Secret Police in an Open Society

Last weekend outside a nightclub in Queens New York, police fired fifty shots into a car occupied by three unarmed men, killing 23-year-old Sean Bell--a groom on his wedding day--and seriously injuring the other two. The operation was ostensibly a part of a crackdown on violence in Chelsea nightclubs; questions as to why the operation was taking place in Queens have not been sufficiently answered. Bell and his friends were celebrating the upcoming wedding in a club called Kalua. One or more undercover cops were also drinking in the club, and, apparently suspecting Bell and his friends of unspecified wrongdoing, when they saw the men leave, one of the cops ran out to his car and got his gun and followed after them. He then approached the car Bell and his friends were in, at which point the driver decided to flee, and shot forward, striking the cop and ramming a police van. The cop fired his weapon, at which point all the other cops in the area ran up and started shooting as well, riddling the car Bell was in with approximately 50 shots.

Mayor Bloomberg, to his credit, was quick to address the issue, calling the cops actions "unacceptable". But his remarks focused on the wrong thing, which was the excessive expenditure of ammunition. He seemed to be saying, OK, shoot the guy a couple of times, but not fifty times. The fact that the cops were drinking is more to the point. Police department policy, reputedly, is to allow the cops two drinks each when they are undercover in a bar, but even this is outrageous. Obviously, if they're going to handle weapons they shouldn't be allowed any drinks at all. The police will argue that they need to be seen drinking in order to maintain their cover, and I'm sure that's true, but apparently they maintained it a bit too well. For how could Sean Bell and his friends have known that the man who followed them, stopping to get his gun, was a policeman? Even if he announced it, why should they believe him--a rough looking character who was drinking in a bar? They probably figured, hey, whoever he is, we'd better get out of here, because it sure as hell looks like he's going to shoot us!

The real issue is the existence of undercover police in this country. We live in an open society where secrecy should be banished from the workings of government. It's a large part of what makes freedom possible. Public officials, including cops, have to be held accountable for what they do, and in order to ensure this we need to know what they're doing. Their actions can't be hidden behind a veil of secrecy in the name of crime prevention, or else we open the door to a far more insidious kind of vice. In the same way that the machinations of the courts need to be transparent, so too law enforcement--despite the inconvenience--must be conducted in the bright light of day.

TV glorifies this type of work, which is really dirty and not in the least bit glamorous, and places policemen in unnecessary danger. The police need to set an example, to show by words and deeds that they are above the criminals. How can anyone be expected to have respect for the law if cops are hanging out in bars getting drunk--and much worse? The fact of the matter is that undercover work brings cops down to the level of criminals. Just as cops need to drink to fit in among drinkers, cops who are infiltrating a drug ring have to use drugs themselves, and if they want to catch a pimp they have to frequent prostitutes. Cops get offered bribes to look the other way, and they're not paid all that well. Undercover work necessarily breeds this kind of degeneracy and corruption.

Entrapment is also a dangerous result of undercover work, in particular with the new laws that allow the police to confiscate property without a trial.

Some argue that we need undercover police in order to catch criminals, that if they see uniformed officers they will just go elsewhere to commit their crimes. They are right about this, but there are other social concerns to be addressed, such as poverty, alcohol abuse, drug addiction and mental illness, that, as much as we'd like to pretend otherwise, are not susceptible to any sort of quick fix, and that will continue to plague us no matter how many undercover police we put on the streets. The very existence of poverty in an obscenely wealthy society such as ours is a complex problem that needs to be addressed on many levels; it does not lend itself to a quick fix. Putting spies in among the general populace to apprehend and imprison petty criminals, far from addressing the problem, leads only to a coarsening of society that further reinforces the already vast disparity between the winners and the losers in our cruel Darwinian culture. We as a society have to be able to say that our representatives won't stoop to such levels. It excuses and foments crime if the cops act exactly the same as the criminals. The police force becomes just one more gang out for the same spoils.

Who wants to live in a society where you can't be sure whether or not the guy next to you on the subway is a spy? It breeds a culture of fear and paranoia. Of course, a lot of people argue that if you're not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear, but one thing I believe that the above example of Sean Bell clearly demonstrates is that this is a dangerous oversimplification.

The Reverend Al Sharpton was quick to get himself involved in this controversy--standing beside Sean Bell's family and meeting with Mayor Bloomberg--and of course he was just as quickly excoriated as an opportunist trying to whip up racial strife. Now I can't say whether this is true or not; I don't know what Sharpton's motives are. But whatever his motives, he did at least succeed in keeping the spotlight on this event so it wouldn't be brushed under the carpet. Though this may seem like a whole other issue, it is in fact an example of the very openness I'm talking about. Does Sharpton have the answers? Of course not. I don't know how to solve these problems either. But one thing I do know is that, if we hide them behind a veil of secrecy they never will be resolved. The point is not that we have to solve all the problems at once, but that we have to acknowledge them. Just as we have to stand up openly and confront the criminals in our society, so too we have to have openness in our discourse.