Pubdate: Sun, 19 Sept 1999
Source: Orange County Register (CA)
Copyright: 1999 The Orange County Register
ON FREEDOM'S 'THIN BLUE LINE'
It is a widely held view that police officers form the "thin blue line" that protects law-abiding citizens from the criminal element. But police also maintain another thin line of sorts - the one that separates a free society from a tyranny.
That's why the laws and customs that govern police behavior have a direct bearing on the day-to-day freedoms Americans enjoy.
Yet those who raise concerns about unwarranted searches and seizures, police codes of silence that cover up corruption, questionable shootings of suspects or the militarization of police forces, often are tarred as "anti-cop," or "soft on crime."
Don't try that with Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This former police chief of San Jose and Kansas City, and onetime New York City cop, is no enemy of police. But he is willing to talk about law enforcement issues that make some cops squeamish.
"I suppose it sounds a bit corny," he told us. "But I have always considered the American police officer to represent the ultimate decentralization of a government of, by and for the people. Cops are public servants with a fundamental duty to protect life and constitutional rights, not an armed force occupying territory."
The war on drugs and the increased federal involvement in local law enforcement funding and training, McNamara believes, promote this dangerous shift in which police often develop "a fermenting contempt for the people they encounter," he wrote in an essay for Time magazine.
"I've seen the frightening extent to which the government has taken over training," he told us. Police forces now routinely request bigger weapons and learn tactics more appropriate for the military. "There's nothing wrong with being a soldier. If that's what you want, that's what you should be," he said, but not a police officer.
One consequence of the drug war, he wrote in a June 6 Register column, is that it encourages police to unjustly seize property and then keep the assets for their budget: "[I]n around 80 percent of the seizure cases no one is even charged with a crime. Because it is a civil proceeding, the property owner does not enjoy the presumption of innocence."
Ultimately, McNamara believes that "police tactics must always be consistent with a rule of law in a democratic society and never those of totalitarian nations." We're pleased that at least one prominent one time police official has the gumption to articulate such a vital principle.