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Losing service-oriented police: state and local police departments, once independent and locally accountable, are succumbing to centralized control through myriad federal grants.

One useful measure of the relative freedom of a given country is found in the way its citizens view the police. In dictatorships, the police are ubiquitous, and universally feared. Similar conditions prevail in "Banana Republics," where the police are usually too busy conniving in officially sanctioned crime to help those victimized by private criminals.

Unlike the citizens of most other nations, Americans have historically enjoyed the blessing of principled, capable, and locally accountable police. But in recent decades, local police have increasingly been brought under the control of Washington, through subsidies, regulations, and the occasional federal "civil rights" lawsuit. And measures enacted by the federal government permitting--and even encouraging--the summary seizure of private property through "asset forfeiture" has abetted corruption on the part of cash-starved local and state governments, many of which have adopted policies that treat police as revenue farmers.

Although law enforcement still attracts a disproportionately high percentage of honorable and service-minded people, the character of our law enforcement system itself is changing in ways that are disturbing and ominous--both to the public at large and, no doubt, to a growing number of police officers themselves.

Federal Police "Mobilization"

Last August, President Bush signed into law the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users" (SAFETEA-LU). Buried within the imponderable bulk of that measure are "millions of dollars for controversial enforcement measures, including sobriety checkpoint roadblocks and now automobile seizures," reports The Newspaper, an online publication focusing on automobile and transportation issues. The new law "adds automobile impoundment and seizure to the list of acceptable 'alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures' eligible for federal grant money.... This allows states to fund driving under the influence (DUI)-related confiscation efforts entirely with federal dollars."

It is possible for reasonable people to believe that any measure that removes drunk drivers from the roads would be worthwhile. But as Jay Norton, a constitutional rights attorney from Olathe, Kansas, points out, these measures are constitutionally problematic, since "there is no evidence that the [typical] driver was having any difficulty operating their car, since they were not stopped for any traffic violations."

"A checklane or a checkpoint is a form of detention," Norton explained to THE NEW AMERICAN. "The definition of detention is a circumstance in which the hypothetical reasonable person wouldn't feel free to leave. While each motorist may spend only a brief time being interrogated by police, he will spend a great deal of time waiting in line behind the checkpoint--and that whole time he is effectively in the custody of the state. I am amazed that in this country people think it's acceptable to set up checkpoints and shut down entire roads, treating thousands of innocent people like criminals."

All About the Benjamins

If these measures infringe on the liberties of law-abiding motorists while doing little to improve traffic safety, why are they so commonplace? Explains attorney Jay Norton: "The popularity of the DUI checklane may be because the [police] agencies are given large federal grants to conduct the checklanes. There is a lot of money given away by the government for these things and everybody likes money." While the sums in question are less than minuscule by federal standards, they can seem like an embarrassment of riches to underfunded local police departments.

To cite just one example: according to the Ohio Office of Public Safety Annual Evaluation Report for 2004, the state in 2003 received $1,066,399 in federal grants that were disbursed among 81 municipal governments for the purpose of conducting saturation patrols and checkpoints. "The activities were scheduled at times of the year that would provide for the greatest opportunity for success and/ or during the dates mandated by the NHTSA's [National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration] Winter and Summer mobilizations," the document explains.

The penalties imposed on those caught in the dragnet can be draconian. During January's "Avoid the 25" saturation patrol in California, for instance, first-time DUI offenders faced "48 hours in jail, loss of one's driver's license for six months and up to $2,500 in fines, penalties, and court costs," reported the Victorville Daily Press.

Although some may consider such punishment appropriate for drunken drivers, the same enforcement operation imposed summary punishment for people who refused to waive their right to avoid self-incrimination. Those who "refuse to take a blood test ... will have their car impounded for five days," reported the paper. "The tow fees that come into play for five days [impoundment] is probably going to be about $800," observed Victorville Sheriff's Deputy John Mattke.

Through its "Checkpoint Strikeforce" program, created in 1999 as part of the "You Drink & Drive--You Lose" campaign, the NHTSA mobilizes police to conduct checkpoints "supplemented with ... saturation patrols and public awareness programs" several times a year, boasts an agency press release. Those exercises, which also target drivers who don't comply with seat belt and child restraint laws, often involve what reasonable people would describe as overkill.

Hardware and Hard Cash

"The whirring sound Lawrence residents may have heard during the weekend was the sound of a helicopter called in to assist with a special 'saturation patrol,'" reported the February 22 Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. During a June 2005 patrol, Maryland State Police used military-issue night vision goggles "to catch seat belt violators," reported the AP. "With the goggles, police say they can see inside cars at a distance, allowing them to catch violators who might otherwise go undetected." The Maryland State Police "are among 13,000 agencies nationwide that are now using the goggles."

Washington is eager to subsidize such extravagances, and just as quick to threaten the loss of subsidies to states that rebel against federal priorities. Last year, Tennessee state senator Steve Cohen proposed a measure for the state to withdraw from the federal "Click it or Ticket" seat belt enforcement campaign, pointing out that Tennessee, like several other states, doesn't have a "primary" seat belt law (meaning that motorists have to be stopped for another infraction before a seat belt citation can be issued). Sen. Cohen's bill died quickly, noted the Nashville City Paper, because "the state [would] lose up to $1.5 million if it pulls out of the federal campaign."

There are many ways that these federally-mandated programs can be lucrative for municipal governments and police agencies. A recently enacted ordinance in New Mexico's Santa Fe County permits law enforcement officers "to confiscate vehicles operated in the county by someone who has been convicted of two prior DWI offenses and is arrested for a third and subsequent offense," reports the February 1 Albuquerque Journal. If an automobile owner lends his car to a three-time offender, the owner can be required to put an immobilizing "boot" on his car for 30 days, and to agree to "an automatic forfeiture" if the car is lent out again.

"Once the vehicle is forfeited, the sheriff would have the authority to sell it" and reinvest the proceeds in more checkpoints and saturation patrols, the paper continues. Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano predicts that "the program would cost about $215,000 in upfront costs but would become self-sufficient within two years"--thereby implicitly admitting that the objective is not to deter drunk driving, but to co-opt it as a stable revenue stream. And it's a near certainty that other police agencies nationwide will follow suit.

For more than two decades, beginning with the Comprehensive Asset Forfeiture Act of 1984, Washington has abetted confiscation of private property. Forfeiture was originally devised as a weapon in the so-called "War on Drugs." Presently, according to the NHTSB, 23 states have laws permitting the DUI-related seizure of automobiles. But local and state governments, enticed into this corrupt business by the feds, have proven to be perversely inventive in devising ways to seize automobiles from the public and collect revenue by holding them for ransom:

* More than 1,800 residents of New Haven, Connecticut, have had their cars seized for unpaid parking tickets. City resident Kathy Martone, who owed $85 in parking tickets, had her car swiped out of her driveway by police who identified it using a handheld camera equipped with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology, which ironically was originally developed to recognize stolen vehicles, rather than to abet car theft under color of law.

* In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a seizure ordinance has been combined with a red light camera. This means, notes commentator Richard Diamond, that "if your car--no matter who is driving it--blows through two red lights, they'll take it for thirty days."

* In January, St. Louis passed an "emergency ordinance" permitting police to seize "a broad range of luxury automobiles" for various reasons--from soliciting prostitution to littering to having too many sound system speakers. "Under the ordinance," notes The Newspaper, "a car will be taken away upon accusation and before any finding of guilt by a judge or jury. There may be no hearing on the matter for as long as a week and the automobile will be held thereafter until the police deem 'the motor vehicle is no longer necessary for the prosecution.'"

Once again, the central purpose of such measures is not to establish civic order, but to raise revenue. "I rub my hands together in great glee and anticipation," giggled Arlington, Virginia, Treasurer Frank O'Leary in a television interview after that city acquired ANPR technology and passed an ordinance permitting police to confiscate the car of anyone owing $120 to the city for any reason--including overdue library books. "I think it's beautiful. It gives us a whole new dimension to collection."

Keep them Local and Independent

How is it that state and local governments can afford the cutting-edge technologies that make this racket possible? Through federal subsidies, of course, particularly those earmarked for "Homeland Security" (see article on page 25).

In this fashion, too many police have been placed into the unwelcome position of acting as little better than shakedown agents of governments that have been corrupted by federal influence. The police deserve better, and so does the public they serve.

"Since the mid 1990s," notes former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, "the federal government has been cutting checks to local police departments at a furious pace. With the advent of Homeland Security, the gravy train has gotten massively larger, even as oversight of how the funds are spent has grown proportionately smaller."

What makes this process particularly insidious is the fact that the grants are delivered in small increments through numerous channels.

"America ultimately needs to decide whether using federal funds to increase the police presence beyond what the local tax and political base can support, has begun seriously to infringe on the freedoms we are trying to protect," warns Barr. "As we now face the challenge of securing our homeland against terrorists at home and abroad, we should just as seriously resist building a police state incrementally--dollar by dollar, grant by grant, news release by news release."
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Title Annotation:ON THE HOME FRONT
Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 3, 2006
Words:1816
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