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Bad Cop Blotter

Why We Need Less Border Security

Too many people are getting harassed and abused by federal officers.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Apr 14 2014, 8:25pm

A US Border Patrol van. Photo via Flickr user Mark

On March 26, representatives Steve Pearce (a Republican from New Mexico) and Beto O’Rourke (a Democrat from Texas) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would make the US Border Patrol more transparent and accountable by creating a commission to oversee the agency, establishing a process for filing complaints against it, and forcing agents to document instances when force was used against migrants. It may not get very far in the process of becoming a law, but it is important legislation. Generally, when people talk about immigration reform and so on, “border security” is usually described as an agreed-upon good thing. It isn’t.

Searches conducted by law enforcement on people crossing the border don’t need to satisfy rigorous Fourth Amendment requirements about “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This might seem logical, especially in the post-9/11 era, when fears about insecure borders feel reasonable to many people. But most of the 21,000 Border Patrol agents aren’t trying to stop Osama Jr. from driving from Tijuana with a truck full of smallpox; they’re manning checkpoints—which can be up to 100 miles from the border—that harass both peaceful immigrants just looking for work and US citizens. And while some of the more insane aspects of the war on drugs are being challenged, there’s still a bipartisan consensus that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, is Keeping America Safe.

On April 10, the Daily Beast reported on some of the abuses pepetrated by the Border Patrol in a piece titled "The Border Towns the Constitution Forgot," which is well worth a read if you need something to be outraged over. The core of the piece is a series of complaints filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in October and again in January over the Border Patrol’s propensity for harassing people in Arizona.

The ACLU’s account from Clarisa Christiansen, which was posted on their blog earlier this month, describes how the resident of Three Points, Arizona (a town 40 miles from the border), was pulled over by Border Patrol agents last May while driving with her two small children. She said she was an American citizen, but the agents became nasty and then downright threatening when she asked them why they were searching her car. Allegedly, one agent even pulled out a knife and asked if he needed to cut her seatbelt off.

There are other horrors stories about law enforcement becoming overly aggressive near the Mexican border—sometimes this means local cops conducting body cavity searches for drugs, sometimes this means Border Patrol agents breaking the windows of a pastor’s car when he resists being searched. As O’Rourke told the Daily Beast, “There are some really egregious incidents—people being detained for hours, their personal belongings confiscated, forced to undergo cavity searches, defecate in front of officers, and undergo CT scans to prove that they’re not smuggling anything.”

The sacrificing of rights in the name of border security hasn’t made the headlines very often, maybe because most of the people being hassled are minorities, maybe because “protecting America’s borders” sounds like an easy, noble cause. The Pearce/O’Rourke bill is a step toward correcting the abuses perpetrated in the name of that cause, but the cause itself is a rotten one.

Now on to the bad cops of the week:

–Last Monday, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies showed up at an apartment where there was reportedly a mentally unbalanced perp with a butcher knife holding people hostage. When they saw a man run out of the apartment covered in blood with another man behind him, they assumed the second man was their perp and opened fire—but it was actually another victim who was trying to get away. John Winkler, a 30-year-old aspiring TV producer, died of his gunshot wound at a local hospital, and the knife-wielding suspect was taken into custody without the police firing a shot at him. It’s yet another case of an innocent person dying because cops pulled the trigger too quickly.

–The federal government nearly went to war with Cliven Bundy, a cantankerous Nevada rancher who refused to comply with governmental rules about not letting his cattle graze on land where endangered tortoises lived. This led to a 2013 lawsuit, which Bundy lost, and that led to armed federal agents showing up to seize his cattle as payment, which led to hundreds of cranky militia members showing up to support Bundy, which led to a standoff between Bundy and his allies and the Bureau of Land Management on Saturday. Thankfully, the authorities pulled back instead of escalating the tension a la Waco. That’s what people in power should be doing with a stubborn dude with a bunch of guns.

–The Dallas Police Department has been expressing some complaints over citizens filming their officers, saying it interferes with police activity. Dallas Police Association President Ron Pinkston told CBS Dallas that a recent incident in which a Cop Block volunteer activist was filming an officer makes cops nervous over whether people with cameras are civilians or criminals engaged in some nefarious scheme. Pinkston added that this confusion is “creating a major officer safety issue.” The DPD sent an email to its officers reminding them that people have a right to film them, which is the correct response—officers don’t have the right to privacy when they're in public, and a little bit of monitoring of the authorities is a step in the right direction.

–On April 10, the Department of Justice (DOJ) completed its investigation into the tactics of the Albuquerque Police Department, which has been rocked by scandal in recent years, particularly in the weeks since the APD fatally shot a homeless man in March during an incident that was captured on an officer’s helmet cam. That shooting of James Boyd —just one of 23 fatal shootings ones since 2010—caused major backlash, with police tactics during protests provoking more anger and leading to “chaos,” according to NPR. The DOJ concluded that the department has a pattern of Fourth Amendment violations, and regularly uses excessive force, particularly the lethal variety. Finally, the DOJ noted that in confrontations with mentally ill individuals tend to involve too often—something sadly not unique to the APD. The entire DOJ report can be read here.

–Back in October, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Shoreward, Illinois, police officers charged 11 people for marijuana and salvia-related crimes. How did the DEA find these people? By targeting a hydroponic gardening store, which sells the stuff you need to grow ordinary, legal crops like tomatoes. Nevertheless, on October 11 DEA agent Donn Kaminski saw 46-year-old Angela Kirking exit the gardening store "carrying a green plastic bag containing unknown items." This information was carefully included on the search warrant for Kirking’s home. Kaminski also picked through Kirking’s trash, claiming to have smelled marijuana and to have field-tested a stem, which was allegedly part of a marijuana plant. (Given the credibility of field tests, that’s not much evidence.) When the police busted in on a raid three weeks later, they found less than a third of an ounce of marijuana in Kirking’s home. She is understandably shook up and her attorney is arguing her resulting misdemeanors should be tossed out because the search of her home was based on her shopping habits. Also, how much did the cops spend to nab her tiny quantity of weed?

–On April 9, Wired reported that GoGo, a WiFi provider for airlines and used by millions, is so disinterested in user privacy that they sent a letter to the federal government reminding them that will go above and beyond in following the rules. That’s great customer service for the Feds, but not for the rest of us.

–Our Good Cop of the Week is Cash, a K-9 officer who awoke his handler when his home caught fire. William Patterson, a sheriff’s deputy in Hoke County, North Carolina, was asleep along with his fiancée and three of his five children when a fire started, and thanks to Cash’s barks, the whole family woke up and was able to flee the building. Good dog!

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter.