Police Violence: The Standards Are Topsy-Turvy

Responding to the conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Libertarian National Committee Chair Joe Bishop-Henchman gets it exactly right: “Those who are given authority over others ought to be held to an even higher standard than what is expected of the general public.”

That seems obvious, but when it comes to police officers, the American justice system routinely gets it backward.

I’m not just talking about “qualified immunity,” a pernicious judicial doctrine that sets a higher bar for holding government employees accountable for criminal acts. That’s part of it, but not even close to the whole story.

All too often, police officers accused of unjustified killings successfully but unreasonably cite fear for their own lives as a defense. Chauvin’s unsuccessful invocation of George Floyd’s “superhuman strength” is the exception, not the rule.

Mesa, Arizona police officer Philip Mitchell Braisford executed Daniel Shaver without charge or trial as Shaver crawled — unarmed, following Braisford’s orders, and begging for his life — on a hotel hallway floor.  Braisford was acquitted after claiming he thought Shaver was reaching for a gun — then allowed to rejoin the police force for just long enough to retire, at the age of 28, with a guaranteed pension of $31,000 per year for life.

St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez executed motorist Philando Castile during a traffic stop, firing seven shots into a car which also held Castile’s girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Castile’s crime? Informing Yanez that he was licensed to carry a firearm and that there was one in the car. Yanez, like Shaver, was acquitted after claiming fear for his own life.

Was Braisford’s fear reasonable?  Was Yanez’s?


In 2019, there were 16,425 reported homicides in the US.

Of those, the Washington Post reports, 999 — 6%  — were police shootings, even though cops constitute only about 1/5th of 1% of the population.

To phrase it differently, a police officer was about 30 times as likely as the average American to commit a homicide in 2019. And a police officer on duty is almost certainly carrying a firearm.

Would civilians therefore be justified, based on reasonable fear for their own lives, in gunning down cops on sight, or at least under circumstances similar to the killings of Shaver and Castile?

I certainly don’t recommend it. Nor do I think it likely that a judge or jury would buy it as a defense.

But, unlike police officers, most civilians haven’t attended police academies, received extensive training in appropriate and acceptable uses of force, and been offered badges, government paychecks, and broad authorities over us mere civilians based on successfully completing that training.

In what universe, therefore, should cops be considered LESS responsible for their actions than the rest of us?

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


How “Representative” is US Democracy?

American politicians love to boast of their nation’s status as the world’s premier “representative democracy,” and to lecture other, presumably less enlightened, countries on the importance of representative political institutions. Going by the numbers (which admittedly don’t tell the whole story), there’s good reason to question whether such preening is justified. Among the world’s states, the United States ranks third in population, but 25th in the number of members comprising its national legislative bodies.

The US has more than a thousand times the population of Iceland,  but our House and Senate combined have fewer than ten times as many members as its single-house legislature, the Althing. Icelanders get one representative for every 5,037 inhabitants. Americans get one US Representative or US Senator for every 596,060 inhabitants.

In terms of the ratio of legislators to population, only the European Union and India are “less representative.” Yes, that’s right. The US comes in behind such exemplars of “representative democracy” as China, North Korea,  Russia, Syria, Cuba, and Egypt when it comes to representation.

Of course, it’s reasonable to question the “democracy” part of the “representative democracy” equation for some of those countries compared to the US.  After all, the US would never use authoritarian measures like gerrymandering and restrictive ballot access laws to ensure that only two parties, or even one, have a shot at winning a seat, right? Oh, wait …

The size of the US Senate is fixed in the Constitution at two Senators per state. But the US House of Representatives is constitutionally only limited to a maximum of one Representative per 30,000 inhabitants. A House based on that number would have 11,000 members.

Why, in its wisdom, has Congress fixed the number of US Representatives at 435 since 1929?

The supposed reason is that a larger legislature has a harder time getting things done. Yet the 24 countries besting the US on raw legislator numbers seem to manage. And even if the excuse was true, it might well be a feature, not a bug.

The real reason is, of course, greed for power. No member of Congress wants to dilute the weight of his or her own vote from one in 435 to one in, say, a thousand. On the other hand, no member of Congress wants to risk being downsized back to private life if that number is reduced.

If we want to really do “representative democracy” instead of just posturing and play-acting, a good starting point would be for Congress to increase the size of the House to 1,000 members, and for the states to end the foul practices of gerrymandering and giving special ballot access privileges to two anointed “major” parties.

Or we could stop pretending our “democracy” is more “representative” than Zimbabwe’s or Nicaragua’s.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


A Biden-Putin Summit: Jaw-Jaw is Better than War-War

Vice President Joe Biden greets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Vice President Joe Biden greets Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Russian White House, in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann). Public Domain.

On April 13, US president Joe Biden spoke by phone with Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom he has previously referred to, in pot/kettle fashion, as a “killer.” During the call, Biden proposed a summit between the two in the near future.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Russian chess legend and political exile Garry Kasparov denounces the idea: “A summit? With a killer? In one stroke, Mr. Biden gave Mr. Putin exactly what he craves, equal status with the president of the United States.”

Kasparov is mistaken. Putin already enjoys that equal status. He  rules a country spanning two continents, with a population of 150 million. He commands a nuclear arsenal rivaling that of the US, and armed forces of similar size but with a seemingly much better 21st century record of accomplishing their objectives instead of getting bogged down in decades-long “counter-insurgency” and “nation-building” quagmires ending in embarrassing defeats.

Even if we accept as undiluted truth every bad thing Kasparov tells us about Putin — that he’s a dictator kept in power by oligarchs, that he ruthlessly suppresses domestic political opposition, that his regime meddles in US elections and hacks US computer systems, and that his support for independent republics which seceded from Ukraine after the US-backed coup there in 2014 is a de facto invasion and occupation of Ukraine itself — those things establish, rather than contradict, the fact that Putin is a key actor on the world political stage.

Nor, no matter what we think of Putin, can we deny that the Russian Federation would have real and vexing grievances with the US whether he was running things or not.

In 1990, as eastern Europe’s communist regimes began to disintegrate, western diplomats assured their Russian counterparts that peaceful dissolution of the Warsaw Pact would not result in NATO’s expansion eastward.  They broke their word. NATO has since gobbled up much of the territory in question, impinging Russia’s sphere of influence and massing militarily on its borders. From the Russian perspective, the pro-NATO coup in Ukraine was apparently the last straw.

At the moment, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is more or less  “frozen.” But if it thaws toward war pitting US and NATO troops against Russian forces there likely won’t be any winners.

In 1958, British prime minister Harold Mcmillan, paraphrasing predecessor Winston Churchill, held that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.” He was right. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin need to have a long, serious talk.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.