It is difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to see things the way other people see them. We see things our way and can’t understand why other people don’t see things the same way.
This isn’t a new situation, in fact it goes dates back to the beginning of time, but it explains why people see law enforcement one way, while police officers see it another.
But taking a moment or two to consider how the two groups came to such different views of the same events can go a long way toward reducing the frustration some people feel about what they perceive as a lack of law enforcement in America today, and also help stem the tide of stand your ground laws, which allow people to take the law into their own hands (out of frustration).
Plato made the allegory of The Cave in Book VII of The Republic. Plato describes a situation where a group of people have spent their entire lives inside a cave, where they are chained so they cannot move and cannot turn their heads around to see behind them.
They can only look straight ahead at the wall in front of them.
There is a big fire burning behind them, and the light from the fire lights up the wall in front of them. There is also a bridge that crosses the cave between where they are chained and the fire. All day long people cross that bridge carrying, “All sorts of vessels and statues, and figures of animals made of wood and stone.”
But there is a wall about six feet high on the side of the bridge, so the people who are chained cannot see the people who are carrying stuff across the bridge. All they can see is the shadows cast by the stuff the people are carrying.
Since they have spent their entire lives chained in that position, they have no idea that people are carrying the vessels and statues. As far as they are concerned, the shadows on the wall are an accurate display of what is actually going on.
As far as they know, the statues, containers, (and boxes) are actually talking to each other as they move across the bridge. How could they think anything else? Their entire experience tells them that’s the way it is.
The truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
The Republic, 360 BC
People who aren’t chained in the cave, like you and me, know that the people who are chained have a vision of the world that is not correct. We can see the people crossing the bridge, and we know from experience that statues and containers can’t talk.
In the same way that people who have never been to war have no idea what combat is like because they’ve “never been there and done that,” ordinary citizens have a hard time understanding how the police have their hands tied by the way laws are worded.
While the police were in the house, a member of the Brockport Police Explorer Program who was with them noticed some stolen property in the house: a decorative stone bench that had been reported stolen from a house across the street.
Numerous people who live in the neighborhood felt for sure that the police would arrest the three students, who had lived in the house, for possession of stolen property.
But it doesn’t work like that, and here’s where Plato’s Cave meets Dickens’ Twist
It seems that before the police can arrest anyone for possession of stolen property, they would have to be able to prove which one of the three fraternity boys living in that house was the person who had possession of the stolen bench.
As Charles Dickens said, “the law is a ass.”
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
(First published serially 1837–1839)
When a long time Adams Street resident was asked about this, he said, “That’s because you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
In France, they wouldn’t have this problem, because French law is based on the Napoleonic Code, where you are presumed guilty until proven innocent.
The same kind of twist in the wording of the law is true in the case of the three college students who stole an 18-year old cat from Utica Street and then left it outside almost a mile away on campus.
In the cat case the police have their hands tied by the law again. The police can’t arrest the students for stealing the cat because they say they had no intention of doing any harm. They claim they thought the cat was a stray.
So even though they put a family though a lot of grief, and caused an uproar in that village neighborhood, the police can’t arrest them. No judge would issue a warrant for their arrest, and nobody in the District Attorney’s Office would prosecute them because they say they had no intention of doing any harm.
And that would be true even if the owner of the cat had a heart attack and died because of the stress of staying awake for 48 hours looking for his cat.
Moreover, even when people are arrested for breaking the law, the legal system often seems to trivialize the offense.
On April 5, 2011 Rich Miller and his wife Kathleen were arrested by Brockport Police and charged with one count each of Perjury (a misdemeanor) and 3 counts each of Illegal Voting (felonies), because they had both voted in Village Elections on June 15, 2010, June 16, 2009, and November 3, 2009 even though they did not live in the Village.
On August 25, 2011 Rich Miller and Kathleen Miller pleaded guilty to a Class A Misdemeanor, attempting to vote illegally.
The Assistant DA is a busy man who prosecutes some serious crimes, and maybe he cut a deal for a reduced charge to move things through the legal system quickly.
When Rich Miller deliberately smacked a man in the face with his elbow during a Brockport Village Board Meeting, he was arrested again and charged with Assault 3rd Degree and Obstructing Governmental Administration.
But when the case went to trial, once again, the Assistant District Attorney pleaded the case down to a reduced charge, in this case: disorderly conduct.
That’s the way it is for police officers. They do all the leg work to build a strong case, and either the judge throws the case out of court on a technicality (such as which one of the tenants possessed the stolen property or the illegal drugs or the illegal weapons found in the rental house) or the DA pleads the case down to a reduced charge and the bad guys walk.
So the next time you get frustrated with the way broken laws seem to go unpunished, try to look at the situation from the point of view of the police officers. They are just as frustrated with the situation as you are, if not more so.
Maybe the source of the problem is the politicians who write the laws that tie the hands of the police.
Maybe instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water by passing stand your ground laws, we should throw the incumbent politicians out with the bath water, elect new ones, and then demand that they change the wording of the laws so we don’t have to stand our ground to protect our lives and property.