “for their own good”. We don’t repeal the Bill of Rights in order to protect them from the sometimes horrible consequences of freedom.
As I’ve said before, I don’t speak for anyone but me. Many, many cops will vehemently disagree with me about this (which might sort of prove my point). But I WANT law-abiding citizens to have guns. I WANT them to have a means to defend themselves from ME. I DON’T want the people I’ve sworn to defend worrying about Officer Joe and his friends taking their property on a whim. I feel ZERO threat, absolutely none, from lawfully armed good citizens.
I’ve been a cop in Texas for almost 19 years. I’ve interacted countless times with armed homeowners, business owners, and concealed carry permit holders. I’m absolutely comfortable knowing that they’re not helpless lambs, totally dependent on me for their safety and freedom. I’m there to protect good citizens from criminals; citizens have weapons to protect themselves not just from criminals, but also from me and Officer Joe.
That’s how it should be. That’s why we have a 2nd Amendment. And officers like me and Joe are why it shouldn’t be repealed.
NOTE ADDED 3/3/13: I’ve received a lot of interesting replies to this post today. Many of them point out my failure to act that day in the bazaar. Fair enough; this post obviously isn’t a defense of what I did. I don’t think there’s any way to interpret this story as a boast about my inability to stop something I knew was wrong. I admit guilt and don’t flinch from the criticism.
However, some of the comments have gone way beyond simple analysis of my actions, or justifiable criticism of law enforcement. There have been calls for violence against police, accusations that the President is a Nazi, claims that the federal government is preparing for all-out war against the citizens, etc. I’ve deleted those comments.
On the “how I roll” page I describe the rules I follow writing this blog. The comments I receive don’t have to follow the same guidelines, but those like I just described won’t be posted. This blog isn’t anti-police, anti-government, or a place for people to vent all their anger and suspicions about any political party, federal government agency or elected representative.
I welcome rational, intelligently presented dissenting opinions. This is a site where I hope reasonable people can calmly discuss important issues. It’s not a place for internet tough-guyism, veiled threats made from the anonymous safety of a computer, or expressions of support for any revolution.
Because I love this country, the last thing I’ll ever advocate is warfare between citizens and any arm of the government. The vast majority of police officers, members of the military and American citizens are fantastic people. We as a nation are strong enough to correct problems, even those we’re facing today, with discussion instead of violence.