LAW ENFORCEMENT AND LIBERTY
And all the sinners, saints
-The Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil"
One of the toughest jobs I can imagine is law enforcement. Police tend to see the worst of everyone and their job involves dealing with the harshest and most dangerous portions of society. Further, the people they deal with usually are at their worst and most hostile, which makes their job significantly more challenging.
On top of all that, the courts go out of their way to make sure the job of a cop is harder by letting bad guys go and finding loopholes to negate the work of police. And if that wasn't enough, the job requires long, hard hours which are hard on the family. And of course, there's always someone waiting to film you if you do something wrong, go too far, or just have had enough and yell at someone.
Any other job, if you have a bad day or do something stupid, you get a reprimand and get back to work, or just a pat on the back and told to be more careful. As a cop you can get jailed.
And since everyone is looking to nail a cop, and the press loves to publicize stories about how a policeman did something lousy, they're all waiting for you to fail and will tend to spin things in the worst possible light.
Which is why on the whole, I'm very supportive of police, am skeptical of stories of their alleged abuse, and always want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Every police officer I've encountered has been friendly, courteous, and well-mannered.
However, all that said, there is an aspect to modern police work which is disturbing to me and I think needs to be seriously addressed. Everyone knows about police brutality, abuse of power, and even the few cases of corruption. People know about that cop recently who got in an argument with someone over their cell phone and shot him. Its horrible and wrong, and cops know it. They hate that stuff more than ordinary folks.
What I'm concerned with is a bit different, and its something a lot of cops, maybe most, tend to think is a great thing. I can illustrate this by the TV show CSI: New York. Heavily influenced by conservative actor Gary Sinese, the tone of the show was significantly more right-leaning than most, particularly its parent program CSI.
But even on this show, the cops are all for gun control, they love the fact that its brutally hard for a citizen in New York City to buy and own a gun. A lot of cops feel this way, it helps keep them safe and they believe it keeps the streets safer. The simple calculus of fewer guns=less gun violence is compelling on first glance. Now, I don't want to get into gun control issues here, I've dealt with them in the past pretty extensively.
No, this is an illustration of how the police view freedom and their job differently than you or I might, and perhaps everyone ought to. For the cops, fewer guns means their job is easier and they're safer on the street, as they see it. They are law enforcement, nobody else needs to be armed anyway.
This principle of "it makes our job easier and it helps us catch the bad guys" is expanding rather alarmingly in America. I think the real starting point was in a shoot out between cops and a drug gang in the 1980s when the police had pistols and the drug gang had machine guns. A lot of cops died, and it took hours to finally catch the bad guys. So the cops started to arm up, significantly. And the "war on drugs" has been the genesis for a lot of arming up by cops, as the criminals get more lethal and well equipped.
Now police departments have armored personnel carriers and rockets and drones and grenades and more. The police is becoming a sort of quasi military and I understand why: they're up against military-armed bad guys and want the edge.
This all started to get particularly alarming in the late 90s when President Clinton signed a Defense Authorization bill which had language in it allowing police to buy military surplus goods. Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers write in the UK Guardian:
Here's how it all happened. A little-known Pentagon program has been quietly militarizing American police forces for years. A total of $4.2bn worth of equipment has been distributed by the Defense Department to municipal law enforcement agencies, with a record $546m in 2012 alone.
In the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997, the "1033 program" was born. It allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment to local police forces.
Though the program's existed since the 1990s, it has expanded greatly in recent years, due, in part, to post-9/11 fears and sequestration budget cuts. The expanse, however, seems unnecessary given that the Department of Homeland Security has already handed out $34bn in "terrorism grants" to local polices forces – without oversight mind you – to fund counter-terrorism efforts.
This program has gone unaudited all these years, and the only cost to the police is transportation, storage, and maintenance. Even small towns are picking up SWAT-type squads, and it is estimated that 150 swat raids take place every day across America. Journalist Radley Balko testified before congress in 2007 that swat raids have increased in America 1500% over the last two decades.
But it goes even further than weaponry and tactics. There are cameras everywhere now, not just in the US, but all around the civilized world. Some of these are security cameras, such as at a place of business or parking lot. Some are fixed to automatic teller machines, filming people making the transaction. But many are there to catch bad guys in the act, such as traffic cameras. These cameras are getting so omnipresent that the show Person of Interest uses the idea as a central design to the setting.
Having police subpena every camera in an area to get a glimpse of criminals and crimes taking place sounds great, right? Except it goes beyond that. You're being filmed when you are not breaking the law. And further, once the police have that footage, they keep it, they don't throw it away. It comes out any time they're on a case remotely related.
Ever get fingerprinted? You're on file, forever, in databases that the police can dig up any time they want. They don't need a warrant to check the fingerprint logs, just be on a case. If you're arrested and printed, then turn out to be not guilty, they still keep your prints. If you've been printed so the cops can eliminate you from your house and find anything from a robber, those go on file too.
Your DNA, same deal. We need this to eliminate you from the samples; thanks sucker. We have it forever now. Seems like at the very least they should be required to destroy those samples after a certain time period.
And if you think this won't hurt you unless you break the law, reconsider. There was a case during the Bush administration in which a Seattle radical leftist lawyer who defends terrorist cases was arrested because his print showed up on a piece of the bomb used in the Spain train bombing. The FBI found his print, they claimed.
Except the print was very partial and smudged, and their "computer enhancement" and expert had so little to go on they guessed most of the print. That this guy was a radical terrorist buddy didn't help him any but he was cleared because it wasn't his print at all.
All of these steps - cameras, guns, tanks, etc - are justified because it helps the police catch the bad guys. Come on, don't you want to cut back on crime? What's a little camera and your prints on file going to hurt if we can get the bad guys?
The problems with this are manifold (untrustworthy prosecutors, sloppy lab work, mistakes made, false arrests, etc) but the worst is the philosophy behind it all. Their argument is simply this: your liberty matters less than our job.
There's a reason Thomas Jefferson said he'd rather 100 guilty people go free than jail one innocent man. He was exaggerating, but the point is clear: society and liberty benefit as a whole and in the long term far more if liberty is protected more than bad guys caught.
When the police become the enemy, nobody wins, and that's what these measures do. There are regular comments by law enforcement types and legislators that everyone should be printed and DNA captured so we have it all on file. It would make things so easy!
But that's private stuff. The only reason a cop can fingerprint you on arrest is that its an extreme situation and protecting the public requires giving up a bit of liberty when the setting justifies it. Printing everyone just in case goes too far, even if it does make the job easier.
Liberty means we do things the hard way, if it means protecting our freedom. And an overpowered overbearing police force takes away our freedom bit by bit. This is an issue not many consider, but Radley Balko brings up a fascinating point in an article for the American Bar Association. He notes that of all the amendments, the 3rd (military cannot quarter people in your house without permission) is the one most ignored and thought meaningless. Not so, he argues:
Given the apparent irrelevance of the amendment today, we might ask why the framers found it so important in the first place. One answer [lies in] the “castle doctrine.” If you revere the principle that a man’s home is his castle, it hardly seems just to force him to share a portion of it with soldiers—particularly when the country isn’t even at war. But the historical context behind the Third Amendment shows that the framers were worried about something more profound than fat soldier hands stripping the country’s larders.A standing army in our cities violates the 3rd amendment, and gives the government too much power, he argues. And with the paramilitary police, that's where we're getting to.
At the time the Third Amendment was ratified, the images and memories of British troops in Boston and other cities were still fresh, and the clashes with colonists that drew the country into war still evoked strong emotions. What we might call the “symbolic Third Amendment” wasn’t just a prohibition on peacetime quartering, but a more robust expression of the threat that standing armies pose to free societies. It represented a long-standing, deeply ingrained resistance to armies patrolling American streets and policing American communities.
And, in that sense, the spirit of the Third Amendment is anything but anachronistic.
Every so often we're reminded of this, especially during the Clinton administration, when the department of Justice under Janet Reno repeatedly used excessive military force against citizens it disagreed with. From Ruby Ridge to Elian Gonzalez, the doors were kicked down by armored guys in machine guns, and people were even shot to death.
The recent rash of "SWAT-ting" where a call is put into the police resulting in a huge SWAT-style raid on a home also helps show the dangers of this sort of overpowered militarized police force. When the government gets too much power, too much presence, and too strong for the people of the US to defend against or threaten, that's when liberty collapses.
All it takes is someone in power without scruples and so certain in the righteousness of their cause that they activate all this to exert their control and we've lost everything as a nation. Better that the cops have a tougher job than we lose our liberty, even a little bit more than we need to.
The least liberty given up the best, according to the founding fathers. Its easy for us on this side of history to think they went too far or were a bit radical, but we've never faced the tyranny and abuse of might that they did. Let's not go there, even a little.