Adama from Scyfy’s Battlestar Galactica says, “There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.” As John Edwin Mason writes, “God bless the screenwriter who wrote these lines.” Hat tip to Paul Hsieh.
What’s going on in Texas? Fox News reports that Governor Rick Perry was indicted after he “threatened to veto $7.5 million over two years for the public integrity unit, which is run by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s office. The governor wanted Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign after she was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunken driving in April 2013. When she refused, Perry vetoed the money.” So, in other words, Perry, the governor, whose job entails signing and vetoing legislation, vetoed legislation funding a “public integrity unit” run by a drunk driver. I have very little idea what this “public integrity unit” does, but might it be a reasonable guess that the best person to run it isn’t someone who admitted to drunk driving? It seems to me that Perry has been indicted for acting on his authority as governor. (I only wish we Coloradans could indict John Hickenlooper for not using his veto power nearly often enough.) This indictment seems totally bizarre to me. But this is only my initial reaction; perhaps I’m missing some nuance of the case and, on further evaluation of the evidence, I’ll reach a different conclusion—but I can’t imagine why I might. For reference, here’s the indictment and the (brief) response of Perry’s attorney. The New York Times also has a report.
Michael Daly tells a horrifying story for the Daily Beast. According to Daley, police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, arrested Henry Davis on September 20, 2009, on an outstanding warrant. The first problem is that the police arrested the wrong man; they got the wrong “Henry Davis.” Then, for no justifiable reason, the police beat Davis, at one point kicking him in the head as he lay defenseless on the ground. He was so badly injured they took him to the hospital. And then the police charged Davis with “property damage” for—get this—getting his blood on their uniforms. Could this story possibly be true? If it is, why are the officers involved not now sitting in prison? Hopefully this case will become the subject of a more detailed investigation, if not by prosecutors then at least by journalists.
Writing for Time, Rand Paul writes, “there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.” He continues, “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement. Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies. . . .” Paul cites the related work of Glenn Reynolds and Walter Olsen.
Meanwhile, David Kopel points out for the Washington Post that he and other libertarian-minded scholars have been raising the alarm about militarized police for years. He cites several of his own articles on the matter.
I think Derek Thompson (writing for the Atlantic) has this exactly right: “Although military technology has arguably given law enforcement an unreasonable amount of power, there is another piece of technology that could help restrain the militarization of America’s police in the future: a camera.” Thompson discusses the case of Rialto, California, which outfitted officers with cameras in 2012. The results? Complaints against officers fell by 88 percent and “‘use of force’ fell by 59 percent,” he reports.
Given the great benefits of this technology and its relative low costs, why would any police force not do this? This shouldn’t even be optional; for whenever an officer is in contact with the public, state legislatures should require that all officers in their states always wear cameras, and Congress should require the same of all federal law enforcement officers. As I’ve said, such a policy would protect the public, and it would also protect good cops against false accusations.
This certainly adds important context to the police shooting of Michael Brown, whose death sparked protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri: Brown “fit the description of a suspect in a strong-arm robbery that happened minutes” before Brown was shot, Fox News reports. That certainly explains why the police were on alert and searching for a suspect matching the description of the robbery suspect. And if Brown was indeed the robbery suspect, he probably was tense with the police officer who confronted him. Again, the police’s story, if I understand it correctly, is that Brown attacked the officer and attempted to take his gun. Now as ever, people should refrain from rushing to unwarranted conclusions; there’s still a great deal we don’t know about this case.
August 20 Update: This August 15 story from CNN is relevant: “The Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown didn’t stop him because he was suspected in a convenience-store robbery, but because he was ‘walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic,’ the city’s police chief [Thomas Jackson] said.” Does that mean the officer in question hadn’t even heard about the robbery, or that he’d heard about it and stopped Brown because he was in traffic? At any rate, Brown’s robbery may well explain his state of mind, and certainly him “walking down the middle of the street” is dangerous behavior for which a police response is appropriate.
No sensible person questions the need for a strong police presence in Ferguson, Missouri, given that rioters there have vandalized and looted businesses and even thrown Molotov cocktails. But police action there has clearly gotten out of control.
Saying that Ferguson looked like a “a little bit more like a war zone” than a normal city, Missouri governor Jay Nixon “announced Thursday that the Missouri Highway Patrol will take control of security in Ferguson,” USA Today reports. A video provided by USA Today shows Ferguson police intentionally assaulting members of the media.
A broader issue is the militarization of police in America, including in Ferguson. In an article for the Week, Ryan Cooper argues that “it is beyond reckless to let a bunch of local cops get their hands on a high-grade military arsenal”; he plausibly argues “the military itself would never behave so crudely” as the Ferguson police have behaved with their hi-tech gear. Bonnie Kristian reports for the Week that the Pentagon provided the Ferguson police with two tactical vehicles.
Concern about the militarization of police has been growing for years; for example, see Radley Balko‘s Rise of the Warrior Cop. Less than a month before the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson (which provoked the protests and riots), A. J. Delgado wrote an article for National Review titled, “It’s Time for Conservatives to Stop Defending Police“; and John Stossel wrote an article for Fox titled, “Conservatives, Libertarians and Liberals Should All Worry about the Militarization of Police.”
Let’s not forget the innocent people victimized by the violent rioters in Ferguson—and the need for the police to appropriately intervene to try to stop that violence. Riot conditions undoubtedly justify a different and more robust police response than is warranted in normal circumstances. That said, I worry that, by becoming militarized, some of America’s police officers tend to forget that they are civilians whose proper job is to protect the peace and to protect people’s rights.
11:06 pm Update: Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol appears to be doing a decent job of restoring order. Paul Hampel and Koran Addo write for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Johnson marched in shirtsleeves—a stark contrast with the para-military uniforms that have become the symbol of the Ferguson police presence during nearly a week of unrest.” Hat tip to the Week.
Many people in Ferguson, Missouri are protesting the police shooting death of “unarmed black teenager” (meaning 18-year-old adult) Michael Brown. What should matter in this case are primarily the facts surrounding the shooting. Unfortunately, two very different accounts of those facts have been presented.
Here is what happened, according to police, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
Authorities said the shooting occurred around noon Saturday, when a Ferguson police officer encountered two men in the street. When the officer tried to exit his vehicle, Chief Belmar said one of the two pushed the officer back into the cruiser. The suspect allegedly assaulted the officer in the car and the two struggled over his gun. At least one shot was fired inside the vehicle. A few moments later, Chief Belmar said, the officer allegedly fired multiple shots outside the vehicle that killed the suspect, about 35 feet from the cruiser.
If that account is accurate, and if Brown is the “suspect” in question, then arguably Brown attempted to murder a police officer. But that would not justify the officer shooting Brown at a distance, assuming Brown was running away.
But now consider the accounts of Brown’s associate and another witness, as reported by the Los Angeles Times:
Dorin Johnson, a friend of Brown’s, told Fox 2 that he and Brown were walking in the street when the police car pulled up. The officer said to “get the eff onto the sidewalk,” he recounted. Johnson said the officer reached out of the car window and grabbed Brown around the neck.
Another witness, Piaget Crenshaw, said she saw police chase Brown. “He ran for his life,” she said. “They shot him and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know that he was compliant and he was unarmed, and they shot him twice more and he fell to the ground and died.”
Whether the officer shot Brown as Brown was running away is independent of whether Brown assaulted the police officer and reached for his gun. If Brown assaulted the officer, then Brown was in the wrong. If the officer shot Brown while Brown was running away, then the officer was in the wrong. So, yes, it’s possible, depending on the facts, that both parties were in the moral and legal wrong. It’s also possible Brown was entirely innocent. It’s also possible that we’ll never know exactly what happened, because the case will devolve to conflicting eye-witness accounts.
A couple of related points: First, as I’ve argued, police should video record everything they do. If we had a clear video of what happened, we’d almost certainly be able to firmly nail down the relevant facts. Second, the fact that some of the protesters are using the incident as an excuse to loot and vandalize local shops is reprehensible. Even if Brown was unjustly killed, that hardly excuses protesters in victimizing others.
The New York Police Department’s Chief of Departments reminded city police “that they can’t legally take action to stop someone from filming them, unless that person is interfering with police operations,” reports the New York Daily News (hat tip to Paul Hsieh). I’m of the opinion that all public police actions should be video recorded by the police as well as by any public spectator who wishes to turn on a camera. It’s safer for the cops (except for the corrupt ones), and it’s safer for the public.
In many respects, America has two sets of de facto laws: one set for regular people, another for police officers. Police officers routinely and seriously violate people’s rights—as by invading their homes without good reason, killing their pets, and assaulting them—and at most, rarely, they get fired from their jobs. Of course most cops are very good people and good at their jobs, but obviously not all of them are. If regular people acted violently the way some police officers act, they’d quickly face criminal prosecution. Not only do police officers hardly ever face criminal prosecution for their crimes, they hardly ever face any penalty of consequence. The Denver Post discusses a recent example. In court, a Denver sheriff’s deputy slammed an inmate “face-first into a metal window frame”—possibly a criminal act as defined by law. If you or I did that to someone, we’d be sitting behind bars. The deputy got a thirty-day suspension. When will district attorneys get serious about their jobs and prosecute abusive cops for the crimes they commit?