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When is it time to quit?

The pseudonymous Sunfish is well known member of the Samizdata commentariat and brings some interesting perspectives as when he is not throwing down pixels in this parish, he is a policeman ‘somewhere in the USA’. And Sunfish has a question…

Governments have goons. That’s what makes them governments rather than debating societies. Even the governments of relatively free societies have them. I would like some guidance from my fellow goons now.

Back in the 1990’s, when I first graduated the academy and became a cop, I thought I was going to go out and slay dragons. I also thought that I would not have to compromise any of my beliefs in order to do so. I can not have been the first libertarian to go into this line of work. However I did not originally sign up to be a drug warrior, tax collector, or the mailed fist of the ‘Mommy Knows Best’ state. Yet somehow, I occasionally end up being all three of those things. Most of the time, though, I think that we still do more good than harm.

But at what point do we actually do more harm than good for liberty? When is it time to quit?

50 comments to When is it time to quit?

  • When is it time to quit?

    Probably when you start feeling qualms about what you do.

  • Brad

    Is the question aimed at other libertarian cops who frequent here? For others it would be very difficult to say when to time to quit is once you’ve joined.

    Personally I never wanted to be a cop in the first place, so if I were forced to answer the question, I’d say right now. In the U.S. we have prisons bursting with non-violent offenders, we have a war on drugs that causes it as well as being costly in and of itself, we have composite tax rates of up to and over 50% (at least for those who pay taxes), a $50 Trillion accrual basis debt, endless regulations at every level of government, 1 out of 13 people work for governments at all levels, and the list goes on. When you feel that you are protecting this system more than protecting individuals when they can’t protect themselves, you might be on the path.

    A very small and mostly harmless example of our society today. I am in the process of trying sell my house. Frequently, during showings, I will go down the street and park to keep an eye on my house. Showings are usually no more than 15 minutes to a half hour. A few minutes later a cop pulls up behind me and said there had been a call from someone wondering what I was doing. I guess parking down the street and watching your ipod for ten minutes constitutes suspicious enough behavior to get the John Q Laws on your case. As it turns out, the call came from the house I was parked in front of, and not coincidentally enough, he himself is a policeman in another jurisdiction, and he was afraid that I might be a recent collar coming to settle a score.

    Perhaps that is as good a time to know the time has come to quit. When you get so paranoid you harrass your neighbors with police calls due to your lack of steely resolve.

    But to boil it all down to one simple question and response, perhaps since you’ve reached the point of asking, you’ve already got your answer.

  • James Dacre

    Because there will always be predators, even in some libertarian utopia, there will be a demand for cops (whatever they are called).

    Frankly I would much much rather some libertarian leaning guys were doing that job than some authoritarian fucktards on a power trip.

    I’ve met a lot of very reasonable cops (the majority without a doubt) but also a fair number of glow-in-the-dark jerks (due to my job), so I think Sunfish should stick it out until he himself thinks he is doing more harm than good because I really hate the idea that only the assholes get left wearing the badges.

  • ian

    The question can equally be asked of many other jobs dependent in whole or in part on state funding. The assumption here always seems to be that having taken the money you are forever beyond the pale, but as Sunfish demonstrates that doesn’t have to be the case. In any case even the most hardened statist can have a Damascene conversion.

  • A cop with qualms about what he’s doing, eh? Well I gotta go with James Dacre’s opinion. I want cops who have qualms about what they’re doing! Any cop who has no problems doing all the shit he get told to do is going to be a grade A USDA certified asshat.

    I don’t know where Sunfish is, but dude, get your rear end to New Hampshire and get some tin here please.

  • Nick M

    On the way back from Liverpool (don’t ask) today on the car radio was the story of a chap who pulled over to ask a policewoman directions. She whacked him with a 30 quid fixed penalty notice because his Riverdance CD was too loud.

    That’s the time to quit.

    Other than that what James Dacre said.

    As Ian as undoubtedly aware his use of the phrase “Damascene conversion” is particularly apt considering what Saul did for a living…

  • Pa Annoyed

    Surely the question isn’t whether you’re doing more good than harm, but whether you’re doing more good and less harm than would the guy they’ll replace you with if you quit?

  • RAB

    You, being a smart man Sunfish,
    will know when the time has come to quit.
    That will come at the point when your Superiors demand you do your job with no discretion at all.
    Unlike you showed in that case you mentioned on another thread, involving alcohol overdose and half an ounce.
    As you know I have had a lot to do with Policemen in my time, and the footsoldiers are generally diamonds.
    It’s the leaders that are suspect. Never having arrested a villain in their lives, who see themselves as CEOs of a large public company, but have forgotton what their end product is supposed to be.
    Frankly Sunfish we need more coppers like you, not less!

  • DavidNcl

    Quit now. It’s just wrong. Don’t be a cop. Being a cop is always wrong in this or any and all societies. What’s more every single cop I have ever met has been a corrupt, violent thug or an accomplice to corrupt violent thugs. This is not an irrelevant point. Enforcing our immoral laws (busting people for trading in drugs, porn, sex … oh go on you know full well what I mean) leads to moral compromise. Better off out. Staying in the best you can ever be is an accomplice.

  • Lee

    You should quit the first time there is a home invasion by a SWAT team based on a bad actor informant’s lies and the police kill someone’s beloved and innocent Grandma. Oh, wait…

  • DavidNcl

    Oh… being and being a “cop” is quite different to working for some Friedmanesque private defence agency. By “cop” I mean some sap working as part of the coercive apparatus of states.

  • Quit now. It’s just wrong. Don’t be a cop. Being a cop is always wrong in this or any and all societies.

    Oh really? Any society? Presumably you think we should all live in fortified bunkers? Plan on shooting it out with your neighbor if he parks across your driveway? Lock that 13 years old shoplifter in your basement and beat him with a bat? Or maybe you just never get out of your middle class neighborhood enough to see what chaos actually looks like.

    What’s more every single cop I have ever met has been a corrupt, violent thug or an accomplice to corrupt violent thugs. This is not an irrelevant point.

    That tells me all I need to know about you then. I’m a hard core small (as in tiny) state capital L party member Libertarian and unless you live in some parallel reality, I know for a fact most cops are neither corrupt or violent anywhere I have ever lived in the US, and that includes some pretty shitty areas. Are some cops bad guys? Oh hell yeah, no doubt about it, but your statement makes your views safe to ignore because they don’t have any relation to reality.

  • Dishman

    I can relate to the question.

    I’m not a cop. I sometimes design safety critical systems. It scares the hell out of me that one day I might make a mistake that leads to one or more people getting dead.

    That’s not what really scares me, though.

    There are people out there who aren’t afraid of what they’re doing. Those are the dangerous ones.

    I’ve had a lot of encounters with cops…

    like the one I sent after AT&T for harassing phone calls…

    or sitting at my kitchen table chatting with a cop, with a .30-06 on the table between us, as I pulled the rounds out of the clip and put them back in packaging…

    … and I can say there are definitely good ones out there.. and some idiots.

    I’d really rather have cops who question the validity of their orders.

  • Fed_up

    This is quite a synchronous post for me. Lately, I have been giving much thought to the issue of whether being in Law-Enforcement is compatible with being a Libertarian. There is no getting away from the fact that the two positions are not compatible, certainly not in the UK. What to do about it? Certainly challenging the authoritarian orthodoxy and culture of enforcing petty and trivial “rules” is hopeless. Dissent is a one way ticket to some rural backwater, consigned to spending the rest of your career scraping dead badgers off theroad. Walking away from it all is superficially appealing, but will still be living in an illiberal and authoritarian society policed by slightly less libertarian police service. Even in a classically liberal society, I suspect that there will always be some laws that you disagree with and adopting the old “policing without fear or favour” principle gets you so far. I guess it comes down to drawing your line in the sand, when forced to cross it, then it is time to go. I suppose something like being ordered to arrest someone for smoking in public would do it for me. The worrying thing is that I can actually see this happening…this would have been a ludicrous idea when I joined up a couple of decades ago.

  • roy

    Respectfully, I think you skipped over an important question. It’s not enough to weight the benefit against the harm and see if you come out ahead. You have to look at whether you could provide comparable benefit with less harm? It may be that you save three lives for every one you lock up for smoking the wrong thing. That looks OK. But what if there’s a way to save three without hurting anybody, say going going into a medical field?

  • RRS

    Quite simple really:

    When the ONLY justification you can offer to yourself (let alone to others) is:

    I was simply following orders.

  • Fed_up

    But what if there’s a way to save three without hurting anybody, say going going into a medical field?

    Yikes…we are moving into philosophical areas which I am poorly equipped to deal with. In the interests of trying to raise my game in this area, I’ll have a stab at this one and hope that I can be corrected.
    Is not the above approach acting altruistically? Surely the optimum approach for individual police officers is to act with self-interest? If wish to reduce my risk of being robbed, killed, cheated or being subjected to physical violence, then it is in my interests to reduce the pool of people who have demonstrated their willingness to engage in such practices? In this way, other people benefit, as the reduction in the pool of Burglars at liberty reduces everyones risk of burglary. It is not in my interest to arrest anyone for smoking dope, they harm no-one else, I don’t personally gain anything by arresting a dope smoker. If I use the self-interest principle, then surely this is better than an altruistic principle? For instance using your suggestion of a career in medicine, then this creates a probem. I don’t cope too well with blood and snot (I can keep it together for the car wrecks and Post Mortems, but it is a struggle). As a medical practitioner then it is bound to affect my performance. My feeling is that if I am compelled to act outside of self-interest, then there is no longer any benefit to me personally, and by extension, society as a whole, this is the point at which it becomes rational to leave the Police Service.

    …sorry if I have comletely missed your point, roy (which I suspect I have)

  • Saladman

    I’m inclined to say try to ride it out as long as possible. (Easy for me to say, on the outside looking in.) It cheers me greatly to know that there are practicing leo’s like LawDog and Samizdata posters. That its not all left in the hands of people who joined for the express purpose of being drug warriors and mailed fists. I suppose once your freedom to act sensibly or morally is gone, and you’re straight-jacketed into authoritarian policing all or most of the time, its time to go.

    Since you say you think you do more harm than good, I think you could hang in there with a clean conscience. I have a selfish interest: concern over what policing will look like once the last of the non-militarized police give up the fight or retire out. My sense, from a smallish town in Oregon, is that some of the senior police officials are, not libertarian, but at least practical about their role and skeptical of militarization. Without a sea change, I expect things to get worse as they exit out.

  • DocBrown

    Before you quite, What can you do from the inside to undermine and expose the illiberal parts of the beaurocracy?

    Don’t quit before you embarass them, if they have done anything shameful.

  • Matt

    As has been pointed out, even in the most radical conception of libertarianism there’s a need for some kind of security-related job to keep people safe. Now maybe police employed by the state aren’t the best way for a free society to keep that safety – I personally think they are, but then I’m not a market anarchist.

    But no matter where you are politically, there’s certainly almost no better way to improve the police system than from the inside. Though most police I know are at least good people who are mostly respectful of freedom, it’s always better to have more people on the inside who deliberately advocate for liberty within the mechanism of the department. Only quit if you feel the situation is absolutely untenable.

  • dr kill

    Davidncl is 100% correct.

  • Davidncl is 100% correct.

    Worthless comment unless you actually support it with something. I contend that as Porcupine Pete says, the idea that “no society” needs police is absurd, so it falls on your to explain why you think that is not true.

  • Ben


    Stick with it dude. Lead by example. Maybe go the Rational Anarchist route and own what you do by attempting to look the other way as much as possible on crimes you believe should not be crimes.

    The last thing we need is good liberty loving police officers quiting because the statists are moving in.

  • CaptDMO

    Take everything you learned in the academy.
    Ignore that.
    Now take everything you learned from vets on
    the job, and everything you learned from experience
    that pertains to “How to get by” in a cops life, on and off duty.
    The second time you are ordered to NOT pass any of
    that THAT on to recruits, develop a sudden need to spend more time with your family.

    That said, judging by the way the question was put, I’ll go along with the “Don’t quit ya’ pussy, cops like that do more good than harm.” or especially the
    Porc sentiment “Come to New Hampshire, it’s VERY
    polite in the north!”

  • Anon

    I thank those inside who publish the many blogs from the inside, such as CoppersBlog and the many the aforementioned links towards.

    The exposed views from the inside of which those subjugated have little idea are of great importance.

  • Anon

    LOL. Apologies for the utter failure of English above. Too much 55p extra spirits!

  • mike

    I’m surprised nobody on this thread has asked Sunfish a rather more obvious question:

    How much do you still enjoy your work?

    It’s important to me how much I actually enjoy what I do for a living, and I suspect it is important to everyone else too – and yet this thought doesn’t seem to have occured to anyone.

    If the job is pissing you off Sunfish, exercise your freedom from the State to find another way to pursue happiness – that is, when all is said and done, the whole point of being an American.

    Of course, choosing a ‘selfish’ route doesn’t mean you have to give up completely those aspects of your job you still like – there are other ways to help people besides being an officer of the law.

    Were I pulled over by a cop in Colorado (which State I might actually be visiting later this year..) I’d rather it’d be you than anyone else – yet having said that, I have no claim on your life and to your services as an officer of the law and nor has any other stranger.

    “We need you” is not a sufficient claim on your life unless your heart is fully in it. Clearly, your heart isn’t fully in it anymore.

    Your occupation was chosen freely and can be set down again freely. Yourself, family and friends are (I presume) more important to you than the people of Colorado or the United States more generally.

  • Dale Amon

    This is where theory goes out the window: Sunfish is a real person doing the best he can in the world that is. No one is irreplaceable and if he leaves, that other someone might actually like power, or EVEN WORSE… actually believe in what they are doing.

    Personally I think it is the job of libertarians not to be holier than thou and live in some lonely cave where they can claim perfect purity, but to get out there in the heart of that which they hate and interact with the people they work with and try to make things just a little bit better. That’s how the left took over so many areas of life. So can we.

    When the whatever State I am living in finally passes laws which I simply cannot obey, I’d rather have someone like Sunfish coming to get me than a true believer that wants to bash my head in for not understanding it is for my own good, or the good of society.

    I tend to roll my eyes every time I hear people talking as if the game will stop when they walk off the playing field. It won’t. It will just keep going without your positive influence.

  • RAB

    With you all the way there Dale!
    We keep talking of property rights
    and the rule of Law, as being the basis for a sound society.
    But without the likes of Sunfish who will enforce those laws and protect those rights for us?

    Better THAT man than THE MAN, anyday!

  • nick gray

    WHEN the drugdealers are honourably discharged and fully pardoned,
    WHEN all counties and states give back land resumed for commercial redevelopment, a la Kelo,
    WHEN all taxes are reduced to zero,
    AND when the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars,
    THEN you can quit with a job WELL DONE!
    (And what is more, you’ll be a man, my son!)

  • Subotai Bahadur

    Sunfish, my brother [and you are my brother in blue], please allow me to offer a few thoughts. I also am a Commissioned Peace Officer in Colorado, employed by the state. I am literally days away from beginning my final stretch of sick leave to have several moving parts that no longer move as well as they should taken care of before I retire after just shy of 28 years on the job.

    Others have spoken of various lines to be drawn, and decision points caused by the stupidity of the Admini-sphere. They are valid. Balancing the good you would do -vs- what would be done by your replacement may be a factor. But what they do not take into account is the amount of sheer wear and exhaustion that our career field imposes on its followers. You and I have seen and dealt with things that “normal” people would run from screaming into the night. We’ve lived a life that swings from crushing boredom to terror and disgust that must be mastered and suppressed; because we are on the job.

    You cannot do this forever. No one is that strong or that resilient, especially as we get older. Too many of our brothers and sisters try to cope with alcohol, or cannot cope and end up eating their guns. That is not the way to go.

    So I would add the question, “How tired are you?”. How long have you borne the burden and does it seem to be getting heavier? If it is, it may be time.

    From what I have read from you here, and from what I know of cops, I have a feeling that you have on balance served honorably. You have put up with the BS that goes with the job, have done some things that you are really proud of, and have made some mistakes that you wish you had not made. But overall, your career has been a net plus to both yourself and to your community. It has been something to look back on and be pleased with.

    If the burden is getting heavier, maybe it is time. You cannot do this forever. If you try, the community will not be grateful or appreciative. The average Joe Citizen neither understands nor appreciates what we do. And we do not do it because of them. We do it because, well …. cops are simultaneously the most cynical and the most idealistic people in the world. We do what we do because it is right, but we know that most of the rest of the world is very, very wrong. And we do it because to do otherwise would be to let our own down.

    But a time comes when it becomes necessary to go 10-42 [‘end tour of duty’ for those civilians reading this]. We’ve done our share and more, but it is someone else’s turn. If you have done it well, there is nothing wrong with that at all.

    If you have reached that point, be proud, take the pension, and hope that those you have trained will make you prouder. At least part of your legacy is those who you have influenced.

    I can only think of one reason to make you stay, if otherwise the time has come to go. It is another sacrifice, but one that might be bearable because it is for a higher calling. We’ve all sworn an oath, and I don’t think it has an expiration date. Our poor country is in for some very hard times. This is regardless of which anti-Constitutional authoritarian wins in November. There will probably be need of cops who will remember what it is like to enforce the law fairly, and if the direst case should come to pass, there may be a time when a cop will be in a position to help in re-establishing a Constitutional rule of law.

    But that will have to be a personal, and serious decision. I cannot but mention it as a possibility.

    As I said, I offer these thoughts. I hope that they are of some help.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Quit now. It’s just wrong. Don’t be a cop. Being a cop is always wrong in this or any and all societies.

    Even in an anarcho-capitalist utopia, crimes will be committed and it will be more sensible for insurance associations to hire police to deal with crimes of robbery, etc. To say that cops are evil in all societies is frankly insane.

    I am glad Sunfish is a police officer; in my experience, most coppers are okay although a few are total jerks. My main worry at the moment is how the UK police have become a sort of armed version of the Guardian newspaper.

  • David

    Porcupine Pete denounces me thus…

    “That tells me all I need to know about you then. …, I know for a fact most cops are neither corrupt or violent ”

    Then most cops you know are just accomplices. I once personally interviewed 183 homeless men living in three shelters in the North of England and every single one had been or at least claimed to have been assaulted or beaten by police office in the previous three years.

    I could drone on but you’d do better researching the subject your self. The internet is full of it.

    I once thought that surely most police officers where decent folk and it was a very small minority who gave them a bad name – but it’s not.

    I’ve read quite widely on this and honestly, your fooling yourself if you think there are many decent coppers – ACAB, as so many of my former clients used to have tattooed on there arms.

  • David, even if you are correct, what does this have to do with this particular cop? Not only your remarks are not helpful, thy are destructive.

    Sunfish, I tend towards Mike’s and Sabotai’s POV. If you don’t take care well enough of yourself, you will not be able to benefit others effectively. Then everyone loses. In the big picture, you have to think of yourself first, only then can you take care of things outside of you. There’s no way around it.

  • Andy H

    I’d tend to agree with Alisa & Subotai, if it’s making you too unhappy eventually you won’t be doing any good at all.

    Other than that the first thing to consider is if the next guy to have your job will be worse.

    Also there might be jobs within the police force that would cause you less in the way of ethical discomfort. It might be worth considering that angle before quiting.

  • Midwesterner


    You may remember from some of our previous conversations that I graduated high school with the intent of becoming a cop. I took a full time job and about a year or so later enrolled in community college ‘polices sciences’ curriculum, introductory psychology, introduction to police procedures, and introduction to I forget, some kind of law.

    I suppose it started with all of the Hardy Boys books I read as a kid. And some TV as well. Forget Banacek, Jim Rockford and those types, I wanted to be a Lt. Columbo. What can I say, I was a teenager. I thought the system really worked that way. For reasons unrelated to my goals, I was unable to continue in school and I put my plans on hold. By the time I had the time and resources to resume pursuing them, I had different plans.

    About ten years ago, I had a good sailing friend and one day he says he is applying to become a (medium large city) cop. It is a respected department and as often happens, there was probably a 10-20/1 ratio of serious applicants to openings. He asked if I would be one of his character references. We had the usual jokes about “well, I’m not really a very good liar” but I enthusiastically agreed. He was hired. He is an ideal sort to be a cop. Fast with the brain and slow with the mouth. He has incredible ability to deescalate almost any sort of situation. People said he never got angry but I knew the signs. His speech slowed, he used simple words and he rephrased and repeated his questions, instructions whatever, clearly. He only ever did that when he was angry, the rest of the time he was reassuring, light and easy going. He and I and a couple of others dealt with problems in our club. These could be (sometimes packs of) belligerent drunks, dangerous behavior, people with health problems, excess testosterone, and people who were frightened for their safety while learning a potentially dangerous sport. My private first thought when he told me of his intention was “what a waste, he should be doing something that puts his skills and temperament to good use.” I guess 20 years had changed my attitude towards a career as a police officer.

    But the more I thought about it, the more I thought (and think) that he is the ideal cop. If I find myself in a situation were a cop fears for his own safety, thinks I am a threat and draws on me (which happened to me late one night due to a communication mistake and multiple burglar alarm trips in an adjacent drug warehouse), I want it to be someone like him. For domestics, d&ds, vehicle and other accidents, you name it and he is the best first person at the scene for sorting things (and people) out. I feel safer and less threatened from all quarters when there are cops like him.

    So what is my point for discussing all this? After he had been a cop for a few years (but before I had moved away) we still met quite often and I noticed something that bothered me. He was becoming ‘a cop’. I don’t know how else to describe it. He was still my same old friend but, to put it in Samizdata-speak, his meta-context was changing. He seemed to be hardening and beginning to see things as us v. them, good guy v. bad guy, idiots v. enlightened ones. Previously he had seen events on a continuum and he didn’t make presumptions about the character of the people he dealt with, only their present and potential actions. Previously, he didn’t judge people, he assessed them, if you follow my distinction. He saved judging for people he expected to have ongoing contact with. I guess what I am saying is that he used to see people (doing things) and was drifting into a pattern of seeing objects (to be put in their proper place). He is a very smart, thoughtful and good guy, and I presume this was a transient phase but I haven’t seen much of him in years. It was never very pronounced to begin with compared to other cops, only when compared to his own prior attitudes.

    I had another friend, since retired, who was a small town cop. He was suspended and disciplined for rough handling a guy who crashed his motorcycle during a rural high speed chase. My friend was the only cop on the scene. In addition to the adrenalin effect I suspect he succumbed to the frustration of dealing with ungrateful victims (of victimless crimes), repeat offenders and political supervisors. He went on to complete a good career but that gave me a clue to the frustration inherent in the system.

    If you remaining a cop means there will be one more good cop on the job, then stay a cop. But if you think you are a frog in a slowly heating kettle and the outcome may be instead one less good person, then I hope that everyone here would see that outcome as a double loss. You know far better than I do, there are departments that are saturated with staff that, whatever they were to start with, are united in their contempt for the people they allegedly serve. You also know that there are departments at the other extreme and everywhere in between. I don’t know where your’s is on the spectrum.

    Possible short check list of questions to ask yourself.

    How many shifts or calls give me a good feeling inside afterwards. Why do they? Is that the right reason?

    How many shifts or calls leave a bad taste in my mouth and acid in my stomach? Why? Is it with good reason?

    Do I like who I am today better than who I was last year/5 years ago/before I started?

    If trends continue, will the future be better or worse?

    If the answers to these questions are bad, get out. Do it in as dignified and option preserving a manner as possible. I once stormed out of a job on Friday and wrote a many page rant of a resignation letter. It was a list of reasons and fault finding. I had the good sense to take it to my dad for advice. I don’t remember the specific answers he gave me but I wrote probably a dozen letters with his advice that weekend, each shorter and more thoughtfully courteous. By Monday morning I had one short page pared down to a few thoughtful hand-written paragraphs saying how much I had appreciated working with them in pursuit of the goals I shared with the (not for profit) company and thanking them for the opportunity. My dad taught me that baggage does not belong in a resignation letter. And if there is no change likely to come from unloading it, then don’t. Not in writing, not in conversation, not at all. ‘Getting it off your chest’ or ‘having your motivations understood’ are not good reasons. If it won’t change policies and procedures, then don’t unload it. Let it be a mystery. Bring the baggage here or to other blogs or write a book.

    I can not tell you how may times over the subsequent years I am glad I went with the last letter and not the first one I wrote. They went well out of their way to try to keep me in the company and we stayed on amicable terms. If you resign from the police force, do it in a way that they will leave you a perpetual open door to return. You won’t. I didn’t, but knowing they wanted me back was worth a fortune to me. That and the fact that I don’t want to collect unnecessary bad will. They were not bad people. They were for the most part very good people. Our paths and goals and most importantly, values, had diverged. It was that simple. In the decades since I left that job there has never been a time when I couldn’t meet anyone from that company (even the ones who inspired my choice to leave) and feel good about what I had done and the way I had done it. That is worth a lot.

    An aside, if for any reason you decide to get out of law enforcement, you should keep your certifications, qualifications and continuing education up to date. I’ve known people in other careers who after some years decided to return to a profession and discovered that with everything lapsed it was almost like starting from scratch. Even if you don’t go back, keeping your credentials current will give you better knowledge and a better platform to speak out from.

    If you are comfortable in the job and this is purely a matter of weighing the ‘good deeds’ against the ‘bad deeds’ then some thought about the system is in order. A big problem with the concept of professional career law enforcement is mission creep to justify bigger staffs, more equipment and more authority. Whether public or private, all roads need traffic enforcement so leaving that aside, when one thinks of the crimes that police address, there are many ‘libertarian acceptable’ ones that come to mind. For the ‘crime’ of prostitution, I’ll just say ‘Spitzer’. If your are working for a Spitzer, someone who enforces ‘law and order’ for self promotion get out. Run far and fast. I lived in a county that was highly political. It eventually got so out of hand that sheriff’s deputies and a couple of prosecutors framed an innocent (of capital crime) person for the death penalty. And they put an awful lot of work and three prosecutions into it. And our ‘war on drugs’ provides not only massive profits for criminal organizations, but also massive payroll and budgets for drug war fighting careerists. If the priorities of your department are something other than protecting the life, liberty and property of those you serve, maybe you can find another department where they are.

    But if what is bothering you is a general “law and order” mentality in your government and your community, which to my observation usually accompanies a decided lack of interest in protecting life liberty and property and much more interest in usurping it them, then get out. I disagree with the many people that want you to ignore bad laws and only enforce good laws. That will be (at least temporarily) good for the people but very bad for you. And I don’t even think that tactic is a good one for the people. If a stupid law is passed, we should first enforce the hell out of it on the highest profile big shots we can find. Preferably elected ones. If your department looks the other way for connected people but shows its ‘commitment to law and order’ on the every day Joes, get the hell out o’ Dodge.

    When laws are enforced for the alleged benefit of combination ‘victims’/criminals who would rather be left alone than ‘helped’ they respond as one might expect. And a steady diet of surly and resentful ‘victiminals’ can often create surly and resentful cops.

    Nut shell summary. Worry about and make your decision based on what the job is doing to you, not what you are doing to the community. I am quite certain along with everybody here who has gotten to know you that you are a force for the good guys wherever you are. But if the job is messing you up, you will not long be such a benefit to your community. If you find yourself becoming surly, resentful or cynical as a person, then by all means get out.

    I read the newer comments before posting and found Subotai Bahadur’s comment about ‘cynical and idealistic’ interesting. My thought is that cynicism is as dangerous of a crutch as there is. You are not yet set in cynicism and I hope you reject that for a coping mechanism. It causes a of collateral damage.

    Apologies to all for the long comment. I was once in a situation where I had to make a similar decision and the choice one makes and the way one executes it carries long lasting consequences and is worth taking time and getting it right.

  • Paul Marks

    It is time to quit when you aggress against the bodies and goods of people more than you protect them. When you find yourself telling people what to do more than you protect them from attackers, and when you spend more time as a tax (or “fee”) collector than you do protecting their property.

    Just as it is time for a politician to quit when he saves less money that he takes in pay.

    Even I (with virutally no power at all) managed to help block fifty thousand Pounds of local taxpayers money for “public art” and to block the building (at God knows what expense) of a so called “multi racial centre” (which would have been about establishing a colour bar – not attacking one).

    On the negative side I am paid about four thousand Pounds a year.

    So, on balance, I have no moral reason to quit.

    Although I do have a practical reason to quit – i.e. I can not live on four thousand Pounds a year.

    So if anyone has any paid work going………

  • llamas

    Sunfish – I have long been an admirer of your contributions and am delighted to see you here as a guest contributor. An excellent choice. More power to you.

    I can tell from your timeline that I am somewhat older than you. I used to be a LEO in a US jurisdiction far, far away from yours. I quit that work more than 10 years ago now, although I still maintain strong ties with a very small number of LEOs. firefighters and EMTs.

    What made me quit? In no order of importance

    – petty, venal corruption
    – the growing militarization of the police
    – what I saw as the abuse of legitimate powers (asset forfeiture, warrant powers &c) to further institutional goals – increased hiring, increased funding, &c – which had nothing to do with law enforcement
    – the growing politicization of the police
    – the inability of the CJS to punish the truly-guilty, accompanied by the zeal of the CJS to harrass the truly-innocent.

    That last one deserves some explanation. What I saw, more and more, was that mokes who were as guilty as sin were simply given a free pass because it was too difficult, too costly or insufficiently politically/financially advantageous to capture and prosecute them, while people who were generally more-or-less completely innocent of any wrongdoing were hounded from pillar to post becasue they were easy to find, easy to prosecute, easy to intimidate into a plea, and their cases earned political/financial benefits.

    We are just wrapping up a case around here where a family has been torn apart, children put into care, parents imprisoned, lives wrecked – all on the basis of allegations of child abuse extracted from an autistic child by some bone-in-the-nose ‘faciliated communicator’. Anyone with half-an-ounce of sense can see that there’s no case – but the detectives, and the prosecutors, and the social workers, and the educators, have all hitched their wagons to this politically- and financially-profitable case, and they’re riding it all the way to the buffers.

    That’s the sort of thing that made me say ‘I don’t want to be a part of this anymore’.

    Back to the list, last item

    – the prostituting of legitimate, well-understood law-enforcement needs to political expediency.

    The one single thing that I could pinpoint that drove me away was the militarization of the police.

    This is a complex matter. It’s more than just the issue of increased armament (I have no problem with that). It’s more a matter of a mindset, deliberately fostered, that teaches – and rewards – policemen to view the world as ‘us vs them’. It’s the obsessive, overblown mindset of ‘force protection’ that leads to every traffic ticket being treated as a high-risk felony stop. It’s high-and-tight haircuts and bloused boots and body armour-over-fatigues and the whole positioning of the police in an adversarial, combat-ready mode. It’s the gradual acceptance of policies of search-every-car and flimsy pretexts for trampling all over civil rights and the unstated assumption that every citizen is a criminal, it’s just that we haven’t found out what he did yet – but we will. It’s a steady growth of the attitude that We’re the Police, and We Don’t Have To Answer For What We Do – And We’re Far Too Busy With Real Bad Crime To Bother With Your Little Burglary. It’s the growth of things like SWAT and similar high-profile resources – that end up getting used for everything, because, after all, we have them – might as well use them. It’s the institutionalized lying to get warrants, or judge-shopping for a ‘friendly’ judge.

    And more.

    I used to be proud of what I did, and I was proud to call virtually every copper my friend. Nowadays – not so much. My respect for a copper just because he/she is a copper has taken a sharp downturn, I don’t trust any copper I meet until he-she demonstrates themselves to be trustworthy to my standards, and I have sharply reduced my social contact with coppers to a small core group that I know and trust. And many of them have a lot of the same misgivings that plagued me.

    I don’t know if this answers your question. I suspect not. I think the short answer to your question lies in your own conscience. No system of anything is perfect, and indeed, the perfect is the enemy of the good. But I think that anyone with a functioning conscience can place the things they see in the balance and decide, on balance, when they are doing more harm than good.

    I wish you nothing but good in your quest for answers.



  • ian

    Midwesterner talked of his friend’s ‘metacontext’ changing. Anyone of any intelligence will try to make sense of what they are doing in terms of their own beliefs and values. Where there is a mismatch, it is inevitable that something will have to give. It may be that their values begin to change to more closely align with what you are being asked to do or it may be that they become increasingly dissatisfied and quit. Mid’s firend and Sunfish represent these two positions.

    The problem that arises for many people seems to be when their fundamental values have not in fact changed, but they try to persuade themselves they have – leading to unhappiness at best. An unhappy cop is however unlikely to be a good cop – for any meaning of ‘good’.

    In addition, the political context for policing in the UK is increasingly turning away for Peel’s principles towards the creation of a para-military occupying force. Llamas above seems to see a simialr trend in the US.

  • Alsadius

    Frankly, the rule of law is the single most fundamental thing to a functioning society. I’d rather have drug prohibition than anarchy, and as such I’d rather have suboptimal police than no police. For that matter, I’d be willing to go quite a long way into a police state before I said anarchy was the preferred solution.

    Now, that’s not to say that you yourself should be a police officer. Frankly, the only advice I can give there is that you should quit the job if it is something you find less enjoyable/rewarding/profitable than the alternative. Having to prosecute drug users could be considered similar to having to butcher animals at work – unpleasant, often opposed by people on moral grounds, but if you don’t do it somebody else will. If you find the job unpleasant enough to quit, then quit – you’d hardly be the first. But you’d hardly be making a difference by doing so, to anyone but yourself.

  • Laird

    A very interesting and (mostly) thoughtful thread.

    Alsadius, I think you are confusing “anarchy” with “chaos”. Anarchy simply means the absence of a formal government. Human beings are social creatures, and self-organizing. This is far from chaos. Formal governments, however benign their origins, inevitably devolve into mere sources of power for those who (in a more perfect world) are the last ones one would want to have it. So while I am not an anarchist (I would prefer “minarchist”), I have to strongly disagree with your statement. I would prefer anarchy to the first step down the road to a police state. And drug prohibition is merely the forcible imposition of your beliefs on others; that leads to lawlessness and, ultimately, chaos. Anarchy is infinitely preferable.

    On a side note, and possibly even further off-topic, it is my understanding that English police used to be unarmed (or at least armed with nothing more lethal than a billy-club). Is that still true?

  • jk

    Not bein’ a churchgoer, I don’t quote scripture very often, but I’d like to counter “Damascene Conversion.”

    One of the useful points in the New Testament is when this very question was asked by tax collectors and soldiers. The response was “be good tax collectors” and “be good soldiers.” Way way way better to be stopped by an officer with a concept of liberty — keep at it as long as it’s fun.

  • Sunfish

    David, “dr kill,” and others:

    What’s more every single cop I have ever met has been a corrupt, violent thug or an accomplice to corrupt violent thugs.

    How do you define ‘thug’ and ‘corrupt?’ I don’t think I understand.

  • Sunfish


    I guess it comes down to drawing your line in the sand, when forced to cross it, then it is time to go.

    That’s my problem. I’m trying to decide where my line in the sand actually gets drawn. In the thread about China showing their ass in Tibet last week, Perry commented something along the lines of Tibetans being fully using violence against Chinese soldiers and police. I’m inclined to agree. That’s what inspired this post: that, and the question of when would it become morally right for people in the US or UK to violently resist police action, and when it would become morally wrong for police in the US or UK to continue to work. I didn’t sign up to be the bad guy.

    When Dale makes space travel happen for real, I want to snowboard on Titan and flyfish on Europa and open a brewpub on Io. There’s a lot of future in front of us, and I don’t want to miss it or screw it up.


    On a side note, and possibly even further off-topic, it is my understanding that English police used to be unarmed (or at least armed with nothing more lethal than a billy-club). Is that still true?

    Heaven knows, I NEVER take a thread off-topic…

    From what I can tell, usually. There was one spurt in the 1990’s where one UK department (Greater Manchester?) tried to quickly increase the number of armed officers in response to a spike in violent crime. (Yeah, John Major’s handgun ban really worked well, didn’t it?) However, these were Authorized Firearms Officers, who go to violent incidents but don’t do much quote-unquote “normal” work.

    As far as I can tell from reading UK police blogs, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Ministry of Defense Police are the only two UK police departments where line officers are routinely armed. And I’m not 100% about PSNI.

    I personally couldn’t imagine working unarmed, but I’ve been diagnosed as ‘paranoid’ by at least one survey on the internet, and those are just as good as real psychiatry.

  • Sunfish


    An unhappy cop is however unlikely to be a good cop – for any meaning of ‘good’.

    You’re onto something. There’s a very strong link between cynicism and corruption. If you surround someone with wickedness (for lack of a better term) for his working life, without some sort of corrective measure, he’ll stop seeing good as being likely or even possible. In the case of the unhappy cop, that blurs the line between clean and dirty, and makes it easier to cross without even noticing.

    The atheists here will laugh, but that’s what SD and church have in common for me. I don’t go to church because I actually believe all of it. That’s okay, apparently neither does Archbishop Rowan. Church and Samizdata are a way for me to interact with people who have nothing to do with my work, don’t exist in that world, and are basically ‘normal’ people.

    Subotai alluded to this as well: the biggest killer of cops isn’t car wrecks or violence. It’s stress-related illness. Hell, suicide kills more cops than homicide in most years.

    In addition, the political context for policing in the UK is increasingly turning away for Peel’s principles towards the creation of a para-military occupying force. Llamas above seems to see a simialr trend in the US.

    In the UK’s case, an unarmed para-military occupying force. It’s not funny at all, but I can’t help laughing.

    In the case of the US: that trend in my area has mostly manifested in the form of cargo pockets on our uniform trousers and rifles in our cars (not to be confused with the rack of rifles in Andy Griffith’s office in the 1950’s). I’m actually a little mystified about what the ‘militarization’ trend is.

    Part of that may be our decentralized nature. We can (and usually do) have a total ass in DC as Attorney General or Secretary of Homeland Security, but that’s pretty much irrelevant. If Jacqui Smith says ‘frog,’ the UK’s various chiefs all hop, even if their county councils don’t want any hopping or eating flies. Michael Chertoff could be the biggest stroke in WA DC, and it wouldn’t matter because none of us work for him. (Except for the people who work on Homeland Security grant-funded activities, but most of us aren’t.)

  • “With you all the way there Dale!
    We keep talking of property rights
    and the rule of Law, as being the basis for a sound society.
    But without the likes of Sunfish who will enforce those laws and protect those rights for us?”

    It astounds me that anyone can actually write something like that, and still attempt to maintain that bloody “rule of law” horseshit.

    There is no such stoopid-ass thing. It should be patently obvious that “the rule of law” is in fact nothing but the rule of men, each one acting completely individually with “the law” as his rationalization for his acts. And if you don’t believe it, then you are simply not grasping what it means to encourage this person stay on the job and act according to his own conscience in a time when that very reason will more and more demand at least theoretical dissent from “the law”. (Look: it’s why the subject came up in the first place.)

    “The rule of law” is an elevation of fact (the nature of man’s consciousness and the ways it is manifest in his values through action for them) into utter fiction: the idea that individuals will somehow become ethically agnostic when they put on a cop’s uniform.

    This is rampant delusion.

    Why is it so difficult to understand?

  • Ray Rigby

    “I guess it comes down to drawing your line in the sand, when forced to cross it, then it is time to go. I suppose something like being ordered to arrest someone for smoking in public would do it for me.”

    Fed-up, looks like your time in the rozzers might be up: (Link)

    Good work on the Basil Brush case though.

  • Paul Marks

    The police here have a lot of firearms Sunfish – and not just in London and the other big cities.

  • FlyingPig

    Sunfish, there IS life after the uniform — my 19 years on the left coast in a hotbed of liberalism showed me my limits. Most of us knew it was a toxic workplace within a year of starting there. The ones who didn’t were usually what made it toxic.

    Subotai hit it on the head. The job takes a toll on your body and your psyche, especially working evenings and nights. After 9/11, I was curious about what our department expected of us during serious terrorist incidents, and was told I shouldn’t ask. That was enough for me, especially once it was confirmed we were to be cannon fodder for the benefit of city officials. They aren’t worth it. That city has had terrorist activity in the past, so more would not be surprising.

    I suppose my overwhelming desire to experiment with 10mm holes in a variety of heads (street trolls, captains, etc.) also suggested a change of pace… (/sarcasm off…)

    So I put the badge and i.d. on the top shelf of my locker one night and walked out (my sergeant knew I was going, but nobody else). Then moved nearly 6,000 miles away, got married and started a family. Over six years, and I’ve never been back (to that city or department). Keeping contact with friends outside of law enforcement, and friends at church, was key to keeping my sanity during the whole time.

  • Andy

    Sunfish,I”m in agreement with some of the others,stay in the job and do your best to help people where you can,while at the same time do all you can to subvert and undermine the more statist and totalitarian aspects,we need cops that can think for themselves not mindless stasi goons but if it ever gets to the point where you just cant face it any more then its time to quit.