Sweeping Powers

Trading freedom for security


In a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times, a writer named Karen Grigsby Bates offers a modest proposal for reducing crime. Under the headline, "A Little Inconvenience to Save Lives," she calls for "unannounced sweeps of California, a coordinated effort by local police and sheriff departments and the National Guard to rid the state of guns." Such an operation, Bates concedes, would arouse a certain amount of opposition. "It would require arbitrary search and seizure and would make life miserable for all of us," she writes. "Traffic would be snarled (because checkpoints would be established throughout cities, much like those at border crossings) … All sorts of lawsuits would be filed." But in the end, the gun dragnet would "save lives and improve the quality of life."

Bates has a naive faith in the government's ability to "rid the state of guns," and her premise that taking firearms from law-abiding citizens will make us safer is questionable, to say the least. But the impulse behind her argument—the desire to trade freedom for security—should not be ignored. It is powerful and persistent.

The temptation is especially strong at Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, where residents are justifiably afraid to leave their apartments. The public-housing project has been taken over by young thugs who attack residents and engage in gun battles that endanger innocent bystanders. "Kids can't play in the playground because there's bullets ringing over their heads, one gang shooting from one building to another," a resident told Nightline in April. "My kids ain't been in school in four weeks," said another, "because of the violence, because of the shooting every day." A third informed a police officer on camera: "Somebody just got raped in this building, on my floor right here."

The situation in places like the Robert Taylor Homes owes much to government policies. The government created the projects, concentrating lots of troublemakers, together with their victims, in buildings that seem designed to foster crime. The government pursues a drug war that strengthens gangs, provides the profits to pay for their weapons, and gives them something to shoot about.

But the government has a solution to the emergency it helped create. In response to the violence, the Chicago Housing Authority hired its own police officers and launched Operation Clean Sweep. The operation included raids in which the police would storm into a building and search it room by room, looking for weapons. Several residents challenged these warrantless searches in federal court, and in April a judge ordered the housing authority to stop the sweeps.

Many people objected; 5,000 public-housing residents from across the city had signed a petition in support of Operation Clean Sweep. It seemed to them that the searches had made life a little less dangerous by intimidating gang members. "I think they should sweep the buildings and go in every apartment to see who's got what and what's going on up in there," one resident said on Nightline.

The effectiveness of the sweeps is in dispute, and no one thinks they are an adequate response to the chaos that reigns at Robert Taylor Homes. But it's plausible that Operation Clean Sweep reduced violence a bit, maybe even saved a life. In any case, a sufficiently large and sustained show of force probably could restore order, especially if the police had broad search and arrest powers.

So it's not enough to say that Operation Clean Sweep didn't really work. Nor will many people be impressed by the argument that it was unconstitutional. As a local priest told Nightline, "There are very few rights that survive in Robert Taylor, because people are too busy trying to survive." In an emergency, civil liberties seem like a luxury.

But that is exactly why the Framers tried to shield them from passing crises. Constitutional guarantees are necessary only when people think they have good reasons for violating them. To someone who worries about getting shot in the head on the way to the grocery store, unreasonable search and seizure may not be a looming threat. Yet giving the police the kind of power they would need to stamp out crime in Chicago's housing projects would create a threat just as real as the gangs.

Blacks in poor neighborhoods already have reason to fear the police. On March 25, a Boston SWAT team literally scared a 75-year-old retired minister to death. They broke into his apartment and chased him into his bedroom to handcuff him, triggering a fatal heart attack. Later that day, the police commissioner apologized. It seems the cops were acting on a tip from an informant who said they would find drugs and guns. They had raided the wrong apartment by mistake.

In this context, waiving your Fourth Amendment rights can have serious consequences. It means that armed strangers may enter your home unannounced, at any hour of the day or night, and rifle your belongings. It means they may stop you at random and frisk you. And if someone should be injured or killed during any of these encounters, calling the police won't help.

This is not to say that law-enforcement officials are wrong when they complain that restrictions on search and seizure make their job harder. When the FBI says the Clipper chip will help catch bad guys, or when prosecutors argue that civil forfeiture is a useful tool in fighting crime, they may well be right. Freedom has its costs, one of which is that it complicates law enforcement. Ultimately, such complications probably mean more crime, if crime is understood as what the government punishes. But that's not the only kind of crime we need to worry about.