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police

Maricopa County (Phoenix) Sheriff and longtime Overlawyered mentionee Joe Arpaio did not keep close track of the military-grade gear the Pentagon gave him — in fact, his office seems to have lost some of it — and now the feds are lowering the boom: “Because of the agency’s continued failure to locate nine missing weapons issued by the Pentagon’s 1033 program, the Sheriff’s Office was terminated from the military-­surplus program, effective immediately. The agency is required to return its cache of issued firearms, helicopters and other gear within 120 days.” Arizona Republic reporter Megan Cassidy quotes me regarding the interesting timing of the announcement, following closely after events in Ferguson, Mo. helped stir a nationwide furor over the 1033 program. It’s not specified (h/t Lauren Galik) whether they’ll have to give back the hot dog machine and $3,500 popcorn machine.

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Police and prosecution roundup

by Walter Olson on September 11, 2014

  • Enviro activists unlawfully block coal ship, Massachusetts prosecutor expresses approval by dropping charges [James Taranto, Jacob Gershman/WSJ Law Blog, ABA Journal]
  • Unfortunately-named Mr. Threatt charged with “robbery that happened while he was in jail” [Baltimore Sun via @amyalkon]
  • “How conservative, tough-on-crime Utah reined in police militarization” [Evan McMorris-Santoro, BuzzFeed] More: What if we needed it someday? San Diego Unified School District defends acquisition of armored vehicle [inewsource.org] And Senate hearing [AP]
  • “Machine-based traffic-ticketing systems are running amok” [David Kravets, ArsTechnica]
  • Thanks, Fraternal Order of Police, for protecting jobs of rogue Philadelphia cops who could cost taxpayers millions [Ed Krayewski; related earlier]
  • Study: returning from 6- to 12-person juries could iron out many racial anomalies at trial [Anwar et al, Tabarrok]
  • Courts can help curb overcriminalization by revitalizing rule of lenity, mens rea requirement [Steven Smith]

Public employment roundup

by Walter Olson on September 9, 2014

  • Some wages rise accordingly: “Scott Walker’s Act 10 leads to a ‘teacher marketplace’ in Wisconsin.” [Ann Althouse]
  • Police/fire psychiatric claims: “Retired NYC cop takes plea in $27M disability-fraud case; ex-prosecutor is a claimed ringleader” [Martha Neil, ABA Journal]
  • “Every Day Turns Out To Be Labor Day For Hapless Taxpayers” [Ira Stoll]
  • In Harris case, high court revolted at notion of government inserting itself into family relations to siphon off money for union’s benefit [Budget and Tax News, PDF, p. 9, and thanks for quote]
  • “Overprotecting public-employee pensions, from the Reason Foundation” [Sasha Volokh] “California Embraces Pension-Spiking Bonanza” [Steven Greenhut]
  • “Sure We Hassled Boy Scouts at the Border, But You Can’t Prove We Pulled a Gun, Says DHS” [J.D. Tuccille]
  • “The results show very little difference at age 60 in the life expectancy of police and fire as compared with other public employees.” [Alicia Munnell via Steven Greenhut] “Los Angeles Police Average Total Compensation $157,151 Per Year” [Ed Ring, Flash Report] More: Soaring public safety costs rack California towns [OC Register]

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Police roundup

by Walter Olson on September 4, 2014

  • Spectacular investigative report from Radley Balko on fines, fees, and revenue-driven law enforcement in the towns north of St. Louis [WaPo] Reading it, I’m pretty confident my two cents a couple of weeks ago was on the right track;
  • Talk about wrong turns: some self-styled progressives want to seize the moment to extend federal government control further over local police management [BuzzFeed, Scott Greenfield ("czar" idea)]
  • More reporting on how we got police militarization [ProPublica, Newsweek]
  • Race, police, and political power in Ferguson [Charles Cobb guest-posting at Volokh] Richard Epstein on not jumping to factual conclusions (link fixed now);
  • N.Z.: “Police union’s election year wishlist” [Radio New Zealand (via @EricCrampton who comments: "Short version: any restriction on liberty that makes their job easier"); yesterday's post]
  • Pretextual pot busts? Zimring’s curious defense of NYC “broken windows” policing [NYP]
  • Yes, there’s a SWAT lobby in Washington, D.C., behaving as you’d expect [Tim Mak, Daily Beast] “If Democrats Seek to ‘Rally Blacks’ Against Police Militarization, They Might Start with the Congressional Black Caucus” [Nick Gillespie; Zaid Jilani, Vanity Fair]
  • “Police Officers and Patents of Nobility” [Coyote] “Man shot, paralyzed over unpaid parking tickets” [Balko; Lehigh County, Pa.]

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The need for police forces isn’t going away, so what practical suggestions do libertarians have in the here and now for discouraging police resort to excessive force? Thanks to Ed Krayewski at Reason for quoting me on the subject of tackling the power of police unions, which not only protect bad actors from removal but tie the hands of well-intentioned administrators in a dozen other ways and exert political pressure against effective reform. (Other suggestions in the piece: increase use of body- and dash-cams, extend the role of civilian oversight boards, and end the Drug War; relatedly, curtail SWAT tactics and the use of other paramilitary force.)

On a perhaps not unrelated note, the Washington Post reports today on the police shooting of an unarmed suburban Washington, D.C. man in his front doorway after he refused to let police into his home following a domestic call. The fact that jumped out at me was that, a year after it happened, the Fairfax County police department is still releasing no information about the incident, not even the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. According to the Post’s account (related lawsuit), police shot kitchen contractor John Geer once but first aid did not arrive until an hour later — he bled to death — and his body remained unmoved for hours, like that of Michael Brown on the street in Ferguson, Mo. The Fairfax chief says his department is just following its own policy by not releasing the officer’s name or other information while an investigation is pending (and pending and pending) — but how that policy came to be adopted, and for whose benefit, are questions worth asking.

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Revelations that a single senior Houston police officer served on at least ten grand juries have been an eye-opener to those who might have assumed that the grand jury as constituted in Harris County (Houston) was random or representative in its composition. Radley Balko:

…critics allege that the “key-man” system that many Harris County judges use to pick grand jurors selects for law enforcement officials and their friends, family, and acquaintances. Critics say it’s too easily manipulated, and results in grand juries continually picked from the same pool of people — cops, retired cops, friends and family of cops, and older, whiter, wealthier, more conservative people who both have the time and money to serve, and are familiar enough with the system to even know to volunteer to serve on a grand jury in the first place.

Adding to the problem, grand jury members are invited to go on police ride-alongs, are given free time at police shooting ranges, and are invited to participate in 3D shooting simulators designed to make them empathetic with police officers. Those same grand jurors are then asked to assess the validity and credibility of the police officers who testify before them, not just in routine investigations, but in investigations of the killing of police officers, alleged abuse by police officers, police shootings, or police corruption.

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Three columns to read on the subject: Gene Healy, Glenn Reynolds (linking this site), and Nat Hentoff (like Healy, a Cato colleague) in his syndicated column (thanks for mention). I had a letter to the editor yesterday in the Frederick News-Post drawing connections with local lawmakers (as well as a blog post at Free State Notes with similar themes) and the Arizona Republic quoted me Tuesday on the federal subsidy programs that drive militarization, including transfers to the ever-controversial Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of Joe Arpaio. Earlier here, here, here, here, here, etc.

P.S. Also quoted on NPR.

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As I and many other writers have noted lately, the town of Ferguson like several nearby suburbs in St. Louis County has a reputation for raising revenue through aggressive use of tickets for minor traffic and vehicle infractions, a practice that many suspect weighs more heavily on poorer and outsider groups. Blogger Coyote, who now lives in Arizona, has some reflections about police practice in that state and also adds this recollection from an earlier stint in Missouri:

I worked in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years, which ironically is located in one corner of Ferguson. One of the unwritten bennies of working there was the in house legal staff. It was important to make a friend there early. In Missouri they had some bizarre law where one could convert a moving violation to a non-moving violation. A fee still has to be paid, but you avoid points on your license that raises insurance costs (and life insurance costs, I found out recently). All of us were constantly hitting up the in-house legal staff to do this magic for us. I am pretty sure most of the residents of Ferguson do not have this same opportunity.

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Race is one reason for constant police hassle in towns like Ferguson. Revenue is another. In a Cato post yesterday, I note that court fees are the second biggest source of revenue for the small city, and that the Ferguson municipal court last year issued three arrest warrants and presided over 1.5 cases per household. As a result, many residents of the town “wind up interacting constantly with law enforcement because of a culture of petty fines” — enough to make for tense relations between the community and the police even aside from the racial divide. Similarly: Alex Tabarrok, who wrote on related issues two years ago. More: Amy Alkon; Brian Doherty at Reason says his colleague Scott Shackford reaches a lower estimate of the importance of fines in the Ferguson budget.

P.S. The ArchCity Defenders report on problems with North County municipal courts is online (PDF). And even before Ferguson blew up, there had been stirrings of reform on some of the courts’ user-unfriendly practices [Post-Dispatch]

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All-Ferguson edition, including my CNBC exchange last Friday, above:

  • Typically good John Stossel column [Washington Examiner, syndicated, and thanks for mention] Disturbing innovations coming our way in the world of crowd/protest control include “puke cannons,” “pain rays” [Gene Healy, Washington Examiner, ditto]
  • Cause of death: failure to comply with police orders [David M. Perry, opinion] “Here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you” [Sunil Dutta (L.A.P.D. officer), Washington Post; Ken at Popehat]
  • “Expect Many, Many Lawsuits From Ferguson” [Chris Geidner, BuzzFeed]
  • Not the safe conventional move: I’m quoted on Sen. Rand Paul’s willingness to grapple with Ferguson [Politico]
  • Local commercial economies take a long time to recover from damage done by looting [Kate Rogers/Fox Business, thanks for quote]]
  • Political economy: unusual state of representation in Ferguson makes the town an outlier [Seth Masket, Pacific Standard] Police-driven budget? “Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees” [Jeff Smith, NY Times]
  • According to Victor Davis Hanson, we critics of police militarization have “empowered [radical groups] to commit violence” [NRO]
  • “What I Did After a Cop Killed My Son” [Michael Bell, Politico, Kenosha, Wisc.; civilian review]
  • “Why Are There No News Helicopters Over Ferguson?” [Peter Suderman]

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Should cops wear cameras?

by Walter Olson on August 19, 2014


I’m at 1:45 in this report that aired on WOAI (San Antonio), Fox 45 Baltimore, and other Sinclair Broadcasting stations nationwide, with accompanying article. See Nick Gillespie in Time, also linked yesterday; earlier on police cameras here, etc.

P.S. Don’t underestimate the data security issues.

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One consequence of the events in Ferguson, Mo. is that people are talking with each other across ideological lines who usually don’t, a symbol being the attention paid on both left and right to Sen. Rand Paul’s op-ed last week in Time. And one point worth discussing is how the problem of police militarization manifests itself similarly these days in local policing and in the enforcement of federal regulation.

At BuzzFeed, Evan McMorris-Santoro generously quotes me on the prospects for finding common ground on these issues. The feds’ Gibson Guitar raid — our coverage of that here — did much to raise the profile of regulatory SWAT tactics, and John Fund cited others in an April report:

Many of the raids [federal paramilitary enforcers] conduct are against harmless, often innocent, Americans who typically are accused of non-violent civil or administrative violations.

Take the case of Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was “visited” by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 a.m., dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who hadn’t been living with him and was suspected of college financial-aid fraud.

The year before the raid on Wright, a SWAT team from the Food and Drug Administration raided the farm of Dan Allgyer of Lancaster, Pa. His crime was shipping unpasteurized milk across state lines to a cooperative of young women with children in Washington, D.C., called Grass Fed on the Hill. Raw milk can be sold in Pennsylvania, but it is illegal to transport it across state lines. The raid forced Allgyer to close down his business.

Fund goes on to discuss the rise of homeland-security and military-surplus programs that have contributed to the rapid proliferation of SWAT and paramilitary methods in local policing. He cites Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, which similarly treats both manifestations of paramilitary policing as part of the same trend.

As McMorris-Santoro notes in the BuzzFeed piece, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) has introduced a bill called the Regulatory Agency Demilitarization Act, citing such unsettling developments as a U.S. Department of Agriculture solicitation for submachine guns. 28 House Republicans have joined as sponsors, according to Ryan Lovelace at National Review.

There has already been left-right cooperation on the issue, as witness the unsuccessful Grayson-Amash amendment in June seeking to cut off the military-surplus 1033 program. As both sides come to appreciate some of the common interests at stake in keeping law enforcement as peaceful and proportionate as situations allow, there will be room for more such cooperation. (& welcome Instapundit, Radley Balko, Bainbridge readers; cross-posted at Cato at Liberty)

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  • D.C.-area listeners: Today (Monday) I’m scheduled to join host Diane Rehm on her popular WAMU radio show, along with other panelists, tune in at 10 a.m. [update: transcript];
  • “A few people have pointed it out, but our ROE [Rules of Engagement] regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in MO.” [@jeffclement, part of an interesting Storify on veterans' opinions of Ferguson; related on gun-handling practice of Ferguson police last week as seen by gun aficionados [Reddit via VICE]
  • Obama should call for an end to the 1033 program, which drives local police militarization, says my Cato colleague Tim Lynch [CNN, Yahoo] Pentagon surplus grants to local police don’t correlate with terror threats (state that gets most per officer: Alabama) [WP] Missouri grant angle [David Mastio and Kelsey Rupp, USA Today]
  • SWAT raids on poker games and a comedian: John Stossel’s column this week is on Ferguson [Fox] The inimitable Mark Steyn [Steyn Online] And for balance here’s a contrary view from someone who views militarization as both inevitable and necessary [Jazz Shaw, Hot Air]
  • “What I Did After Police Killed My Son” [Politico; Michael Bell of Kenosha, Wis.]
  • Asset forfeiture, federal partnerships fed St. Louis County gear acquisition [Eapen Thampy, Forfeiture Reform] More background on forces fueling militarization [Glenn Reynolds, Popular Mechanics, 2006]
  • “The Missouri Highway Patrol, St. Louis County, and the City of Ferguson agree that public has the ‘right to record public events’” [Volokh, 2010 Cato video] “Prove the truth”: why cameras help good cops [Nick Gillespie]

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A timely reminder [Ed Krayewski, Reason] Appallingly, some unions have won provisions forbidding authorities from interviewing an officer charged with misconduct until days after an incident, which means a lawyered-up officer can, if so inclined, hold back from committing to a story until it becomes clearer what story is convenient. Krayewski:

Whether Ferguson’s police chief or mayor are actually interested in firing this cop is hardly known. But in the current situation, their hands are tied by an intricate system of legal protections built for cops around the country. Firing Michael Brown’s killer would not make him guilty of murder. That’s what jury trials are for in this free country. But cops, who are authorized by the government to use violence to attain their goals, ought to be held to a higher standard than everyday criminals, not lower ones. A job is a privilege, not a right.

We’ve run many items over the years on this theme, including: Connecticut officer reinstated with back pay after “covering up a hit and run crash involving a fellow officer [she] was involved in a relationship with,” and police union “defends Denver cop fired for driving drunk at 143 mph”; union saves job of officer who planted white powder on suspect in a drug arrest, also in Connecticut; the comprehensively bad “Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights” package enacted in many states; etc. And closely related, from Ken White at Popehat: “Don’t Give Special Rights To Anybody! Oh, Except Cops. That’s Cool”; J.D. Tuccille, Reason.

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Michael Daly at The Daily Beast has the flabbergasting story of Henry Davis, who was picked up by cops “for an outstanding warrant that proved to actually be for another man of the same surname, but a different middle name and Social Security number,” then beaten by several officers at the station. What happened next was truly surreal: while denying that Davis had been seriously hurt at all, though a CAT scan found he had suffered a concussion and a contemporaneous photo shows him bleeding heavily, four police officers sought to have him charged for property damage for getting blood on their uniforms. The story emerged in part through contradictions in sworn testimony. Moreover, it developed that the department did not have a practice of placing incident reports of this sort in the officers’ personnel files, making it impossible to know how often individual officers had been involved in allegations of excessive force.

The kicker: the police department was that of Ferguson, Missouri.

P.S. Here’s a court document.

Earlier on petty fines and charges as an abusive element in law enforcement. More on the Davis case from Kevin at Lowering the Bar.

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Above: Cato podcast, interviewed by Caleb Brown.

The events in Ferguson, Mo. have vaulted police militarization to the top of the national news. I’ve spent a lot of the past 48 hours talking with the press, covering the issue on Twitter and other social media, and fielding reactions to my blog post (reprinted at the Cato blog), which has gotten considerable attention. Highlights:

P.S. Finally some good news from Ferguson. Newly assigned cops from the Missouri Highway Patrol wear blue not camo, mingle and talk to protesters with respect — and suddenly there’s calm. And the Rand Paul piece is making news.

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Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone“?

As most readers have reason to know by now, the town of Ferguson, Mo. outside St. Louis, numbering around 21,000 residents, is the scene of an unfolding drama that will be cited for years to come as a what-not-to-do manual for police forces. After police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the street, then left his body on the pavement for four hours, rioters destroyed many local stores. Since then, reportedly, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press; have revealed that dashcams for police cars were in the city’s possession but never installed; have obtained restrictions on journalists, including on news-gathering overflights of the area; and more.

The dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.

If you’re new to the issue of police militarization, which Overlawyered has covered occasionally over the past few years, the key book is Radley Balko’s, discussed at this Cato forum:

Federal grants drive police militarization. In 2012, as I was able to establish in moments through an online search, St. Louis County (of which Ferguson is a part) got a Bearcat armored vehicle and other goodies this way. The practice can serve to dispose of military surplus (though I’m told the Bearcat is not military surplus, but typically purchased new — W.O.) and it sometimes wins the gratitude of local governments, even if they are too strapped for cash to afford more ordinary civic supplies (and even if they are soon destined to be surprised by the high cost of maintaining gear intended for overseas combat).

As to the costs, some of those are visible in Ferguson, Mo. this week.

[edited to add/update links and to clarify the issues of military surplus and the un-interviewed witness; cross-posted at Cato at Liberty]

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  • Did feds try to pass off bogus paperwork in Maryland forfeiture case? [Van Smith, my two cents at Free State Notes, Radley Balko (and thanks for mention)]
  • “I’m not saying that warrants are completely useless.” [Ken at Popehat]
  • “Massachusetts is the only state that incarcerates people suffering from addiction who have not been convicted of crimes” [ACLU of Massachusetts]
  • “Where Would We Be If Not For Police In SWAT Gear Raiding Poker Games?” [Amy Alkon]
  • Class of federal crimes that shows the biggest racial disparity isn’t drug offenses, it’s gun offenses [Balko on Shaneen Allen case in New Jersey]
  • Our merciful laws: “I Saw a Man Get Arrested For a Sex Crime Because He Made a Scheduling Error” [Lenore Skenazy, Reason] “Sex Offender Laws Have Gone Too Far” [Matt Mellema, Chanakya Sethi, and Jane Shim, Slate]
  • Police chief seeks to arrest one of own officers on brutality charge, state’s attorney says no [Scott Greenfield; Ed Krayewski, Reason; Enfield, Ct.]

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