Opinion: So-Called Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights Cannot Exist

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You will never see a fish riding a bicycle, or a gentle extermination camp. And you will never see “a bill of rights for police officers.” It cannot exist. The phrase is nonsense.

The original Bill of Rights, formally titled “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown (1689),” is a basic cornerstone of the human invention we call “the law.” It is the result of decades of deadly struggle between a powerful patriarchy, the Stuart kings, versus the English people and their Parliament.

This original Bill of Rights condemned and prohibited the abuses of power inflicted upon common folk by King James II of England and Ireland, such as creating a standing army in peacetime, a military force whose soldiers harassed and abused the people, and the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment” for any reason. In short, a bill of rights limits the powers of government. This 1689 law and the laws that flow from it still protect people from the tyranny of their government.

A police officer is an agent of the government. On the job, his body and his actions represent the government. In the United States, a police officer is entrusted with a special responsibility: he can use physical force, but only in the cause of keeping the peace, as a tool of last resort.

Like other workers, he enjoys a salary, benefits, and can belong to a union, but he cannot have a “bill of rights.” A bill of rights protects “We the People,” not the government. A bill of rights protects the civilian, not the government’s agent.

If a doctor, dentist, dancer, drummer, truck driver, lawyer, teacher, programmer, historian, cartoonist, or any other sort of professional you can think of abuses a fellow human being in any way, on or off the job, they can be fired from their job, shunned by their profession, and, if the charge is serious, prosecuted according to the law and tried by a jury of their peers. That is how the law works, when justice is served, in the United States of America.

A law that gives special privileges to police officers cannot be a “bill of rights.” Such a thing is an insult aimed with a deadly eye at the American Bill of Rights – the first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791. A so-called “bill of rights” for police is an obscenity. It is an attack on the very idea of what law is.

All across the country, civil rights groups are fighting to end “qualified immunity” statutes that shelter police officers from the consequences of inflicting violence upon civilians. For example, along with 60 other civic organizations, the ACLU of Maryland, which was founded in 1931 in response to police-complicit lynching held on Eastern Shore courthouse lawns, is calling for the repeal of Maryland’s so-called “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,” or LEOBR for short.

A cartoonist might draw an image of a fish riding a bicycle, or create an animation depicting a gentle death camp, with kind guards and happy prisoners. And in the Nixonian era of 1973, the Maryland legislature could and did (under pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police) pass a law and give it a lofty sounding name, the “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.”

But no patriotic American should call it by that name. Call it the so-called LEOBR if you must. But do not forget your history. These words  –  “bill of rights” – they do not belong to the police. They belong only to you.

— ALONZO N. SMITH AS TOLD TO STEVEN SELLERS LAPHAM

Dr. Alonzo N. Smith (1940-2020) was a professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Montgomery College; a member of the Rockville Human Rights Council; and a leader of the new Poor People’s Campaign of Maryland. 

Steven Sellers Lapham is a member of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition; a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockville; and a member of UUs for Justice in the Middle East. He lives in Gaithersburg.