If the police found a dead body in the back of your car, hands tied behind the back, with a hole in the head, and your defense was that the person shot himself, how do you think they would react?
And yet this has happened in police cars at least three times. This time, in Durhman, North Carolina, a teenager, searched, arrested, handcuffed behind his back, shoved in the back of a police car, supposedly shot himself in the head with a firearm the police apparently had failed to find. If the cops’ story is true, we have a case of a suicidal young man who could have easily made a fortune on the Vegas strip mimicking David Copperfield, or at least done well as a contortionist on a traveling circus act.
The police chief explains: “I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back. . . . While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.”
Yes, they’ve happened in other jurisdictions. Or so other police have said.
Now, one doesn’t have to be a paranoid troublemaker to suggest another possible scenario.* A good detective would consider alternatives in the case of any homicide, and if a non-police officer were found with a body in the back of his car, the presumption would probably not be suicide. Of course, it is at least possible that the cops in this case are simply lying—that they had held the gun to the boy’s head to instill fear in him, and they accidentally fired the weapon, killing him, and came up with a ridiculous story to cover it up—one so ridiculous it just might work, as it’s apparently worked before. The other possibility, which in a sane world anyone would realize is also much more likely than suicide, is that a police officer simply murdered the kid in cold blood, execution-style, for whatever reason.
If the inquiry goes as it usually does, and the officers involved simply take a little time off and come back to work in a month or so, I predict we will be seeing this kind of thing happen much more often. If all it takes to explain this away is “he must have shot himself,” any economist will tell you the incentive structure will encourage more such mystery shootings.
There will be some outrage over this, some demands for more police accountability and transparency, as there always are. But it will not result in any sort of actual change in policy or meaningful restraint of officers. For one thing, American culture is thoroughly statist when it comes to law enforcement issues. It is the one area where folks skeptical of government are most likely to cave, as respectable members of society still fear ordinary street crime more than the police state emerging around them. Modern American police forces are characterized by gangsterism and a fetishization of “officer safety” as the primary value. The rest of us are just potential collateral damage in their war on crime. And perversely enough, there exists among conservative and other circles this myth that the media are too hard on police, and so they work overtime to support their local law enforcers. In truth, of course, the mass media hardly report the daily killings, injuries, false imprisonments, rapes, burglaries, and crime sprees police are responsible for in most urban jurisdictions nationwide.
More fundamentally, government monopolies are prone toward corruption and a lack of accountability. It’s in their very nature. The main arguments free-marketers might have against government monopolies in education or medicine apply at least as well to the original sin—the government’s monopoly over law itself. It is this power, after all, that allows government to monopolize anything else, by threatening legal violence against those who refuse to obey. Because the state has a monopoly on law enforcement, we can never expect government police to operate with any more accountability toward the public or respect for individual rights than we can expect of any other state socialist entity. Of course, there are degrees of horror and folly, and the U.S. police situation is surely moving toward one extreme rather than the other. It would be nice to see things move the other way, but the impossibility of a truly civil and moral governmental police system must be acknowledged.
*I should note that as a radical skeptic, I am open to the possibility that this kid and the two other suspects indeed committed suicide. I have no idea how and why, but I suppose it’s a metaphysical possibility. In terms of probability, however, it’s hard to imagine a more slam-dunk case that the officers are responsible for the boy’s death. Most prison inmates were convicted on much less evidence than we have here. Which is why I think it’s important to flip this whole spectacle around and imagine it was your everyday person caught with a dead body, shot in the head and handcuffed in the backseat. There is no reason we should give any benefit of the doubt to police that we wouldn’t for anyone else.