The One Thing a Cop Can Do

Posted in: Law Enforcement

What tasks can only be performed by the police? This is the first question we should ask when talk turns to police reform, since the answer supplies us with the irreducible minimum of the police function. If, for instance, we were to conclude that there is no task in a modern municipality that can only be performed by law enforcement, we would know that at least in theory, we do not need a police force. If, on the other hand, we determine there is one or more tasks that the police must do, we can turn our attention to the even more pressing question: what should they do? These are the questions I will explore in this and upcoming essays.


There is only one thing the police can do that cannot be done by anyone else: Police can lawfully interfere with a person’s freedom of movement. When authorized by a prior written law like a statute or an ordinance, the police can force a person to move from Point A to Point B, or prevent a person from moving from Point B to Point C. That’s it. As far as I can see, no one but the police have the legal power to interfere with movement in this way, and everything else we ask of the police—apart from interfering with movement—can be done by someone else. (I leave aside issues like self-defense, where a person can lawfully use force to prevent another’s attack, and situations authorizing a citizen’s arrest.)

You might think I am being unfair to policing, but think about it. Let’s say a home has been burglarized. The owner returns home, discovers the crime, and calls the police. The purpose of calling the police is so they might find the person who did it and arrest them for violating the law—that is, so they might control that person’s movement. Sure, the owner might also call the police because she wants a record of the loss for insurance purposes. But there is no reason why the person who inventories her loss and takes a statement about what happened has to be a police officer. By habit, we assign that job to the police, but someone else could easily do it, like an insurance adjustor or a neighborhood representative, who in turn would pass that information along to the police.

Wait, you say. Don’t the police also conduct forensic investigations at the home? As a practical matter, that is extremely unlikely; the police can’t commit forensic resources to every residential burglary. But perhaps they would if the burglary were accompanied by a more serious crime, like a sexual assault. Yet there is no reason why the forensic investigation has to be conducted by the police department. We think of it as a police function because that’s how things have always been in this country, but that alone is no reason to maintain the status quo. Indeed, given some of the well-documented scandals in crime labs, there is good reason to transfer that responsibility to an independent agency that is completely removed from the police or prosecutors.

The only thing a police officer can do in the case of the residential burglary that no one else can do is arrest the burglar—that is, interfere with their freedom of movement. And residential burglary is just an illustration; what I have written holds for virtually every completed crime. Imagine a theft, a robbery, an assault, or even a homicide. If the crime has been completed, the tasks that can only be completed by the police are very few.

In fact, the same is true for much ongoing crime. Let’s say two groups are exchanging gunfire, and a neighbor calls the police. The police presence makes a difference only because it is backed by the lawful authority to take the gunfighters into custody. Indeed, it is backed by the lawful authority to use lethal force if necessary to protect the lives of others—the ultimate interference with a person’s freedom of movement. Once the crime is completed, however, it becomes like our residential burglary; everything the police might do to investigate the incident could be done by someone else.

Let’s say, for instance, they want to examine spent shell casings found at the scene. That’s a job for our independent crime lab. What about interviewing witnesses? That too can be done by others, like trained, independent investigators who are not under the direction or authority of the police or prosecution. They could take statements and provide them, as neutral parties, to the police; if a defendant were charged, they could deliver the statement to both the defense and prosecution. Indeed, given that many neighborhood residents mistrust the police and refuse to talk to them, perhaps this task should be transferred to others.

If this is true for gunplay, it is also true for any number of crimes: The only thing a cop can do that no one else can do is interfere with freedom of movement. And sometimes, even that is not particularly helpful. Think about domestic violence. Surely that is a situation that demands the police, right? Wrong. Again, the only power a cop has that no one else has is to take an abuser into custody—that is, to restrain their freedom of movement. Yet victims of domestic violence frequently do not report the abuse because they do not want their abuser arrested and prosecuted; an arrest and prosecution does not provide a long-term solution to the problem, and may in fact make it worse (since the abuser is apt to be released in a matter of hours or days).

Instead, they want things the police cannot provide—like counseling, a safe place to stay, help with restraining orders, a sympathetic ear, etc. They want help getting their life back together when it has been torn apart by the person they love. Some jurisdictions provide officers with a few hours of training in these areas, but it is not remotely comparable to the skills brought to the task by licensed social workers or counselors with relevant expertise who can help repair the damage that has been done. If a domestic violence call demands restraining someone’s freedom of movement in order to keep someone else safe, that is a call for law enforcement, but everything else can and should be handled by others who are far better equipped.

What about disorder? Suppose there is a vacant house that has attracted prostitutes, the homeless, and drug users. Neighbors call the police. But what can the police do in that situation? The only power they have is to make the disorder disappear by moving people from Point A to Point B. But the problem exists because you have a vacant home. It is not, in other words, a crime problem; it is a housing problem, and you can’t build a house with handcuffs. We routinely ask the police to make disorder disappear, but is that the best use of our resources? Wouldn’t society be better off if we used the same resources to fix vacant homes and create affordable housing? Asking the police to “fix” disorder this way is like trying to fix a leaky roof by buying a bigger mop.


The point of this brief exercise is simply to make clear that many of the tasks reflexively assigned to the police can and probably should be performed by others. Once you recognize this, you begin to see that the call to defund the police isn’t radical at all; it’s perfectly sensible. It is nothing more than a call for the police to do what they alone can do, and to shift responsibility for everything else to those who can do it much better. In future essays, I will explore what that might look like. But as you think about police reform, ask yourself, “What is the one thing a cop can do?”

Posted in: Law Enforcement

Tags: Police

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