Commentary

The Choice: Oversight or Abuse

This article is reprinted with permission from Copley News Service.
The Federal Communications Commission has set new cell phone standards to help the FBI and other law enforcement agencies identify and locate users, as well as listen in on their conversations. Alas, the time for implicitly trusting police bureaucracies is past: Congress should not only block the FCC rule, but better oversee the many federal law enforcement agencies.

There is no more basic role of government than to keep the peace. And there are few harder jobs. Although police typically face more boredom than danger, the latter can come with frightening suddenness. One can sympathize with the adage: better to be judged by 12 (jurors) than carried by six (pallbearers).

Yet, the potential for abuse is enormous. No society can remain free if it does not constrain the government’s exercise of deadly force.

The threat to liberty is all too evident. Earlier this year, in New York City, for instance, one cop pled guilty to, and another was convicted of, using a broom handle to sodomize a handcuffed victim. Officer Justin Volpe wrongly believed that the victim, Abner Louima, had punched him during a disturbance at a nightclub.

Last February, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old African immigrant, was cut down by 19 bullets fired by several New York City officers. He was apparently mistaken for a criminal suspect.

Also in 1999, three Nassau County jail guards were charged for beating to death a prisoner who had been arrested for driving while impaired. More than 100 complaints of guard brutality were filed against the jail between 1991 and 1998.

There have been well-publicized disclosures of the use of racial profiling by New Jersey’s state police and the similar targeting and harassment of minority motorists in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Cops’ desire to develop handy intuitive shortcuts is understandable, but profiling victimizes an entire class of people, most of whom are innocent.

Abuses are equally evident at the federal level. The Drug Enforcement Agency has more than once invaded the homes of innocent citizens, injuring and even killing the inhabitants. The FBI murdered the wife and son of Randy Weaver in a celebrated standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Then there was Waco. In 1993, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms combined to raid the compound of the Branch Davidian religious cult. Allegedly in order to save the children, the federal agencies killed the children as well as their parents, 86 in all.

For six years, the FBI has maintained that it did nothing wrong. The fire that killed the Branch Davidians must have been started inside, claimed federal officials, because the agency had not employed any incendiary devices.

Now, the FBI admits that it used ”a very limited number” of potentially incendiary tear gas cartridges, contrary to the congressional testimony of several Justice Department appointees, including Attorney General Janet Reno. FBI officials apologize for lying to Congress but say they still believe that the Branch Davidians torched their own building.

Yet, video footage shot by the Texas Department of Public Safety suggests that an FBI helicopter directed machine gun fire against the Branch Davidians. The agency previously denied that its agents had fired on the compound.

Also disturbing is the Defense Department’s role in Waco. The General Accounting Office estimates that the Army and Texas National Guard provided nearly $1 million in assistance including aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and other combat vehicles. The Pentagon denies a report in the Washington Times that 10 Delta Force commandos participated in the raid; instead, say military officials, three special forces members acted as observers. However, at this stage, so many lies have been told that even the Pentagon’s assurances can’t be taken at face value.

Unfortunately, as Diane Cecilia Weber points out in a new study for the Cato Institute, there has been a steady militarization of the police in recent years. The result, warns Weber, is ”a culture of paramilitarism in American law enforcement.”

Obviously, military training can be helpful in cases like hostage-taking. But the 1878 Posse Comitatus law rightly prevents the Pentagon from enforcing domestic laws because the police and military fulfill fundamentally different roles.

The latter must prepare for combat that is essentially unlimited in means and scope against adversaries who respond in kind. Cops, in contrast, writes Weber, ”confront not an ‘enemy’ but individuals who are protected by the Bill of Rights.” To forget that naturally leads to brutality toward and murder of prisoners and suspects, innocent and guilty alike.

Law enforcement officers at all levels deserve cooperation, respect and support. But they must be held accountable for their actions. Otherwise, our free society will not long remain free.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.