I used to know a Toronto police sergeant who, on the side, wrote adventure stories. He was a colorful old character and I miss him now that he is gone. One of his recurring themes was the many unauthorized ways that the police employed to get the upper hand on the bad guys.
One of those methods was called ‘deporting’. This was used on a ‘kangaroo’ (a Toronto Police term for bad guy) who needed to be dealt with but who, at the same time, wasn’t doing anything serious enough to bother arresting. In cases like this, what the police did was to drive the ‘roo out to of town into the middle of nowhere, someplace where there was no bus service, and tell him to wait there for the rape squad, who wanted to talk to him. At some point, the perp realized that the rape squad wasn’t coming and he would begin his long walk back home. That walk was his punishment. No courts, no paperwork, and no criminal record. Justice served, quickly, efficiently and cheaply.
This kind of makeshift solution naturally appealed to me. I understand that the Cartesian, hyper-rational society, where every possible contingency has a rule to deal with it, is a fool’s dream. The French Republic attempts to govern itself this way with the end result that everybody goes to Paris to riot whenever anything goes wrong. The Soviet Union, Communist China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia took this ideal to an even further extreme. The results were economic misery and mass murder. The problem is that it is simply impossible to make a rule that governs every possibility. As Hayek correctly pointed out, life is simply too complex. This is where customs, unwritten rules, and ancient traditions come in. An appreciation of the utility of such rules is a fundamental principle of conservativism.
To take an example my Toronto cop friend gave me, suppose you are confronted with a no-goodnik hanging around shop. The merchant wants him gone as he is scaring away the customers. The problem is, he isn’t really doing anything wrong – at least not yet. You could give him a ticket for loitering, but even if he gave you his real name, he has no intention of paying the $35 ticket. The practical solution: you walk up to him and step on his feet. The kangaroo can respond in one of two ways. One, not liking that his feet are being stepped on, he walks away. Two, he takes a swing at you. In this case, you can charge him with assault police. That isn’t a trivial charge and use of force is now justified. Either way, problem solved.
The Baltimore riots got me thinking about this because it seems that the Baltimore Police Department has an unwritten method, analogous to deportation, of their own. It is called a “’rough ride’ — an ‘unsanctioned technique’ in which police vans are driven to cause "injury or pain" to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit.” It seems that a ‘rough ride’ is what caused Freddie Gray’s spinal cord to break, killing him. He was not the first person to be given this treatment:
“Christine Abbott, a 27-year-old assistant librarian at the Johns Hopkins University, is suing city officers in federal court, alleging that she got such a ride in 2012. According to the suit, officers cuffed Abbott's hands behind her back, threw her into a police van, left her unbuckled and ‘maniacally drove’ her to the Northern District police station, ‘tossing [her] around the interior of the police van.’
‘They were braking really short so that I would slam against the wall, and they were taking really wide, fast turns,’ Abbott said in an interview that mirrored allegations in her lawsuit. ‘I couldn't brace myself. I was terrified.’”
Freddie Gray was not the first person to die from this treatment. According to Baltimore Sun article cited above, there have been a number of successful wrongful death suits brought against the Baltimore Police by the next of kin of people taken for a rough ride.
Indeed, in Saskatchewan, the Saskatoon Police were involved in a scandal where a number of natives froze to death in snowbanks after being deported. In Saskatoon, it was standard practice to dump drunk and disorderly natives out of town. Over there, the practice was called ‘starlight tours’ instead of deporting. The problem was they did this in the dead of winter as well as in more temperate seasons. Saskatchewan winters are very cold and the Indians deported were likely very drunk.
The problem here it seems to me is that some of the more dim-witted police officers don’t realize that, while unwritten rules and methods may be tolerated because they help keep the public peace, they have unwritten conditions attached to them. The principal one being that if anything serious happens to the perp - like when a drunk Indian freezes to death in a snow bank, or an arrestee breaks his neck in the paddy wagon and dies or becomes paralyzed as a result - it is on you. Society will then treat you as if that rule didn’t exist. That is the implicit check and balance in our unwritten code of law. Society is willing to tolerate unorthodox and rough police work, but only up to a point. So be careful.