Some critics of police misconduct implicitly assume that we can have our law and enforcement cake and eat it too. They believe that we can simultaneously have police enforce thousands of petty laws and regulations, yet also extirpate racial profiling and excessive use of force to such an extent that police abuse of civilians will no longer be a serious problem. We can indeed take steps such as curbing the militarization of police, and eliminating double standards under which the criminal justice system treats wrongdoing by police far more leniently than similar violence by civilians.

But even if we make substantial progress on these fronts, a society where almost everyone is a criminal will still be a society where the sheer number of hostile interactions between police and civilians will be very large, which in turn ensures that there will be considerable room for abuse. Moreover, curbing police abuse through training, supervision, and after-the-fact accountability is far from an easy task. Among other things, prosecutors are understandably reluctant to go after the very same police departments whose cooperation they need to gather evidence and apprehend suspects. In addition, police are a well-organized interest group with considerable lobbying power and influence over both major political parties.

Carter correctly points out that the massive growth of criminal and regulatory law means that almost anyone can potentially end up in the same situation as Eric Garner. But it is also true that police abuses are far more likely to victimize poor African-Americans and other politically weak groups. That further complicates the task of trying to address the problem by reforming police procedure without also taking a hard look at the scope of the underlying laws that the police are tasked with enforcing. Even with people with considerable political clout find it difficult to impose accountability on police who engage in abusive violence against them.