The Daily ReTORt

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Should Police Break the Law to Uphold it?

I have a tremendous amount of respect for law enforcement officers at the local, state and federal levels. They put their lives on the line every day, facing the worst aspects of human nature in an effort to "Serve and Protect" civilians like me.
As a former reporter, I’ve made a lot of friends in law enforcement over the years and have a lot of admiration for that profession in general. Having said that, should police be allowed to break the law in an effort to uphold the law they've sworn to protect?

A recent story in the Washington Post by reporter Tom Jackman gives rise to the question. If you click on the link below you’ll read how officers in Fairfax County Virginia lost $300,000 to bring down an online gambling ring that had a few “associates” based in Fairfax.

I’m not so worked up about the money since the lost funds came from evidence seized from other criminal activity, and the gamblers that got caught in this sting will pay it back – although over the next 20+ years.

My issue is whether or not it’s a good idea to have law enforcers embracing the role of law breakers? There are strong opinions on both sides.

On the "yes" side of the argument, detectives and undercover cops that work vice details need to be perceived as criminals to move up in illegal enterprises to bring down top-tier masterminds. That ascent (or descent) into the underworld may require unseemly criminal activity. I understand that.

However, on the “no” side of the ledger, I wonder how much energy, personnel and resources are wasted in cops playing robbers? In the Fairfax case, none of the gamblers who were caught will serve jail time. Was justice served in that instance? It doesn’t seem so.

I guess what I’m saying is that police work seems unique in that it sanctions some of its fraternal members to apply Machiavellian tactics toward a nebulous anti-crime goal at any cost.

Imagine if that mentality was widespread in other professions, say if doctors made people sicker; teachers made students dumber or farmers grew inedible food – all toward some vague greater good. It’s not possible and doesn’t make sense.

Shouldn’t law enforcement be a beacon of light to dispel darkness, rather than becoming the darkness?


  1. I am going to have to go with what may be the minority of your readers (and even you) on this one. I do see a difference in the people sworn to protect and serve (police) and say the doctor making people sicker for some other greater good. I have been involved in undercover work myself. Though it has been many, many years - I still see the value in the work I did. Take, for example, sending an underage (under 21) teenage or young adult into an establishment known for selling alcohol to minors. You are verifying by having an undercover operation in place that this illegal activity is happening.

    I think it is sad to have to fight this fire with fire, so to speak - but sometimes I don't see other ways of accomplishing the same tasks. (In this example, and similar cases - taking the crime off the streets, out of our stores, etc.)

    So, ultimately, yes - I do think that having undercover operations are sometimes necessary. Does it make it fair? No. Right? Not necessarily all the time. Necessary at times? Yes, I think so.

    And, in relation to your final thought about "law enforcement be a beacon of light to dispel darkness, rather than becoming the darkness" I would have to say yes to this- but with reservation. I do believe they are still to be a beacon of light. I do not believe they are becoming the darkeness in this equation, so much as exposing it. That's my take.

    (And, one final thing - I do understand that there are extremes on either side of the coin. There are, and unfortunately always will be "dirty cops" and those who abuse their authority. I differentiate the two very clearly.)

  2. @Laura, wow - what a great response! Thanks so much for taking the time and sharing your insights. Your perspective and points are absolutely valid. Most of the writings I post here are very "black and white" with very little room for gray - but you're absolutely correct in your observations that not everything is cut and dry. Thanks again for keeping me honest!