The Protect and Serve Act is a Direct Threat to Our Liberty
Being a police officer is a tough job. No doubt about it. Our boys in blue put their lives on the line to protect us from society’s most destructive elements. In the past decade, about 140 police officers were killed in the line of duty each year. Most of those men and women died with honor, serving their communities, and deserve our sympathy and support. All of that is true. Police officers do put their lives on the line — because that is exactly what they are hired to do. That is exactly what they sign up for. It is a commitment, and often times a sacrifice, and we appreciate it — but that’s what they are supposed to do. And we support them — we pay their salary, purchase equipment, give them benefits, special protections from civil liability, and much more. In exchange for society’s support of law enforcement, we expect them to be professional, brave and compassionate guardians of our citizens. We expect them to be honest, and exercise good judgment, and above all — as the motto suggests — to protect and serve the public.
Somewhere along the line, we have gotten off track with our expectations of police officers. Especially if you are a marginalized group, such as minorities, you have become especially wary of law enforcement in recent years. Communities of color often come to dread the presence of police, due to numerous and repeated incidents concerning unwarranted, unprofessional and often excessive violence by police against unarmed civilians. Since the 1970’s, the traditional role of law enforcement has been supplanted by a domestic para-military strike force as a response to the newly-declared War on Drugs (which has been an utter failure and the subject of a later article). The drug war, and all the benefits it has brought with it, has led to aggressive policing. The perpetual combat engaged in by law enforcement has led to the militarization of police departments around the country, which, as can be easily imagined, has only made matters worse.
The Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, and the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, among others, have armed local law enforcement agencies with military and para-military equipment. Armored Personnel Carriers, flashbang grenades, and assault rifles, combined with aggressive training and tactics, have made police officers into combatants in a war, instead of public servants on our city streets. In fact, in many instances police officers are encouraged through their training to adopt a “warrior” mentality, and to “think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were originally adopted to handle emergency situations, such as hostage crises. However, today nearly 2/3 of SWAT deployments involve simple drug raids. They serve search warrants on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of drugs, often a small amount. These para-military SWAT teams break down doors in the middle of the night, with battering rams, toss grenades into the house to blind and deafen the occupants, and enter, full assault style, to serve a search warrant. As should be expected, there is a greatly increased risk of violence in these raids, which are violent events in themselves.
Many police officers are honest, hard-working men and women. They perform heroic acts, and place themselves willingly in danger. But even these good officers are trained, armed and ordered to conduct aggressive, “proactive” policing, especially in “high crime” areas that are often neighborhoods of color. Police officers are sent into these areas to look for a fight, and to engage the public as enemy combatants. Is it any wonder that there are so many police shootings, when they are whipped into a frenzy and conditioned to be on high-alert at every moment?
The response has been, for the past few decades, a quiet acquiescence to the increase in police use of force. We were conditioned by the establishment to accept this new policing as being “tough on crime.” We were taught to think of every two-bit street hustler and pot smoker as a dangerous criminal that must be handled with extreme prejudice. But in recent years, more and more conscientious observers have begun to remonstrate. We saw organized protests in Ferguson, Missouri after police shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown; demonstrations in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after the shooting death of another unarmed black man, Alton sterling; and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, an activist movement that campaigns against violence and systemic racism. And these protesters have every right to voice their grievances, which are valid and legitimate grievances. The same police that citizens pay to protect them have too often violated their rights, threatened, harassed and even killed them outright, frequently for minor — or even non-existent — infractions (such as the case of Philando Castille).
In response to this outcry against aggressive policing, law enforcement advocates have declared that there is now some imaginary “War on Cops.” ‘Law and Order’ politicians from both sides of the political spectrum have derided community efforts to improve police/citizen relations by insisting that the police have a job to do. They support and defend officers that physically attack, shoot or kill criminal suspects, suggesting that if arrestees would simply cooperate, there would be no need for violence. In other words, time after time, the victim is blamed for his own situation. Because we are all expected by law enforcement, and their enablers, to submit unquestioningly to authority. And this is simply not what a democracy is supposed to look like.
In fact, it is a rather jealously guarded right — in most states — for citizens to resist an unlawful arrest, with reasonable force if necessary. Any limit on the citizens to resist unlawful conduct by police officers, is a direct, flagrant, and frightening violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” And yes, an arrest, or even a brief detention, is a “seizure,” and “unlawful” is the same as “unreasonable.” In most states, and at common law, the right to resist an unlawful arrest is sacrosanct, for precisely that reason — it is consistent with our Fourth Amendment rights. For example, in City of Monroe v. Ducas, a Louisiana court reversed the relators’ convictions under a local ordinance making it unlawful to resist a police officer in the discharge of his duties. Michael and John Ducas, members of a religious organization, had called at the home of a black family for the purpose of taking them to a bible study class. This activity impressed a police officer as “dangerous and suspicious” conduct, and he approached relators, demanding to know what they were doing. When Michael Ducas replied that “it was none of [the officer’s] business” and attempted to drive away, the officer tried to stop him and was injured. Observing that the relators had not been guilty of violating any law at the time of their arrest, the Court declared: “The right of personal liberty is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen, and any unlawful interference with it may be resisted. Every person has a right to resist an unlawful arrest; and, in preventing such illegal restraint of his liberty, he may use such force as may be necessary.”
However, due to the rise of anti-police violence advocacy, our federal lawmakers are attempting to limit this right, and impose a form of martial law that demands people respect and obey an officer, whether or not he is right. In a bipartisan effort — only 35 members of the House of Representatives voted against it — Congress is considering a bill, coined the “Protect and Serve Act,” which would essentially make assaulting a police officer — under any condition — a federal hate crime. The bill is a response to “anti-cop” messaging which is blamed on groups like Black Lives Matter, or the national controversy surrounding kneeling NFL players. These protests of police violence are conflated with some ideological hatred for all cops, which simply isn’t the case. The protesters aren’t calling for an end to police officers — just unwarranted violence, and the perpetual vindication and exculpation of bad cops by the law enforcement community. The so-called ‘thin blue line’ serves to condone and endorse excessive force and aggressive policing, and this abomination of a law is codifying it.
The purpose of hate crime laws is to protect a vulnerable class of citizens from being targeted simply because of their inclusion in that class. As noted by Radley Blako in the Washington Post, “[t]he problem with adding police officers . . . is that they are about as far removed from a vulnerable group as one can imagine. They carry guns and other weapons. They have the power to detain, arrest and kill. And they literally have the entire government at their back.” In other words, they are not a powerless and marginalized group in any way, and including them in the definition of a vulnerable class is completely idiotic.
I am assuming that the congresspeople who devised this law have no reason to believe that this type of law could ever be misused or exploited against citizens. The Senate version of the bill makes it a federal hate crime “to knowingly cause bodily injury to any person, or attempt to do so, because of the actual or perceived status of the person as a law enforcement officer.” This is very broad language that makes any physical contact — or even the attempted contact — with a police officer a felony, regardless of the reason. Currently, a simple battery of a police officer is, at least in Louisiana, a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in jail. But under this bill, a simple battery of a police office could be a federal hate crime carrying up to 10 years in federal prison. This should frighten anyone who cares about civil liberties — which should be everyone. And as previously noted, the broad language of the Senate bill can certainly be read to prohibit even reasonable and necessary force against a rogue officer who is engaged in unlawful behavior.
Despite the serious potential for abuse this bill introduces, there is simply no need for it. Most states already have special penalties for crimes against law enforcement, and such crimes are aggressively enforced. As Ilya Somin stated in Reason, “if anything, we have more reason to fear that police and prosecutors will fail to properly address crimes committed by police than crimes committed against them.” It is also a well-documented fact that the “war on police” comes at a time when violence against police officers is at historical lows, and has been trending downward for years. Despite the pro-police rhetoric, increased public criticism of violent officers does not equate to increased violence against cops. It is a myth, and it is deliberately misleading to make this connection. And while law enforcement can be considered a dangerous profession, it is interesting to note that it doesn’t even make the top 10 most dangerous jobs in America. Lawncare supervisors are more likely to die in the line of duty than police officers. There is simply no objective reason to grant another huge protection for cops at the potential expense of civil liberties.
This bill is yet another attempt to make law enforcement an unassailable force of authority in a nation that prides itself on freedom. Every valid criticism of the increased surveillance apparatus, draconian sentencing schemes and oppressive police practices is met with threats and harassment, and even chilling legislation. Protesters are branded as anti-police or unpatriotic. But this is simply wrong. Unpatriotic would be to allow, with no opposition, a takeover by the police state, surrender of our civil liberties, and an end to democratic and constitutional values such as free speech, free press, and the freedom of assembly. Protesters are exercising their rights, and defending their rights to criticize and admonish the power structures that are, supposedly, designed to serve us, not oppress us. I sincerely hope sensible minds prevail on this atrocious bill which seemingly criminalizes lawful resistance. But so far, it appears that there is a bi-partisan coalition of pandering, bootlicking politicians using this fascistic law to grandstand and highlight their “pro-police” positions. This type of law is a waypoint on a road toward toward fascism, and with so many congressmen, from both sides of aisle, supporting such measures, we may get to the end of the road sooner than any of us think.