Nanny State Laws Enacted By Politicians Tarnish Public Perception of Police

“Nanny state laws and public policies are those that claim to act on behalf of public safety but whose consequences do more to replace equal justice with social justice or restrict individual liberty.”

Most police officers are not bad, but do bad laws turn good cops into the bad guys? Why, when cops are under an electron microscope the size of Montana, would communities allow governments to inflame an already tense situation? The proliferation of laws that don’t protect Peter from Paul but instead protect Peter from his own adult decisions, ostensibly in the interest of public safety, should concern us. Are liberals turning our guardians of liberty into servants of the social justice state?

It seems police officers can do no right within today’s anti-cop tumult. From the predictable far left whose instinct is to condemn cops for anything and everything to even some on the right who recently criticized officers posted at violent demonstrations for “doing nothing to stop Antifa,” as if frontline officers make those decisions, law enforcement does not need anything else that unnecessarily makes cops look bad.

Big government politicians continue to cast their police officers in a bad light while claiming to want better police-community relations. Some political leaders are afflicted with the do-something disease and feel compelled to appear as if they’re doing something that benefits the community, even if it ultimately harms it. And too many people conflate something they think is a good idea with automatically being a good law. You might believe exercising and taking vitamins every day is a good idea, but would it be a good law to force everyone to do it?

Nanny state laws and public policies are those that claim to act on behalf of public safety but whose consequences do more to replace equal justice with social justice or restrict individual liberty:

  • Seatbelt mandates
  • Helmets (bicycle, motorcycle, etc.) mandates
  • No smoking in privately owned businesses
  • No smoking within 25’ of business doorway
  • No collecting rain on private property
  • No feeding the homeless without a permit
  • Banning trans fats
  • Banning large soft drinks
  • Kids need expensive permits to sell lemonade in front of their houses
  • Needing a permit to hold a meeting at your home
  • Fines for failing to recycle household waste properly
  • Mandating trash bags in cars
  • No gun zones
  • Illegal to carry trash in your vehicle
  • No-tolerance policies (students suspended for having a 1” toy gun)
  • Hate crimes (crimes that make some victims worth more than others)
  • Hate speech (political speech the left disagrees with)
  • Talking on your cell phone while driving
  • Talking on your cell phone while walking

And on and on. All of these are researchable laws and policies American jurisdictions have been, are, or are considering inflicting on a theoretically free society. For example, should any state’s legal code contain a 1984-esque definition for a “state-approved” litter bag, like some do? In America? Yesterday, you were law-abiding; Presto! Today, you’re a lawbreaker. These you’ll-thank-me-someday-type laws might be proper from parent to child but not from a limited government to free adult. And these nanny state laws will keep coming. You can always count on another liberty-infringing edict cruising down the left side of the pike.

While safety is important, shouldn’t it be individual Americans who decide, based on available information, what best accomplishes this goal for themselves? Educate, don’t mandate. I may disagree with your choice, but shouldn’t it be your choice? I thought the left was pro-choice when deciding how you care for your body?

When police can stop and cite you for these “nanny state” violations, politicians turn cops into political bullies. In totalitarian regimes, political leaders use law enforcement officers to further their ideological schemes. When politicians enact laws allowing police officers to stop people for things like talking on cell phones while driving cars or for not wearing a helmet or seatbelt, absent empirical evidence of unsafe driving, they turn cops into petty tyrants. And what about using cops to shut down a kid’s lemonade stand? What does that do for police-public relations?

While some drivers are distracted while talking on their cell phones, this does not make all drivers talking on cell phones automatically dangerous. Thinking about a family member with a serious medical condition or driving with crying children can be much more distracting than simply calling the babysitter to let him know little Sally will need a bit of cough medicine before bed.

It shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but since lefties will conflate talking with texting, texting is obviously different. A typical driver cannot look at a cell phone display, finger a keyboard, and pay attention to the road at the same time. Unlike texting, drivers talk to passengers, yell at the kids, curse at other drivers, and sing arias to their fellow travelers all while watching for road hazards.

I think most officers use their discretion when possible and hesitate to strictly enforce such laws. However, in some cases, they may have no choice. Often, when these laws go into effect, mayors and police chiefs initiate “emphasis” patrols to “educate” the public regarding the new law. Coincidentally, city and state coffers may increase commensurately with the new enforcement.

FOX Business Channel anchor John Stossel wrote an article titled, “Too Many Regulations Strangle Life.” The libertarian author, TV host, and political commentator wrote, “The conceit of politicians and lawyers is that they think they can manage life through rules. So, they keep adding more. They don’t see that these rules gradually wreck life.” And who do you think they need to enforce their rules? Yes, the cops.

The truly bizarre thing about the left’s frenzy to institute these laws is they are not only unnecessary but some are redundant. Leftist crisis entrepreneurs have created an industry, manufacturing laws to modify behaviors for which laws already exist. Law enforcement jurisdictions already have distracted driving laws such as in Seattle: SMC 11.58.008 – Inattention. “No person shall operate a vehicle in an inattentive manner over and along the streets, alleys or ways open to the public of this City. For the purpose of this section, ‘inattentive manner’ means such a manner so as to fail to maintain a careful lookout for persons or property in the direction of travel.”

What these new laws often do is give the public legitimate reasons for hostility toward police officers.

A driver distracted due to talking on a cell phone would be included under this statute, right? Do we really need a Napoleonic Code of item-specific laws against things that could possibly distract drivers? Inattention to Driving (distracted while applying makeup, while reading a map, or by eating a breakfast burrito). Yes, I once cited someone for this even though there is no specific law against eating a breakfast burrito while driving—at least not yet.

Back when I was still on the job, if I saw a suspected distracted driver, based on my articulable observations, e.g., driver’s eyes not on the road, vehicle crossing the centerline, or failing to stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk, while talking on a cell phone or not, I could already stop and cite the driver for distracted driving. Adding a needless new law does not give the cops any “extra” public safety tools, but it might provide what good people could see as harassment tools. And all these hard feelings just so some politicians can appear to have done something positive for public safety when what they’ve done is something negative against individual liberty.

What these new laws often do is give the public legitimate reasons for hostility toward police officers. The ability of cops to “legally” stop people who are not presenting an imminent danger to public safety can make free people feel oppressed. If a driver displays no evidence of dangerous driving but just happens to be talking on a cell phone, why should a government agent be able to infringe on that person’s pursuit of happiness?

Even with a suspected DUI driver, an officer needs to observe and be able to articulate the unsafe actions the possible drunk driver committed before the officer can make a traffic stop and investigate for DUI. Should an officer be able to stop a driver simply because he saw a car pull out of the parking lot of a business that happens to serve alcoholic beverages?

…why should a government agent be able to infringe on that person’s pursuit of happiness?

Why can an officer assume you’re being unsafe just because you’re talking on your cell phone while driving, but can’t assume you’re a danger just because you’ve been in a bar, liquor store, or restaurant? You could argue there’s more of a case for potential dangerous driving from the latter example. However, law enforcement in a free society is not supposed to be easy. Cops should have evidence of an imminent risk of harm to people or property in order to act.

When nannycrats make something as ubiquitous and innocuous as talking on a cell phone while driving (or walking) illegal, they are setting their cops up for a community relations failure. Does anyone really believe American law enforcement needs any more bad feelings right now? Hey, politicians… stop making cops the bad guys.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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