Restraining Order

Attacking the excesses of federal cops


As the January trial of Branch Davidians opened in Texas, an extraordinary coalition of traditional civil libertarians and Second Amendment advocates called for a presidential commission to help prevent future Waco shoot-outs from occurring.

At a press conference in the Washington offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU joined with 10 other organizations, including the National Rifle Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, to ask President Clinton to appoint a commission that would review cases in which federal law-enforcement officials may have used excessive force or otherwise acted illegally.

Ideally, the groups would like the commission to include law-enforcement officials, legal scholars, and community activists. Their models are the Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Herbert Hoover to investigate corruption by federal law-enforcement agents in the 1920s, and the Christopher Commission, appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley after the Rodney King beating. Each of these commissions uncovered sweeping patterns of police abuses and recommended new procedures that helped restore confidence in the professionalism and effectiveness of law enforcers.

Nearly 10 percent of the nation's law-enforcement officers–some 79,000 persons–work for the federal government. In a letter to the president, the groups cited seven examples–including the Branch Davidian case, the death of Malibu millionaire Donald Scott (see "Ill-Gotten Gains," August/September 1993), and the shootout in Idaho involving Randy Weaver's family (see "Ambush at Ruby Ridge," October 1993)–in which they say federal agents engaged in "no knock" raids without justification or improperly used deadly force, entrapment, or asset forfeiture.

ACLU project director Gene Guerrero says it's much easier to seek redress from state and local law enforcers than from the federal government. Most jurisdictions have independent oversight agencies that can impartially investigate allegations of excessive behavior. By contrast, Guerrero notes, federal law-enforcement agencies have no uniform oversight.