Saturday, December 20, 2014

Law Enforcement's Divide with the People.

East German Volkspolizei, 1955
We do not have a systemic law enforcement problem in this country.  We do not see the absolute abuse of power of law enforcement as seen in East Germany, cold war Poland or Iraq, El Salvador, Pakistan, India, or many nations in Africa that have historically seen state-supported and sponsored police behavior that not just bordered on, or was criminal, it violated the very essence of human rights.

Gloria Richardson, for example, was ZFG about Bayonets in her face. 
But we do have a serious and widening divide between the state represented by the police, and the citizenry.  This dichotomy between the "protectors" and the "protected" is not a new phenomenon; we have had public issues with the conduct and use of law enforcement as a tool of the government since the beginning of our nation, from the Reconstruction after the Civil War to the Prohibition of the 1920s and beyond, certain parts of law enforcement have taken it upon themselves, or at the direction of the state, to bend, circumvent or break the law in the name of law enforcement.  As with every new generation, someone looks back to the previous generation to show the progress that we have made.
In his assessment of the police, Bruce Smith wrote  in 1940 that, in spite of the still rather bleak picture, "the lessons of history lean to the favorable side."l He pointed to the fact that the then existing police forces had moved a long way from the past associated with the notorious names of Vidocq and Jonathan Wild, and he suggested that the uninterrupted progress justifies the expectation of further change for the better. It is fair to say that this hope has been vindicated by the events of the past 30 years. American police departments of today differ by a wide margin of improvement from those Smith studied in the late in 1930's. 'l'he once endemic features of wanton brutality, corruption, and sloth have been reduced to a level of sporadic incidence, and their surviving vestiges have been denounced by even generally uncritical police apologists. Indeed, police reform, once a cause espoused exclusively by spokesmen from outside the law enforcement camp, has become an internal goal, actively sought and implemented by leading police officials.
                    -Egon Bittner, Ph.D., The Functions of The Police in a Modern Society (1970) 

Now, the interesting part about this quote is that its from a study published in the 1970s and pays little attention to the abuses of law enforcement during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which should have been fresh in the author's mind yet is suspiciously absent.  I dont believe it was maliciously intentional on the part of the author, rather the public consciousness had not yet shifted to a point where popular opinion was one of total denouncement of the police practices in the south during that time.  Of course not all law enforcement abused their authority during the Civil Rights movement, but many did and they did so in the defense of a law, which may have justified it in their minds.  In hindsight we find their behavior unforgivable.  Hindsight.

circa 1920s, long before the Meme existed.
Every generation has its divide with law enforcement and at some point the divide must be addressed.  We are entering our own divide; NSA monitoring,questionable warrants, militarization of police, riot control techniques, enforcement of regulations (as opposed to laws) where force is used and the perceived or actual use of excessive force.  As the government grows, so does its sometimes unchecked ability to change the mission of law enforcement, which is dangerous ground.

My oath as a law enforcement officer is to defend the constitution and through this, the rights of the people.  By arresting a criminal for a crime, I am providing the first step in a remedy to provide the people with a legal solution to a crime committed against the public at large, or an individual citizen, specifically the victim of the crime.  It is my opinion that someone who breaks a law has committed a crime against the people, whereas someone who violates a regulation has administratively wronged the government.  A regulation is a rule of order that has the same power as a law, yet its creation or implementation is often without the express consent of the people and in many cases the violation of a regulation creates a victim in the state where no victim would be had the state not instituted such a regulation.  The often quoted victim-less crime can be found in the mass of government regulations that protect the governments interests, not necessarily the people.  I have no problem with a regulation that serves to ensure the public safety such as the DOT regulations for mandatory safety equipment and function on motor carriers, because an 18-wheeler with substandard brakes is not acceptable on the interstates...but I unequivocally do not agree with an arrest over unregulated cigarette sales or when enforcement of that regulation (where only the state is the victim of violating the regulation) leads to the death of someone.  The nexus of the death of Eric Garner isn't if he could breathe or not, its the enforcement of a regulation where no true victim exists.

This is for protecting and saving lives, not the enforcement of laws and regulations that have no victim.
But this is only part of the cause for today's divide as I see it; the other and perhaps more troubling reason is that some in law enforcement have adopted an attitude fostered by the very nature of law enforcement itself; and that is one of distrust of the public and the belief that a law enforcement officer is not part of the citizenry.  Well, Vox Populi and the law disagrees.  Cops are civilians too, and their primary mission is protection of the people, not protection of the state.  I have worked with many LEOs that "drank the kool aide" and see themselves as separate from the public, the venerable us versus them mentality that is an easy cold to catch because the vast majority of our interactions are with the criminal element, not the honest citizen (which is largely our fault for not taking the time to talk to the people).  If this was simply an issue of semantics in defining terms we could work through it, though the fostered divide leads to a shift in thinking that is very dangerous and that is when the police begin to see Constitutionally positive citizens as some sort of subversive or disruptive group. A more recent example of this attitude was brought to us by the Spokane County (WA) Sheriffs department and a Deputy's remarks when asked why the SO needed armored vehicles:
“We’ve got a lot of constitutionalists and a lot of people that stockpile weapons, a lot of ammunition.”
Essentially the officer, Deputy Jerry Moffett, appears to have the opinion that a pro-constitution opinion is a bad thing; which bothers me greatly seeing as this same Law Enforcement officer is granted all of his powers of office via this same constitution which he is sworn to protect.  Now, to pour gas on the fire, the Spokane Co Sheriff, Ozzie Knezovich says that the video is taken out of context and that
“The term constitutionalist has a widespread meaning. Some people say I am a constitutionalist,” he said. “But people need to understand that there are people who carry that title who have killed police officers.”
My opinion is that he is confusing "Constitutionalist" with "Sovereign Citizen" and should probably correct the definition in his mind before painting with such a broad brush; after all, law enforcement officers have been murdered by Christians, Jews, Republicans, Democrats, Boy Scouts of America Counselors  and many other individuals with respectable monikers, titles or affiliations and there are no law enforcement warnings about these groups.  Unlike the Sovereign movement, a Constituionalist is on the same team a police officer is supposed to be on and that is defense of the constitution from all threats; foreign and domestic.  The Oath I took when I first put on the badge has not changed and I have not forgotten that every aspect of my job as a law enforcement officer is granted by the Constitution; in order to protect the rights provided by the Constitution.

The divide is not an epidemic, at least not yet but it is a problem.  It seems more prevalent than it is do to the magnification by the media/social media, though perception is often reality and the few bad apples mentality is often dismissing the problem instead of addressing it.  As law enforcement officers, we cannot avoid the perception of our actions any more than we can avoid the consequences of that avoidance.  I dont think we "need to open a dialog" because those are platitudes that have as much active use as "hoping for change."  What we need to do is change how we view our daily actions and use officer discretion to honor the color and letter of the law, to remember our oath.  The enforcement of the law is protection of the people and recognizing the defense of peoples rights versus the defense of the governments wants will go a long way towards repairing and improving our relationship

  Our duty is not to administration, office, government, supervisor or shift Sergeant, it is to the Constitution and by that definition and truth, Deputy Moffett is sworn to the same; hes supposed to be a Constitutionalist, too.

To end on a lighter note:

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