In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
For the past six-plus years, I have served as an assistant prosecutor in Cabell County. I am writing today not as a prosecutor but as a citizen of Cabell County.
In my career, I have gotten to know many of our local law enforcement officers. I have worked with them, grabbed lunch with them and become friends with them. Sometimes I have also questioned them, argued with them and disagreed with them. Not every law enforcement officer is the same. What these men and women have in common is that they are asked by us to do a job that is beyond what humans should be asked to do — often without thanks. Sometimes, an unfortunate reality of the job we have asked them to do requires the use of force — sometimes even deadly force.
“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” according to Isaac Asimov, and he was right. This includes the kind of direct violence by police officers at the street level and the indirect violence of taking away the freedom of citizens by prosecutors like myself. The times when police officers MUST use violence are supposed to be the times when they have failed — failed to preserve peace, failed to de-escalate, failed to find a nonviolent solution. It is the same failure that marks every time I send someone to prison: It is a time I have failed to find a way to keep society safe and a citizen free at the same time. Failure, in these circumstances, is unavoidable — but it still exists.
While this justified violence by law enforcement and the justice system is an unfortunate reality, it is not a virtue. Many of my friends in policing and prosecution view this violence as the virtue of their position, and they see their use of force as necessarily virtuous because it is done on the side of “right.” The truth, however, is that using this force on otherwise free citizens is the sacrifice we make as public servants — to do the thing that must be done despite its repugnant nature for the good of society.
In exchange for this public service, the citizenry gives us their trust and the power to do our jobs. The only requirement imposed on us is that we use — but not abuse — this power. It is the duty of free citizens to question us — to prevent both neglect of duty and abuse of power. However, I have been disheartened by the defensive reaction of many (but not all) in law enforcement to the recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Glorifying the necessary use of force, defending excessive force or seeing those who question our use of force as “enemies” is supporting tyranny, not the rule of law. It would be the same if I sent people to prison by violating their constitutional rights, cared more about convictions than justice or sought mass incarceration instead of balancing the interests of individual freedom and societal safety.
When force must be used, it is right, it is necessary, and it is a failure — not of our own, but a failure nonetheless. Excessive or unjustified use of force — whether on the street or in a courtroom — is our failure. The American Revolution was the failure of British imperialism. Justified use of force and imprisonment are the failures of individual persons and society.
Protests like Black Lives Matter are the failure of all of us in law enforcement and the justice system.
Public service isn’t about those who serve — that’s why it’s called “service.” The priority of law enforcement and the justice system should be the safety and freedom of every individual and society as a whole — not the Thin Blue Line or “our side.” If it becomes about us and merely defending or exercising our power, it is tyranny — and we are unworthy of the power we’ve been given over free citizens. As the Declaration of Independence states, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”