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The Right to Public Safety
January 7, 2024
by William P. Meyers

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I believe the right to safety in public has become neglected in the United States and in my home city of Seattle. I believe public safety is a fundamental right. Given human nature and the complexity of the world, I cannot blame our government for every instance of unsafe conditions in public or private spaces. However, I believe the right to public safety has been neglected and needs to be prioritized.

Most Americans are familiar with our Bill of Rights, as outlined in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. There are also rights listed in the original Constitution as passed. For instance, the right to Habeas Corpus is listed in Article 1 of the Constitution. Freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press are listed in the First Amendment. Rights of a person accused of crime are listed in Amendment Six. Moreover, the Ninth Amendment states that the listing of rights in the Constitution "shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Given the experiences of that era, enumerated rights were mainly to protect citizens from a possibly unjust government. The need for the government to ensure public safety was simply assumed, except as stated in general terms in the We The People introductory paragraph of the Constitution.

The right to public safety is critically important to society. For citizens go to work, or about other activities, the public spaces must be safe. We need to know it is safe to walk, bike, ride public transport, or drive. Ideally, this should not require policing, but in reality some amount of police work is necessary. Ideally every person should go about in a safe manner and look out for the safety of others, not just themselves. Even then, accidents may happen. At the other end of the spectrum is war, whether civil or international, wherein everyone is in near constant danger. War is a crime in part because it violates the public right to safety.

We mostly live in the broad, complex spectrum between ideal safety and constant danger. The main roll of government is to keep us as close to the safety ideal as is possible. Governments should provide for safe transit, safe buildings to live, work and shop in, health safety, and economic safety. Government can do this through laws and regulations, including the enforcement of those laws. Governments can also seek to keep human culture on a path to safety and prosperity, for instance by providing good quality public schooling for all children.

Society is complicated, governance is complicated, the economy is complicated, and unfortunately things can get out of balance in many ways. Some imbalances lead to a loss of public safety. Most obviously, when there is a lack of necessary laws, or a lack of policing of those laws, some citizens, perhaps many citizens, will behave in ways that endanger other citizens. If the laws exist but people violate them we call this crime, but need to keep in mind that crime is a complex phenomena. It includes a very wide variety of behaviors, from paying workers less than the minimum wage, to discriminating unfairly against certain groups, to avoiding taxes, to driving carelessly, to physically harming people for fun or profit. All crime infringes on the public's right to safety, but some crime more directly impacts people's physical and mental safety.

Public safety provided by the government costs money, and that money must come from taxpayers. Governments have multiple priorities (including getting re-elected and paying themselves) that compete with public safety for funding. Within public safety budgets there is competition for dollars as well. A fundamental divide, illustrated by the City of Seattle right now, is between the providing of safety though social services (and education) versus providing for policing and other responses like ambulance and fire teams.

I want to focus on situations where other rights are claimed which, when prioritized, infringe on the more fundamental right to public safety. In Seattle it has become popular (though not universally popular) to care more about the alleged rights and well-being of persons committing crimes, than about the harms they cause to other individuals. When people are not held accountable for criminal behavior, that contributes to the general flourishing of a criminal, self-centered, anti-social mindset.

It is a remarkable trick of the American legal mind that when a crime has been committed in reality, the person who committed the crime is held to be innocent until proven guilty. The problem that leads to this legalized hypocrisy, or denial of objectivity, is that persons who have not committed crimes can be, and sometimes are, accused of having committed crimes. In most cases that situation is from errors of human judgment, but it can result from corrupt police or government officials, as well as citizens knowingly making false accusations. Over time our society has made it increasingly difficult to convict people of crimes [yet occasionally an objectively innocent person still is convicted]. As a result criminals have learned that they can usually get away with crimes. The police (and prosecutors), in Seattle, have learned that they can seldom get a conviction if they arrest someone, whatever the evidence in the case. So police have largely given up on solving any but the most major crimes. Criminals keep track of what laws are enforced and which are not, and so we have seen rises in theft and dangerous driving, among other anti-social behaviors.

Do people have a right to take drugs like cocaine, meth, and fentanyl? A right to sell those drugs? If so, where do those rights come from? When might they conflict with the public right to safety?

A better way to ask those questions is: do people have right to self-harm? I believe there is a difference between freedom and rights. Freedom, which we generally value in our society, implies the right to self-harm, including with hard drugs. But we limit freedom in many ways, in part to preserve central freedoms for everyone. You are not free to assault people, you do not have a right to steal, because those acts deprive other people of their freedoms. We have long prioritized health as a positive social value. That is why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created and given its powers. It is why we have Medicare and Medicaid. Society has a right to say that certain drugs are unsafe or ineffective and cannot be sold or taken. In the case of coke, meth, and opiates, where often bad public behavior is exhibited by those that take and sell them, the public is right to criminalize their sale and use.

Our society values full employment for all, not dropping out of the work force and living by crime or falsely seeking welfare benefits. To the extent that even legal drug use, as with alcohol and marijuana, results in parasitic social behavior or crime, I believe the right to public safety trumps the right to party.

When the voters and governments recognize the importance of prioritizing public safety, there is much to be done. How do we break the cycle of drug addiction? Every user is the potential source of new users. How much should we spend on rehab, how much on jail and prison, and how much should we save in taxpayer dollars, short term, by permissiveness towards drug users? Can we prevent drug use by doing more to raise living standards among the bottom income earners? I doubt that, based on personal experience, because most of the meth heads, junkies and coke heads I have known started in the working class or middle class or even upper middle class. The most famous junkie, William Burroughs, started in the capitalist elite. Meth, junk, and coke feel good to most people no matter how traumatic or coddled their childhood was. Addiction follows regardless of class status. The best way to prevent addiction is to make the drugs unavailable, and that requires police action. The only real question is what is the most effective police/prosecution/possible diversion strategy to reduce the number of new addicts and crimes committed by those already addicted. Some people say the War on Drugs failed, so we need to decriminalize all drugs and drug dealing. But the Peace With Drugs has already failed, as seen in the 1,050 known fentanyl overdoses in Seattle in 2023. We need a smarter strategy.

Finally, consider diversion programs in light of the public's right to safety. In Seattle diversion programs have mainly failed, to date, if you measure failure by their stated goals. If a diversion program actually prevents people from committing crimes, and gets them to be productive members of society, that would be great. We know how important good monitoring of parolees is to helping them get on the right path. That includes the threat of being sent back to jail if they violate parole. In Seattle, diversion programs seldom follow those diverted in any meaningful way. According to social workers in the programs,the "clients" seldom check in, and there are no typically consequences when they fail to comply. I favor diversion programs only if they closely supervise the offender to make sure they get off drugs (or stop whatever criminal behavior led them to court), get work, and show a desire to be good citizens.

To summarize, I believe public safety is a right, and past actions of the Seattle City Council have violated that right. I believe our city should provide jobs and homes for citizens when the free market fails to do that. Criminal activity that harms others, including selling hard drugs, needs to be severely discouraged. The rights of criminals should be subject to a constraint: the right to public safety. Preventing people from becoming drug addicts, or engaging in other forms of crime, is a priority. But to the extent people commit crimes because the laws are too lenient or are not enforced effectively, the right to public safety demands more police, prosecution, and incarceration resources.

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