Monday, June 22, 2015

Too Good for Government "Work": The Death of a Baton Rouge Peace Officer

Betty Smothers with her son, Warrick Dunn.

Every phone call that arrives after midnight is freighted with terrible expectations, and the one received by Warrick Dunn at about 12:30 a.m. on January 7, 1993 bore the worst possible news.

“You need to get to the hospital – quick,” directed the caller, a Baton Rouge police officer. By the time the 18-year-old Warrick arrived, his 36-year-old mother, Betty Smothers, had died from gunshot wounds received during an ambush at a nearby bank. Betty was killed in the line of duty as a private security guard for a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in an exceptionally crime-plagued section of the city.

A single mother of six young children and a corporal with the Baton Rouge Police Department, Smothers supplemented her income through an immeasurably more dangerous part-time job as a private peace officer. Baton Rouge at the time was experiencing a prolonged paroxysm of violent crime. As is always the case, city residents seeking protection for property had to pay for it themselves, with whatever they had left over after being taxed to pay for law enforcement “services.”

The night Smothers was murdered, she and store manager Kimen Lee discussed “the rash of grocery-store stickups in the area,” recalled a 1995 profile of Warrick, a much-lauded High School football and track star who became a national champion and Heisman contender at Florida State. “Lee remembers agreeing with Smothers that their nightly routine could easily make them sitting ducks.”

Smothers, who was permitted to use her patrol car while moonlighting, habitually entered the one-way drive-through from the “wrong” direction. This allowed Lee to unlock the night-deposit box through the passenger-side window and conduct her transaction in seconds. This also meant that Smothers would be partially shielding her client with her own body – as she was during the ambush that killed her. 

Lee was seriously wounded, but able to operate the vehicle from the passenger seat. She survived because Smothers, in keeping with her contract as a private security officer, placed the security of her client above her own, rather than making “officer safety” the chief consideration. Given what is known of her character, it is possible that Smothers would have behaved in a similar fashion while on duty, even though she had no legal obligation to do so.

By every available account, Smothers was a kind neighbor and a genuinely heroic mother who was fully invested in caring for her children. Unlike most of her professional colleagues, she was not “badge-heavy” during her 14 years on the police force, which prompted many who knew her to speculate that she had been transplanted from Mayberry. Among those she encountered during that career was a young miscreant named Kevan Brumfield, whom she caught shoplifting. Rather than handcuffing the thief and pressing charges, Smothers compelled him to return what he had stolen and urged him to take advantage of an opportunity most young men in his position wouldn’t receive.

Brumfield proved to be incorrigible. By the time of that encounter with Smothers, the teenager had lived in several group homes and been treated – most likely with the full suite of psycho-toxic drugs – for various emotional “disorders.” Owing in significant measure to the perverse economic incentives produced by prohibition, the intellectually stunted and morally obtuse teenager found a niche as a narcotics dealer and armed robber.

Although Smothers never spoke with Brumfield again, their paths intersected six years later on the day of her death: He was the one who fatally shot Sommers during the January 7, 1993 ambush.

Brumfield was convicted of first-degree murder and has spent two decades on death row. On June 18, the US Supreme Court granted his appeal for a review of that sentence in light of his claimed “intellectual disability” – a documented I.Q. of 75 and his history of psychiatric hospitalization. The Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which was issued following Brumfield’s conviction, held that the execution of an “intellectually disabled” convict violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

In his dissenting opinion, Clarence Thomas observed that Brumfield’s claim “that his actions were the product of his disadvantaged background is striking in light of the conduct of … Smothers’ children following her murder.” Warrick, who had just celebrated his 18th birthday, essentially became a surrogate father to his five younger siblings. Following a record-setting football career at Florida State and then with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, Warrick devoted himself to charity, establishing several organizations that provide for the needs of single mothers and traumatized children.

Betty Smothers’ funeral, which was held at the Centroplex Exhibition Hall, was attended by 2,000 people. The four-mile-long procession to the cemetery included hundreds of police cars. The Governor of Louisiana and Mayor of Baton Rouge spoke at Smothers’ wake, and a city street in Baton Rouge now bears her name.Friends and neighbors were eager to help Betty's mother raise her orphaned children. The death benefits provided to Betty as a 14-year employee of the department provided her children with material security of the kind rarely enjoyed by the spouses and children of private security operatives who are killed on the job.

Smothers died as a private peace officer defending property from aggression, rather than as a State functionary exercising the government’s monopoly on violence. The government law enforcement agency that employed Smothers sought to bask in the reflected glory of the heroism she displayed in a significantly more dangerous occupation. 

Bart Starr recognizes Warrick's charity work.
The early and mid-1990s were an unusually dangerous time for many Baton Rouge residents, but the police department that supposedly protected the public didn’t expose itself to those dangers. Betty Smothers was one of 74 Baton Rouge murder victims in 1993. In a single year, the “civilian” murder toll was more than four times greater than the number of police officers who have been killed in the entire history of the Baton Rouge PD.

Over the past 104 years, a total of eighteen Baton Rouge PD officers have died on duty. More than one quarter of them were killed in motorcycle or automobile accidents. Betty Smothers was the only member of the department to die through violence or an accident during a sixteen-year period -- 1988 to 2004. Her name is included in the roster of “fallen” Baton Rouge police officers despite the fact that she was not acting as a police officer when she was murdered.

As Nietzche famously said, everything the State says is a lie, and everything it has is stolen. In this case, the State’s coercive caste, seeking to add undeserved luster to its institutional image, has stolen the valor of a private peace officer.

Private security officers are made out of the same flawed material as the rest of humanity. Unlike government enforcement operatives, however, they can’t take refuge in “qualified immunity” when they harm innocent people, or allow them to come to harm through neglect or malice. Private peace officers confront much greater occupational risks than their government-employed counterparts. They are also dramatically less inclined toward violence than American police officers, who kill much more promiscuously than law enforcement officers in other countries.

Examining figures compiled by the Washington Post, the Guardian of London, and the watchdog organization Killed By Police, professor Edward Peter Stringham points out that “the police-against-citizen kill rate” in the U.S. “is more than 145 per 100,000.” The overall homicide rate, by way of contrast, is 5 per 100,000.

The two most violent countries in the world, he continues, are Venezuela and Honduras, where the national homicide rates are 54 and 90 per 100,000, respectively. Both of those countries are subject to State Department travel advisories.

“If you are not comfortable vacationing in those countries, it is little wonder why so many Americans are uncomfortable with police who kill at a rate more than 1.5 and 2.5 times the homicide rates” of those two extraordinarily violent countries, he notes.

Stringham, the Davis Professor for Economic Organizations and Innovation at Trinity College, is the author of Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, which he recently discussed in an interview with the indispensable Dr. Tom Woods. One of the key insights encoded in the title of that book is that governance does not require political government. One application of that principle is the private provision of security, a practice that exists because of the consummate failure of government police agencies to provide their advertised service.

Every monopoly offers an inferior product at higher cost than a competitive market would bear, and as Professor Stringham points out, this is emphatically true of government policing.
All but extinct: Chief Byard of S.F.'s Patrol Special Police.
In San Francisco at the time of Betty Smothers’ murder, the Patrol Special Police, a consortium of independent private security companies, “charged $25 to $30 an hour, depending on the particular service, while off-duty public officers charged up to $58 an hour of security service.”

“The need for private security is greatest for low-income families, since they are victimized by crime more often than other income groups,” Stringham observes in a paper co-written with Kai Jaeger. “All too often, regulations price low-income families out of the market for private protection…. Some cities only allow off-duty government police officers to patrol for private security firms, for example. Since hiring police officers costs two to four times as much as non-police private security guards, this type of regulation makes private security prohibitively expensive.”

Government intervention thus artificially prices private security beyond the reach of the people most desperately in need of that service. This is a very lucrative arrangement for police officers.

In San Francisco, write Stringham and Jaeger, roughly half of the police department “work off-duty, earning an extra $9.5 million.” That’s a sizeable and well-connected constituency seeking to insulate itself from purely private competition. The “Patrol Specials,” who are descended from patrols created in the 1840s to protect miners and merchants, are the only private security company allowed to operate in San Francisco under the city charter.

Predictably, that relationship corrupted the organization. Although it has continued to provide contract-based protection for property owners, it was also given a limited role in carrying out police functions, such as issuing citations and enforcing city regulations – and found itself on the receiving end of several lawsuits arising from abuses of the kind such behavior entails. Rather than expanding the use of private security patrols, the city administration has treated the Patrol Specials as the extinction-bound remnant of a less enlightened time.

“Despite all the good we do and how effective we are, the police union doesn’t want us around,” complained Patrol Special Police Chief Alan Byard in 2010. The unions have all but killed their competition: By 2014, fewer than 10 active Special Patrol officers remained.

Critics of private security companies frequently complain that “rent-a-cops” are insufficiently regulated and inadequately trained. Government police organizations are state-regulated, but – as we are constantly reminded – they are also entirely unaccountable to the public. The work quality of private security operatives is variable, but in a competitive market a contractor or company that is corrupt or inept won’t survive for very long. 

Furthermore, in some states – such as Arkansas and Louisiana – the professional standards of private security officers are much higher than those of government-employed law enforcement officers.
No training required in Louisiana for part-time cops.
In Louisiana, the state government requires security officers to receive a modest amount of classroom instruction regarding legal and ethical issues, use of non-lethal force, “limits of force,” emergency medical care “including First Aid and CPR,” and firearms training prior to being certified. They are then required to undergo an annual refresher course in “security training” and re-qualify with their firearms.

By way of contrast, a Louisiana resident can become a government-employed police officer without any training or certification whatsoever, and continue in that occupation on a part-time basis without ever attending a POST academy. Some police departments in small rural towns employ full-time officers who are entirely untrained – and, owing to “qualified immunity,” selectively exempt from the criminal laws that private security officers must obey.

The government-imposed distortions in Louisiana’s security market probably made moonlighting as a security guard economically irresistible to Betty Smothers, a single mother seeking to buy a home for her large family. Betty's day job as a cop notwithstanding, her conduct the night she was murdered suggests that she was probably too good for government “work."

Notes and asides  

A few weeks ago I mentioned that our family is facing eviction after our landlord walked away from the mortgage (this is the second time we've experienced this over the past six years). Our "hard deadline" to vacate is this Thursday (June 25). We haven't been able to find a new home here in Payette that is large enough for our family and within our severely limited budget -- a situation that isn't uncommon in the Idaho rental market.

We are planning a move to Homedale, a small town in Owyhee County, but our new home isn't yet available. Any financial support you can provide to help us with our moving expenses would be tremendously appreciated.Thank you so much.

Dum spiro, pugno!


Humanum Genus said...

Mr. Grigg, I e-mailed you a few weeks ago about another matter, but I guess you didn't receive it,.

I hope your financial situation improves, but in that regard I have a piece of advice. I know that blogging about the police state can be fun, and a noble cause to 'inform others,' (although one could argue you're preaching to the choir) but if your enterprise can not even pay your bills, perhaps it's time to seek out a business where you can support your family- or, if that's not feasible, get a job as an employee somewhere to help pay your bills.

I've been writing for number of years and make decent money at it for a side gig, but I have my main business which supports my family. I've been self employed since I was 20, and when my first business started to falter after 20+ years, I went into another business, which is thriving, thank God.

So, this post is not meant to be snarky or demeaning. I'm saying its time to buck up. and if you're self employed, that most likely will still allow you the time to research and write on your blog, while taking care of what REALLY matters, your family's financial well being.

by the way, one other tip- On google adsense, youtube videos vs writing, I have found that the majority of income is generated by youtubes, not writing, it appears at about 70- 30 (videos vs writing) even though I prefer writing, videos seem to rake in the cash better.

So if you don't have a YT channel, maybe its time to get one.

William N. Grigg said...

H.G., even if snark had been your objective, snarkiness wedded with constructive criticism can be very useful.

Please forgive me for not responding to your email, which -- as it happens -- I can't remember at the moment. If you would send it again I promise to give it immediate attention. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

First off, you are completely incorrect that Officer Smothers was working as a security guard. When you wear the uniform, use your patrol car you are "on duty" even if you are working an "off duty detail." So if you are killed it's in the line of duty, period.

retired LEO Florida