Tennis star James Blake police encounter highlights imbalance of power

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Retired black tennis star James Blake, on his way to the 2015 US Open at Flushing Meadows in New York, had an unpleasant surprise waiting for him outside of his hotel last week. Upon exiting the hotel, he was attacked and brutally slammed to the ground by a large white man. The assailant turned out to be a plainclothes New York City police officer who claims to have mistook Blake for an alleged credit card fraud suspect. As we’ve seen in past police assaults on citizens, these violent body slams can easily turn deadly. Thankfully for Blake, he didn’t resist. Perhaps he didn’t even have time to react to the attacking police officer. Whatever the reason for Blake’s lack of resistance, he may well owe his life to his passive reaction.

But would Blake have been wrong to repel the police officer’s attack? Absolutely not. Had Blake drawn a firearm and put several rounds into his attacker, justice would’ve been served. Thankfully the situation didn’t end in such deadly fashion.

Leaving aside the absurdity of a police officer using violent force against what he believed was a mere credit card thief, the arrest was wildly problematic. The fact that the officer was not in uniform at the time of the arrest highlights a dangerous privilege we’ve granted the police. The attack on Blake shows that any cop who claims to be on duty is free to rampage at will provided he can also claim to be pursuing a suspected criminal. Even if Blake’s attacker announced himself as a police officer, was Blake supposed to simply take him at his word? Is the right of self-defense suspended any time the aggressor utters the word “Police!”?

Police power needs to be taken down a notch. Better yet, several notches. So long as we have to cope with the power of law enforcement in the hands of the state, we ought to be making every effort to put the police on equal footing (or less) with those they supposedly serve. One way to do this is to ensure that those attacked by police have the legal right to repel them using deadly force, if necessary. Libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard outlined this principle in The Ethics of Liberty. As Rothbard explained, “in every invasion … there are always two parties involved: the victim and the alleged criminal … any physical force used against a non-criminal is an invasion of that innocent person’s rights, and is therefore itself criminal and impermissible.”

Rothbard goes on to explain that in a justice system where criminal suspects are truly “innocent until proven guilty,” it is not until a judicial proceeding has determined guilt that we can say for sure whether the police officer or his suspect is the real criminal aggressor. Thus, a legitimate justice system would make professional policing a far riskier career. Police would be required to have near certainty of the guilt of those they’re pursuing. Otherwise, unlawful arrests would make police officers themselves just run-of-the-mill criminals. Those wrongly attacked by the police would be free to defend themselves by any means necessary, without facing legal liability.

Unfortunately, defending oneself against the police seems like a deadly proposition in modern day America where police departments are akin to heavily armed gangs. But that is because we’ve extended enormous privilege and immunities to the police, without retaining equal or supreme rights of self-defense for ourselves. Given the number of “mistaken identity” unlawful attacks by the cops against innocent civilians these days, it’s time we reconsider the balance of power.

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