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Can the Feds Fix Local Police?

The ACLU wants a federal "police czar" to help stop the militarization of law enforcement, but we don't need another cop to tell us the real problem is too many police.

US Attorney General Eric Holder meets with police officials in North Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Ryan Johnson

The August 9 shooting of Michael Brown was a tragedy, but at least the ensuing backlash against myriad police sins in Ferguson, Missouri, and throughout the nation has lead to a long overdue conversation about the cops.

On the other hand, conversation—even if it includes heartening agreement from conservatives, libertarians, and liberals that something needs to change—is not enough. Having previously cast a moderately critical eye toward police, a writer for the conservative National Review wrote that protests in Ferguson were a bust and that most people, white and black alike, still support police, want more of them, want longer prison sentences, and approve of dramatic remedies for unrest such as sending in the National Guard.

The increased media attention and the belatedly concerned pandering of the political class should not be dismissed. President Obama’s sudden concern about police militarization may be cynical, but his promise to take another look at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security’s funding of local police is a welcome first step.

However, even the solutions to an established problem present an ideological quandary. Conservatives tend to distrust federal law enforcement, while excusing local police. Liberals do the opposite. Last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and several other notable groups sent a letter to Obama that urged a list of reforms to policing—all of which would be overseen by a federal "police czar." The reforms were not in themselves bad suggestions; they mostly consisted of proactively fighting against racial bias in police, chipping away at militarization, and encouraging law enforcement to act as a part of the community rather than as an invading army.

The flimsy, moderate liberal dream of federal oversight solving all issues of race, class, violence, and the state monopoly on lethal power does not hold up in direct sunlight. Certainly, the issue when black males are disproportionately profiled, and when poor people are shaken down for law enforcement revenue, is not just that Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles were offered to that local PD for a low, low price. But the letter to Obama suggests a worrying kind of optimism: that the feds can save the day, simply because they’re bigger and stronger.

The warped state of American policing is the result of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies working together. Asset forfeiture, which allows local police to seize property thought to be involved in the committing of a crime, provides a direct financial incentive to keep fighting—and prioritizing—the war on drugs. The war on drugs is both racially tinged and is firmly tied to federal law and federal dollars. Gun laws are used to keep nonviolent prisoners behind bars for longer sentences. “Tough on crime” policies, which gave us mandatory minimum sentences in all 50 states, were the result of a bipartisan, federal effort. Police unions are cozy with local and state governments, making the removal of bad cops next to impossible. Any solutions to this mess need to happen at the local, state, and federal level.

Creating a new “police czar” could backfire, if only to the extent that it convinces people that the problems with our militarized police are being addressed, dampening support for broader reform. It could even end up being worse than nothing: We’d have another powerful government office that would be impossible to get rid of—and which could prove useful in lending an “independent” stamp of approval to law enforcement’s worst practices, or worse still, further codifying them.

The feds have their own entrenched power, and their own desires. They are not any more trustworthy than your local police department—and not just because they have subsidized the worst law enforcement behavior in the country. It’s tempting to want the big tough feds to come knock some sense into the local police bullies, but it’s more difficult—and ultimately worthwhile—to strike down bad laws and sources of unchecked power at all levels.

Now on to the rest of this week’s bad cops:

  • On August 23, police in Ottawa, Kansas, fatally shot a suicidal 18-year-old who may or may not have had a gun. Joseph Jennings, suicidal because of anxiety, depression, and a seizure disorder, was with his aunt and foster father while walking outside a hardware store. Something about Jennings’s behavior seemed off enough for someone to call 911 and apparently report that he had a gun, which his family denies.  When police arrived, Jennings made enough of a furtive moment to alarm them, so they shot him dead.
  • Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday blasted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for being “a waste of public money.” Grassley was referencing an ongoing federal investigation into $850,000 the DEA paid an Amtrak secretary for information about a suspicious passenger, even though the DEA is supposed to be able to get such information from Amtrak for free.
  • Three members of the Omaha Police Department fatally shot a robber (armed with a pellet gun) and managed to accidentally kill a Cops crew member while filming an episode of that creepy, exploitive television show.
  • This week, the attorney for the late Gregory Towns announced that a suit would be filed against East Point, Georgia, police officers over Towns’ death last April. According to the lawsuit, after Towns was chased on foot, he was cuffed and then Tasered a total of 13 times by Officers Howard Weems and Marcus Eberhart. Towns’ death is officially considered a homicide and police don’t dispute that they tried to shock him 13 times, though they say he wasn’t actually hit each time. Police are saying they did nothing wrong since “use of drive stun [Taser] to gain compliance is permitted under federal and Georgia law.”
  • On Tuesday, a Texas Grand Jury declined to indict a police officer for the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager last November. Navasota, Texas, police officer Rey Garza was working as a security guard while off-duty and saw two teens in an apartment parking lot possibly doing drugs. Garza ordered them out of the car, but 17-year-old Jonathan Santellana apparently refused. A girl who was with him says Garza, who was not in a uniform, did not identify himself as a police officer, frightening the teens and making them think he was a robber. Santellana then apparently tried to drive away, pinning Garza against a park car before driving through the parking lot as Garza fired. The girl ended up with minor injuries and Santellena ended up dead. A neighbor confirmed that Garza wasn’t in uniform, adding that the cop is “a bully” who tried to browbeat him into deleting phone footage of the incident.
  • In news of Missouri cops behaving badly, Glendale police officer Matthew Papert has been fired for his series of alarmingly aggressive and racist posts about people in Ferguson angry about the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown. That’s good.
  • On the other hand, St. Ann, Missouri, police officer Ray Albers resigned after he became a social media sensation for pointing his gun and yelling “I’ll fucking kill you” to protesters and press in Ferguson—and then adding “Go fuck yourself” in response to queries about his identity. Albers was reportedly given the option of being fired or resigning. The latter presumably makes the 19-year law enforcement veteran more eligible for future law enforcement jobs and might preserve his pension.
  • In "lowest possible expectations counting as progress" news: The Ferguson Police Department is now in possession of 50 body cameras, which are being deployed during ongoing protests. Two companies donated the cameras and cops used them for the first time on Sunday. Officers are “really enjoying them,” said Ferguson Chief Tom Jackson. Still, the Ferguson PD still has dashboard cameras that they claim to be unable to use due to the cost of installation.
  • On August 29, Esquire’s blog published a short but worthwhile piece on the profiling of black Americans by police. After several disturbing Tasering and pepper spraying incidents that were caught on video, the stomach-clenching question at the end: How many more dehumanizing, harassing incidents are not captured on video, and are therefore entirely impossible to prove?
  • A Chicago cop facing aggravated battery and official misconduct charges is free to work desk duty while waiting to go to trial over a January 2013 incident. Officer Glenn Evans is accused of sticking his service weapon down the throat of a man suspected of stashing a gun somewhere, placing a Taser to his genitals, and then threatening to kill the suspect if he did not tell Evans where he had stashed the illicit gun. Evans could get anything from probation to five years in prison if convicted.
  • Our Good Cops of the Weeks are five Waldo, Florida, police officers who on Tuesday reported an alleged traffic ticket quota demanded by their boss, Chief Mike Szabo. According to the officers, Szabo demanded that his cops write 12 tickets during every 12 hour shift. Szabo was suspended soon after the allegations came to light. The five officers who ratted on their boss should be praised for putting a few chips in the blue wall of silence. More cops should be like them.  

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