From Left to Right and across the nation, trust in American governing institutions is at rock bottom. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece with some eye-catching stats. A recent poll conducted by NBC found that only 37% of the public holds a positive view of the FBI, down from 52% in 2018. Among Republicans, that number is 17%.
Though liberals may still hold a somewhat more positive view of one of the country’s most powerful agencies, the same cannot be said for the police. Increased scrutiny and distrust towards the police in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in 2020 have gutted the force’s ranks. Since 2020, over 1,000 cops have prematurely retired from the Los Angeles Police Department alone. In just New York, about 1,400 NYPD cops are expected to resign this year before reaching retirement age. Overall, there were 50% more resignations nationally last year than in 2019.
Across the board, Americans are repulsed by the routine abuse of power. Is it any surprise, though, given the widespread feeling (backed by the FBI’s own data) that the FBI is all too happy to invade Americans’ security by spying on them, directly or indirectly? As the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed, the FBI conducted as many as 3.4 million searches of U.S. data in 2021. The Office of the Inspector General also released a report detailing “widespread non-compliance” with procedures and ethics rules.
The WSJ article argues that social breakdown—violence, lawlessness, drug addiction, but also distrust in the “institutions that provide the bedrock of domestic tranquility”—begets only further repressive tactics such as a willingness to engage in and tolerate greater surveillance in the name of safety and security. Just look at El Salvador, where a sudden rise in the country’s homicide rate, making the country the murder capital of the world, was met with fierce state reprisals. El Salvador crushed its violent crime, but at what cost to constitutional and civil liberties? Only time will tell.
The U.S. should avoid such a route for the reason that Americans’ distrust of governing institutions is due to the fact that they are being too heavy-handed, not that they are doing too little. Further invasions into privacy, crackdowns, and reprisals will only inflame the situation. Nor does adherence to constitutional procedures give way to higher crime and further social breakdown. The Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement does not force us to sacrifice security where the need is genuine. It acts as a check against lazy assumptions and active abuse while also shining a harsh light on the exercise of the necessary but dangerous powers we hand to the government.
Recognizing the need for effective policing is not incompatible with recognizing the need for checks on abuse or overzealousness. In fact, the two are inextricably interrelated. A country cannot have good policing where abuse is rampant.