Does the world really need another blog about Ferguson?
It’s going to get one.
I’m a middle aged white guy—a libertarian constitutional conservative living in an inner suburb of Dallas. I’m hardly any sort of internet social justice warrior. But over the past ten days I’ve been reading the news out of Ferguson and I’m completely appalled at the behavior of the police. Appalled, but not surprised.
If you think that abuse by police is not your problem because of your race or age or income, you are wrong. Think again. While some races obviously have things worse, police violations of American’s civil liberties happens to people of all ages, races, genders, orientations, religions, income levels, etc.
Two Fergusons; Two Stories
If you watched the mainstream media, you heard a story about rioting and looting—a typical media narrative of a bunch of angry black people tearing up their own community, interspersed with just enough African-American taking heads, so that the entire thing doesn’t seem too racist.
Photo by Loavesofbread “Ferguson Day 6 Photo 53” CC 4.0 Licensed
On the other hand, if you followed the events in Ferguson via tweets and blog posts from people who were actually there, a very different picture emerges. A picture of a community enraged by and under siege a police force acting like an occupying army. Of ordinary people protecting their neighbor’s businesses from looters who came in from outside to take advantage of the tragedy.
So who do you trust? Well I’m going with the semi-anonymous people on the internet over the professional journalism establishment. I’m far from alone. A freelance journalist covering Ferguson for Al Jazeera USA, Ryan Schuessler, writes on why “I Will Not Be Returning to Ferguson” portraying the hordes of journalists who descended on Ferguson as the moral equivalent of the outside looters.
Photo by Loavesofbread “Ferguson Night 3 Photo 2” CC 4.0 Licensed
What Needs to Change
Ferguson demonstrates why there must be nationwide reforms of how policing is done. Effective crime control is impossible when citizens have good reason to view the police as an enemy. And when things reach the point where ordinary citizens fear the police more than criminals, it’s not a problem; it’s a crisis. If the police can’t control and deter crime, why have them? Why be taxed to pay for the bullets (so far rubber coated and wood, at least) to be used against you?
Here is what I think needs to change:
- There needs to be an immediate ban the sale of surplus military hardware to police. Law enforcement officers who look like an occupying army tend to inspire people to treat them like one. Police should not be armed with weapons that are off-limits to American citizens. (I would hope that Ferguson shows the folly of the “limit guns to trained and accountable law enforcement” argument. It looks like police in Ferguson have less knowledge of safe gun handling than average citizens who’ve taken a concealed carry class. And they are clearly not accountable to anyone at all.)
- Require that all police interactions with citizens be recorded. Law enforcement officers dealing with the public should be required to wear video and audio recording devices, and policies to ensure their use enforced.
- Police officer should be trained on American citizen’s absolute right to record in public. Police officers that interfere with that right should be presumptively assumed to be hiding something, and investigated accordingly.
- Teach and enforce basic weapon safety rules within law enforcement agencies-such as don’t point a gun at anyone you don’t intend to shoot! Photos of police officers wandering the streets with guns pointed at unarmed citizens—sometimes with their fingers on the trigger—are an indication of poor training, or contempt for the people. Police officers should be subject to the same laws on brandishing a weapon as ordinary American citizens.
- Make police fully accountable under the law. There needs to be an end to “qualified immunity” for police violations of constitutional rights. Prosecutors and other government officials need to also be stripped of “qualified immunity”. It is naive to always assume law enforcement and proprietorial errors are innocent mistakes.
- Heavily restrict the use of SWAT teams and no-knock warrants. Such warrants should be subjected to strict scrutiny. These are horribly overused leading to tragic results. Additionally, require law enforcement agencies conducting searches to restore searched property to original condition. Destructive searches are an abuse of power and amount to an unconstitutional “taking” without recompense.
- Civil asset forfeiture laws must be reformed. Police and prosecutors should not be allowed to deprive defendants of the funds with which to conduct their defense, via legal fictions such as suing a house or a bank account, rather than a person. Asset forfeiture should only be a punishment for a crime; not a tool of the prosecution. Furthermore, to reduce perverse incentives, any funds from seized assets should be directed to general revenue; not to law enforcement agencies.
Change vs. Looking for Heretics
At last we are hearing voices from both the political left and right calling for demilitarization of the police forces in the US. For too long both left and right have been complaining about police militarization and assuming the “other guys” were on the other side. While in reality, it is the political center and its never-ending “War on Nouns” (war on drugs/war on terror/war on crime) that helped to bring us to the current state of affairs. I hope we may see another right/left alliance (like the one that prevented Obama from unilaterally bombing Syria earlier this year) on the issue of police militarization.
I ran into several people on twitter who simply could not believe that libertarians (or conservatives) were concerned at all over police militarization. For their benefit, here are some pre-Ferguson examples:
SWAT Overkill: The Danger of a Paramilitary Police Force by Glenn Reynolds (originally written in 2006, republished this month)
How Police Became a Standing Army (January 2014)
I urge everyone concerned about police militarization and its adverse affect on civil liberties, to stop looking for heretics, and start looking for allies—no matter where on the political spectrum they may fall.