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Is it Just for Law Enforcement to be above the Law?

October 7, 2010

On my way home from class yesterday, I noticed a police car parked on the side of the rode at a meter. My curiosity took over, so I decided to see how much time his meter had left. I would like to say “ to my surprise “ it was expired, but I honestly wasn’t surprised at all. I think in our society that the government and law enforcement feels that they are above the law; even if this is something small to be above. I wanted to get the opinions of my peers. So, I uploaded this picture to my facebook:

Under the picture I explained the situation and asked whether or not they thought that this was just. Out of the 18 people that commented on it, 15 stated that they felt the police officer parking there was unjust. One of the comments is from Gaby Martin who is also a student here at the University of Michigan. Her comment is as follows :

“This specific incident isn’t really fair, but in the scheme of things, pretty inconsequential: it’s just a parking meter. On a larger scale, I do think that everyone needs to cooperate and work together for society to function…however, the rules under which the society (particularly our society) operates should be different. I think our justice system is entirely and inherently messed up because one human should not have more power than, or be able to exert control over, another. I’m all for socialist anarchism.”

I like the point that she makes towards a parking meter being unjust, yet inconsequential in the scheme of things. While I do agree with her that it is a small example, I stand behind the fact that it is still unfair. Tony Slagle, a student at Indiana University of South Bend, who is studying criminal justice, says that worrying about a parking meter is

“pretty trivial. I don’t mind the police officer not getting a ticket for this. But what about running red lights with lights and sirens on to just get to their favorite restaurant more quickly? These along with many other potentially dangerous things are what frustrate me. “

It seems to me that people can agree that this is an unjust act, but in the bigger picture why is it important? I argue, that it is important for the very reason that Tony states. If officers get away with parking at an expired meter, they also think they can get away with acts that are more dangerous such as speeding and running red lights.

Bill Siderits, one of my close friends that I graduated from high school with, who is now attending MSU, makes a great opposing argument. He says,

“Odds are, this officer isn’t doing anything vital for the betterment of society, but is it rational to believe that contemplation is worth the risk of being wrong?”

His comment got me thinking critically. Let’s say that I didn’t think that the officer was parked there for any good reason, so I decided to write his plate down and turn him in. Odds are, if he wasn’t doing something important, he still probably wouldn’t have received a ticket. Possibly a warning or a slap on the wrist. However, if he was doing something important, I would look like a complete ass for not placing trust into our civil system that keeps us safe, for the most part anyways.

So how is any of this relevant to what we are learning? It is relevant because according to Hobbes natural state, humans naturally desire the power to live well and they are never happy with the power they have, unless they acquire more. This can be compared to the situation of the parked police car with an expired meter. Cops are given rights to do certain things that regular civilians are not. Such as arrest, handing out tickets, and acquiring search warrants. Though they have power in some areas, they want more of it. Therefore, they begin to break laws in which civilians would be punished for. It is no doubt that a regular car parked with an expired meter would be slapped with a ticket. The fact that the officer will not acquire one, gives them a sense of power over others because they know they can get away with such an act.

This situation is also relevant to the way in which Hobbes views an Ideal government. Hobbes’ believes that a common power is required to keep men united. That being said, everyone should be allowed to have the same power as the next person. Hobbes’ would disagree that it is okay for a police officer to park at an expired meter simply because that would disrupt the idea of a common power, since civilians are not allowed to do so. Hobbes also believes that the people must make an agreement amongst themselves to submit to one ruler. While our country does go through the process of electing a president, I feel that our idea of a ruler is much different than that of Hobbes. While the President is our countries ruler, he is not the all time decision maker; congress and the house have more power than the president. Thus, in Hobbes’ point of view, we are not submitting ourselves to one ruler, but rather a mass of them.

Though I do understand that parking at an expired meter isn’t the crime of the century, it really got me thinking about the way our society is ran. I just thought it was ironic to have walked pass parking meters with parked cars beside them, and the only expired meter is the one in which a police officer was parked.

  1. katelyn09 permalink
    October 7, 2010 4:12 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I have often thought about the “benefits” of being a police officer. Of course, generally speaking I would like to believe that police are not going around breaking tons of laws, but then you wonder. Why did this officer have an expired meter? and will he or she be paying the price of a ticket that a sullivian would probably have to pay. I doubt it. Hobbes’ idea of equality among all with the exception of a ruler seems far off in this situation. Although as you mentioned not that far off from the real world. There is a clear line of where powers lie within the United States of America. Really the average citizen has little power at least initially, with proper funding and connections more can be accomplished, but this is often a feat in itself. So should we have a ruler who holds all the power, I’m not sure, but I know the way it is now allows for many people to have very little power and a few people to have a majority of it. Nevertheless though, rallying is a real possiblity that can hopefully help keep our government officials honest even in the case of an expired parking meter.

  2. Zac Hiller permalink
    October 7, 2010 6:08 PM

    This is a very interesting question. In my opinion, this police officer is definitely wrong and this is extremely hypocritical. If this was mine or anyone else’s car we’d have a nice 150 dollar ticket slabbed to are windshield. Even though this is such a minor example of police officers taking advantage of their position, this is how corruption escalates. Corruption, although inevitable, is wrong. Since this police officer did not get in trouble, the likelihood that he does this again increases. Even though this incident is so miniscule it shows just how much corruption there really is, regardless if we always notice or not. Whose to say this officer is not one day elected to captain of the force, then maybe a city official, possibly even a state senator? Corruption exist at all levels of government. Next time you see this, leave a note saying “If I would get a ticket you should too.”

  3. Shan Lin permalink
    October 7, 2010 7:47 PM

    I absolutely agree with you that Hobbes would definitely criticize our systems of government, but I don’t think Hobbes’ view of an ideal government would function very effectively in our modern society. To me, Hobbes’ ideal government almost sounds like dictatorship. Everyone is suppose to enter into an mutual agreement to give up some rights to one single ruler and expects some forms of protection as the result. It’s not hard to imagine that when one person has the power over everyone else, things can turn pretty ugly as history has proved to us with the examples such as Mussolini of Italy and Hitler of Germany. Hobbes’ idea of government might have worked great in his time, but it’s definitely not going to work in the world we live in today. Nothing is fixed forever. People change, people’s ideas and views change, cultural change, things just keep changing as long as the world is spinning. I am not trying to say that Hobbes’ ideas are not important, in fact I know his ideas are so influential that they helped shape our modern government. I guess what I am trying to say is that we need to take his ideals into consideration, but also revise them to fit what our society needs today;and that’s exactly what US government did. We took part of Hobbes’ social contract ideas such as people giving up certain rights in order for protection, and changed it up a bit to incorporate this great idea into our system of government. I’m personally glad that the power given by the people does not fall on a single person, but rather a group of people so that the check and balance is intact. One can only imagine what our government would be like without the check and balance (just think back to Hobbes’ State of Nature). Everyone would want what’s best for themselves, and do things to give them the greatest benefits. We would be in a condition of war according to Hobbes. And back to your question of whether it’s just or unjust for a cop’s car to be parked next the an expired meter, I would definitely say it’s unjust. Some people might think this is just a small incident, and that it’s not a big deal, but always realize that big problems are the sums of small problems. How far will this cop go to break other laws if he is not held accountable for his small action? Just something to think about.

  4. jptrue permalink
    October 7, 2010 8:24 PM

    While I agree that this is an interesting, thought provoking idea, I think if we were to ask Hobbes’ his opinion on this matter, he would actually argue that the police’s action were just. In Hobbes writing, he writes that the sovereign can never commit unjust actions. This is because his authority is not derived from covenants made directly with the people, but because the people around him all have made covenants with each other to give him authority and establish this sovereign as a controlling figure. The fact that we don’t have one great sovereign in charge of the Ann Arbor police, or the city board doesn’t mean that Hobbes’ general philosophy doesn’t apply. The police gain authority in our society because we all decide that we should have police and that they should have power to keep order. The police DON’T have authority because we go up to each one and say, “Hey, I want to give you authority to police me.” Thus, the current police and their actions currently reflect our desires. If they didn’t, we would no longer agree with each other to comply with the police. This obviously doesn’t happen. As a result, the police cannot be acting unjustly in their current state according to Hobbes’ model.

  5. schearer permalink
    October 7, 2010 8:33 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this blog and it really made me think of how many people in our nation are in a way “parking at an expired meter”. Hobbes really hits the nail on the head when he writes about the natural state of people. In the world today people will do anything to prosper, whether financially, socially, or mentally. Many times people are able to carry out these corrupt acts and prosper, whether it be a miniscule thing like parking in a handicapped spot because it is closer or illegally sell gas stations to foreign businessmen. A great example of how people are never happy with what power they have or what is theirs involves one of my close friends fathers. My friends dad was doing business with foreign men and was illegally buying and selling gas stations all over the metro Detroit area. He was doing very well and making a great deal of money. As time went on the police started to get involved. Numerous times the police showed up at my friends house looking for his Dad to interrogate him. As a young kid, my friend witnessed this and witnessed firsthand the falling apart of his parents relationship. Because of this situation his parents got divorced and in the end the police were able to catch his Dad and is now in jail for 8 more years. My friends Dad continued to do business with these men and did not stop “parking at expired meters.” Now although this is an extreme example it is truly awful that things like that happen in our nation. People everyday carry out unjust acts out, either big or small. This simple act of a police car parked at an expired meter really makes you think about how the corruptness in this nation may soon completely take over.

  6. rhampton27 permalink
    October 8, 2010 11:45 AM

    I found your article very interesting and from a personal standpoint, I think the cop’s actions were unjust. However, if we are examining this situation from the eyes of Hobbes, I think he might say something a bit different. While reading, I stumbled across his argument that, “For to be subject to laws, is to be subject to the commonwealth, that is to the sovereign representative, that is to himself; which is not subjection, but freedom from the laws” (Hobbes 230). Looking at this quote, it seems to be that Hobbes is arguing the sovereign to be above the laws, because he is not subject to the commonwealth. Looking at the situation of the cop, I think it is important to identify if he is part of the sovereign or the commonwealth. Arguably, he could be a part of the sovereign because he is part of the governmental system that both regulates our actions as well as works towards our security. If we consider him to be sovereign, then Hobbes says he is not subject to the laws of the commonwealth. However, one may also argue that the cop is part of the commonwealth because he is a citizen and does not express strong, explicit power over the commonwealth of our entire nation. If he is part of the commonwealth, then his actions were unjust because they violated our set of laws–our contract–with our government, and therefore he should be punished accordingly. In order to determine what Hobbes may say about this persons actions, we would have to have a clear definition of who this person is in our governmental system: an author or an actor.

  7. Andrew Babat permalink
    October 8, 2010 5:05 PM

    I definitely think that the officer should follow the same laws that all people are forced to follow. How can he enforce the laws if he does not even follow them? This supports Hobbes’ theory that humans naturally desire power and are never satisfied with the power they have. Many police officers take the job because they enjoy the power. The fact that officers use their power to break the law demonstrates that people are never satisfied with the amount of power they have. Officers do not realize that in using their power to break the law they encourage others to do the same.

  8. jbrasspolsci permalink
    October 9, 2010 3:12 AM

    We have police for a reason; to enforce the law. If they are the ones breaking the law themselves, what is that showing society? Police should be role models, not someone that shows how to go against the law. I believe that regardless of how police contain power in some areas, to abuse this power should not be tolerated. Of course if the officer parked his car by the empty meter while in the act improving society is one justified reason, but to just go get some coffee is unacceptable. The fact Hobbes would disagree with the officer parking in the expired meter is completely rational – if civilians are not allowed to, then neither should cops when having no justified reason to park there.

  9. adamkornbluh permalink
    October 9, 2010 8:48 PM

    I agree with many of the points made in your entry. The significance of the actual infraction occurring takes a backseat to the idea that the police in many countries around the world feel like they are often above the law. To look at a more extreme case of this, look to the corruption amongst Russian police departments throughout their country. Local justice in cities across Russia are based on police bribes and cover-ups. An article describing the situation can be found here:

  10. thacarter4 permalink
    October 9, 2010 9:35 PM

    I agree that the police officer violating parking laws isn’t really major but I think there’s definitely a slippery slope with this kind of behavior. These minor abuses of power could certainly lead to deeper corruption if they go unpunished. There’s the small possibility that the officer was preventing a serious crime from happening, but if he wasn’t then he should face the same consequences as the rest of us to discourage further misbehavior.

  11. xiaoyzhang permalink
    October 9, 2010 11:26 PM

    I have seen cops not respect the law and use their power to abuse it. I do think a majority of the police officers in the US do their job. I know some of them are very mean and ill-tempered, but that might be because they deal with criminals or law-breakers regularly. I think in the instance that Whitneyspain brings up, its hard to say what happened. Maybe the time meter just expired when the picture was taken. Maybe not. If the officer did park there without paying money, then that is not just.

    I disagree with the comment that police are given powers others are not. Police are not given any extra rights and privileges that are not given to average citizens. Police simply exist to enforce the law. If you are not breaking the law, there is nothing they can do to you. If you don’t want to potentially deal with police, don’t do anything that is against the law. Police can’t control and influence you in a way they want, which is what I believe is Hobbes` definition of power. Therefore, Hobbes would not have a problem with policemen as whitneyspain suggests.

  12. Daniel Baum permalink
    October 11, 2010 12:41 PM

    This is a very enticing post. I believe some very good points were made about the view that Hobbes might have on this abuse of power. I believe the best example is something many of us see; cops speeding. One example is in my hometown in Minnesota there is a road that constantly has radar guns on it because everyone goes 10 -15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. Everyone in my town knows the street and by now no one speeds anymore. However, one day I saw a police car going 10-15 miles per hour over the speed limit. For a little experiment I sped up to his speed to see what he would do and to my surprise I was pulled over by him. I believe he was going to give me a ticket until i brought up the fact i was going the same speed he was. at this point he gave a warning and grudgingly walked back to his car. I am wondering which one of the philosophers we have studies would approve of my actions? While breaking the law and endangering myself and others I alerted a law enforcer that he was being unjust. What would be said about this by Gandhi? MLK? Hobbes?

  13. reedmarcus permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:02 PM

    While one parking ticket may seem inconsequential and insignificant, police officers should be held to the same standards as the general public. This small event is just the beginning of what could become a large scale problem. If police officers begin to run red lights and stop signs simply because they feel they are above the law, the safety of American Citizens will slowly deteriorate up until the point in which the police force is doing more harm than protection. Our police officers should be leading by example rather than abusing their power.

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