Legislating respect isn’t the same as getting it

Recent legislation out of Kentucky passed by the State Senate, would make it a class B misdemeanor for people to insult or taunt police officers that might provoke a violent response. The stated objective of the bill is to reduce violent confrontations. Beyond the possible infringement on First Amendment protections of free speech, this is unlikely to work out the way it is intended.

A protester confronts Kentucky State Police in downtown Louisville during the second night of protest in response to the shooting of EMT Breonna Taylor in her home by Louisville Metro police. Via REUTERS

The subtext of the bill is that police officers are disproportionately at-risk in verbal confrontations with members of the public. This appears to skip over a couple of basic facts: Police are licensed by the state to use coercive force to maintain order and almost always have the means to do so at hand. In that context, such a statute might reasonably be construed in one word: obey.

Police work is
difficult, and verbal assaults against people, including police officers, are
wrong. But that doesn’t make them a chargeable event. If the intent of this
bill is to mandate unquestioning respect for officers of the state, well,
Houston, we have a problem. Americans by nature are not inclined to give that
kind of respect to a government that derives its power from the consent of the
governed. First Amendment protections for speech and assembly also come into
play. One can only imagine what would happen if legislators in blue states
started playing fast and loose with the Second Amendment the way this bill does
with the First; it would be a nonstarter from the drop.

Respect can’t be mandated; it has to be earned. Last year, I wrote about how the Camden Police Department had gone about rebuilding their police department, rewriting the city’s use-of-force rules and strengthening relationships between officers and the neighborhoods they are sworn to serve and protect. Violent crime dropped steeply, as did complaints from the public about police behavior. When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Camden had marches rather than riots, and the police were part of them. That is what mutual respect looks like, and, contra the Kentucky Senate, there’s no short-cut to achieving it via legislative fiat.