President Obama Wields Much More Influence over Police than He Admits

Taking time out of his press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe on Tuesday, President Obama addressed the chaos in Baltimore following the unexplained death in custody of Freddie Gray. 

While pleading for calm, President Obama lamented his lack of authority to fix the problem:

Now, the challenge for us as the federal government is, is that we don’t run these police forces.  I can’t federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain.  But what I can do is to start working with them collaboratively so that they can begin this process of change themselves. 

Obama also lamented the lack of political momentum to address the poverty and violence afflicting communities like Baltimore:

That’s how I feel.  I think there are a lot of good-meaning people around the country that feel that way.  But that kind of political mobilization I think we haven’t seen in quite some time.  And what I’ve tried to do is to promote those ideas that would make a difference.  But I think we all understand that the politics of that are tough because it’s easy to ignore those problems or to treat them just as a law and order issue, as opposed to a broader social issue.

Both of those lamentations are misleading.

While it’s true that the federal government generally lacks the power to “force” local police departments to change their behavior, Obama’s comments completely omit his role in administering several federal policies that facilitate, and even incentivize, the abuses and tensions he condemned.

The federal drug war tears apart families through mass incarceration and violence and unjustly forces millions of (especially poor, minority) Americans to carry the stigma of being a convicted criminal. Prohibition, just as it did in the 1920s and 30s, has turned huge swaths of urban America into battlefields in the competition for black market real estate. President Obama has already demonstrated a willingness to ease federal drug enforcement in several states, and there is nothing keeping him from expanding that rollback.  He has also pardoned several non-violent drug offenders, even while federal prosecutors convict new ones every day.

The drug war and the federal war on terror also serve as vehicles for the distribution to local police of billions of tax dollars, military-grade weaponry and surveillance equipment, a warped mandate to think of themselves as the first and last lines of defense against terrorists and drug cartels, and a perverse incentive to compete for federal handouts through arrests and seizures.

Federal civil asset forfeiture laws allow state law enforcement agencies to circumvent local budget requirements.  They allow police to seize cash and property from citizens without ever charging them with any crime. This “policing for profit” is especially pernicious when directed at people in poor communities who lack the resources to contest the seizures and often desperately need the property (e.g. automobiles) being seized for their livelihoods.

All of these federal policies serve to undermine the protections of federalism, transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law.  They incentivize conflict between the police and the community.  They encourage police to view people as potential enemy combatants and sources of revenue rather than human beings with cherished rights to life, liberty, and property.

The federal government doesn’t “run these police forces,” but it does wield immense influence among them. It’s true that Barack Obama cannot wave a magic wand and make everything better, but he could do much more than his statements convey.