Do you read Reason.com? You should. It can be pretty discouraging, but it’s the best course in American civics you’ll find, anywhere. If you want to learn about freedom in practice, and how to limit freedom, in practice, go here.
The latest story is about a kindergartner arrested and placed in handcuffs for throwing a temper tantrum. You sort of wish the police would say, when they receive a call like that from the school, “You’re kidding me, right? You want me to come down to the school to deal with a kindergartner who’s throwing things? What do you want me to do, handcuff the little girl?” When the principal says, “That’s right, we want you to come down here right away,” The police dispatcher says, “Okay, I’ll tell the officer to bring some tear gas, too.”
Every organization has its standard operating procedures. Police officers, when they’re called out to a disturbance, have a standard pair of protocols: arrest and handcuff. If that doesn’t work, call in backup, which usually means heavy weapons. Police used to be human relations experts, where they would try to calm things down before they did anything else. Not so much anymore. When they open their toolkit, they find a pair of handcuffs and a booking form.
So when a school principal decides to call the police, they’re in effect saying, “We can’t handle this. We want you to come down and arrest a troublemaker.” That’s the situation even if the troublemaker is a kindergartner! We have to figure that elementary school staff, from the principal on down, aren’t human relations experts any more, either. If a six-year-old starts to act out, haul her butt down to the police station and let her cool off down there. That’s something she’ll remember the next time she starts to throw stuff.
Pretty soon, parents will start to call the police when their son or daughter doesn’t do the dishes. I smile to think of my daughter’s rap sheet, if I called in the local police every time she gave me trouble over the years. The judge would not give her time off good behavior! Do school principals, teachers, and other school staff, all of whom have the difficult role of substitute parents, actually want to carry out their responsibilities with help from the police?
Police carry guns. They shoot innocent people, like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I’m not saying the police would shoot a six-year-old girl throwing a tantrum, but the stories of police mistakes and deadly incidents multiply. Years ago I wrote about a fifteen-year-old in a high school who showed a toy gun or something similar. The school called the police. The police arrived, told the student to drop the weapon, then gunned him down in the hallway. He died on the spot. The protocol now for weapons cases is pretty standard: say drop it and then open fire. Do school staffs really want to include a call to the police as a first response to any sign of trouble? Have we become that edgy?
If the answer is yes, we should do what we can to make police less edgy. The Missouri governor did the right thing to replace the local police in Ferguson with state highway patrol officers. The behavior of local police was clearly not helping matters. Police all over the country are using SWAT teams to serve warrants! Federal, state, and local armies invaded Boston to occupy it for a day, to search for one person. They all left at suppertime, their training exercise completed, well before local police found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, nearly dead, hidden in a boat in a backyard.
Let’s settle things down. Let’s put human relations skills and conflict resolution methods, not automatic weapons, in the top compartments of police toolkits. We do not need to arrest six-year-olds for throwing temper tantrums.