The United States and its citizens promote a vision of the country as the epitome of civil rights and liberties. These, however, are not offered free from the conditions of honoring the civil rights and liberties, and indeed the safety, of those who share citizenship and residency within American borders. Hence, public safety and civil liberties often need to share an uncomfortable balance. In many cases, issues that relate to these are by no means clear and continue to be debated.
The Death Penalty: Effective Crime Deterrent vs. Civil Rights Violation
The death penalty is one of the most highly debated legal issues, both in the United States and world wide. At the heart of the debate is whether this method of punishment can be regarded as a true deterrent for crime and how this balances against the danger of civil rights violations. Both advocates for and opponents against capital punishment make strong arguments, resulting in a type of stalemate situation, where it appears that agreement is impossible.
As opponent against the death penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, 2012) argues that, first and foremost, the death penalty in the United States is applied in an unfair and unjust way. This claim is based on the tendency of disproportionate convictions against those without the funding for good legal counsel, those convicted of murdering a white victim, and the race of the convicted. According to the ACLU, people of color are far more likely to be executed than those who are white. Furthermore, many wrongful executions have been conducted against innocent people. This discrimination, according to the ACLU, fundamentally violates the rights of those who are convicted, wrongfully or otherwise.
The ACLU also addresses the moral argument against the death penalty, in that a murder conviction, even if rightfully upheld, should not give the State or any other party the right to use murder as a tool for justice. Indeed, such a penalty places the state at the same level as the criminals that are convicted, raising questions about the moral standing of those who are in charge of public safety.
Finally, the ACLU argues that there is no public safety benefit to the death penalty, and that the greatest effect it has is wasting tax payer money. In addition, the majority of law enforcement professionals are of the opinion that, compared to strategies such as increasing the number of police officers and improving the economy, the death penalty ranks lowest as a method of reducing violence.
Proponents of the death penalty, on the other hand, argue that the death penalty indeed does serve as a deterrent for violent crime. Other arguments include the fact that seeing a murderer convicted and executed can have a powerful cathartic effect on family members of murder victims.
Tanner (2007) bases his argument in favor of the death penalty on a series of academic studies that claim to prove beyond a doubt that capital punishment indeed does deter crime. The claim made by these studies is that up to 18 lives are saved with the execution of each convicted killer. This is not only because the felon in question is no longer free to kill, but also because the conviction and execution are conducted in such a way that potential murderers are deterred from their actions for fear of being executed themselves.
The moral argument here would then be that murderers deserve no more than reward in kind for their actions. Nevertheless, Tanner makes no mention of the detrimental effect of wrongful convictions, executions, and disproportionate guilty verdicts. Hence, the murky territory of divergent opinions and investigations that focus on singular cases makes it difficult to distinguish truth, if indeed there is such a thing, from opinion and from fiction.
Gun Control: Amendment Violation or Public Safety Concern
Gun control is yet another hotly debated topic in the United States, not least in the light of the recent incidents of gun violence suffered by the country. Certainly, this is an emotional issue, especially for the loved ones of those falling victim to such violence. However, the main argument against gun control is whether this would truly serve as a method to curb violent crime in the country.
To promote this point authors like Levy (2013) quote statistics that relate to crime in both the United States and elsewhere. In the United States, for example, what the author refers to as "random multi-victim killings" such as the murder of elementary school children make up not even one percent of all murders in the country. The author follows this by making the point that, even in countries with stringent gun controls in place such as Norway, gun violence will occur. This is proved by the case of Anders Breivik who shot 69 people.
Indeed, statistics form a strong argument. In the 1980s, for example, gun control laws were weaker in the United States than they have been since the turn of the 21st century. Yet, random mass killings in the new millennium have increased by three times. It therefore appears that gun control laws have little effect on crime that involves murder in the country. Levy further cites academic studies that have failed to prove that any gun-control regulation had significant effects on violence crime, suicide, or accidents.
Based on these facts and statistics, Levy maintains that gun regulations are imposed, generally, on law-abiding citizens who are not part of the crime problem. If legislation were to focus on drugs instead, however, the author hypothesizes that gun violence would be significantly reduced, since it focuses on the cause of the problem, which is drug use, rather than one of its by-products, which is gun possession.
Levy's argument, in my view is somewhat stronger than either side of the death penalty debate, since it is based upon facts, statistics, and reliable studies. Gun possession is also not fraught with legal and philosophical pitfalls such as wrongful conviction or racism. It is therefore far easier to study, especially in a comparative fashion, where countries with stringent gun controls can easily be investigated in terms of their crime rate in comparison to countries where such controls are less strictly enforced.
Pursuit Driving: Benefits and Consequences
Closely related to the gun violence issue is the phenomenon of police action that could, intentionally or otherwise, lead to the injury or death of innocent parties. One of these issues surround the phenomenon known as pursuit driving, where police officers give chase when a vehicle is observed or believed to be used in the commission of a crime.
Ruff and Tedesco (2013) highlight the dangers of pursuit driving by citing several cases where innocent bystanders were either seriously or fatally wounded. This is followed by questions surrounding the concern for public safety when police officers engage in vehicle pursuits. Are the benefits truly worth the potential cost?
The authors note that the Police Department is highly aware of the risks involved in vehicle pursuits. One of the safety measures used in such cases is calling off a chase when a supervisor believes that the risks are too high. Also, the police helicopter unit, Blue Eagle, serves as an alternative for high speed vehicle pursuits.
Indeed, Police Department scrutiny of high-speed emergency call responses by police vehicles after reports of crashes by such vehicles resulted in a decrease of police chases in 2009 to 124 pursuits. This was the lowest number of such chases in six years. Further actions taken by the Department include training sessions that focus on vehicle safety. These are conducted intensively for new officers, with annual refresher courses for all officers.
Nevertheless, vehicle pursuits by police still occur and are still risky. He question is whether the benefits outweigh the risks. This question becomes especially important when one considers the likelihood of catching a felon and the ability of the Blue Eagle unit to assist. According to Ruff and Tedesco, the helicopter unit is able to assist in only about a third of all pursuits conducted by the police. One of the main problems is a lack of control by police over the outcome of a chase. Felons attempting to escape by speeding away from a pursuing police vehicle are seldom concern about the lives that could be affected by their actions, as demonstrated by the examples the authors offer.
It appears that there is no simple solution to the safety problem involved in vehicle pursuits. The Police Department does, however, appear to be deeply concerned about and aware of the safety risks involved. While most officers will comply with orders to abandon pursuits, there are also cases of violation, which increases the risks. Inexperienced police officers behind the wheels of pursuing vehicles can also increase the risk. The bottom line appears to be that discretion is of utmost importance; when the risks outweigh the benefits of apprehending a fleeing offender, the pursuit should be abandoned.
Hate Crimes: Associated Threats, Personal, and Societal