A Sacramento, California area family is mourning the death of their mentally disabled son, who was shot to death by a sheriff's deputy after the family had called the sheriff's department for help in restraining him. Newspaper accounts suggest the deputy ordered the young man—a severe germophobe—onto the ground, which sparked intense struggling. After a tussle, the deputy shot the man in front of his family.
As is typical, the sheriff defended the officer and said that he was well within his rights to use deadly force, which is no doubt true given that current law gives officers wide latitude to restrain and even kill people.
Comb through newspapers across the country and one will find many incidents of officer-involved shootings and aggressive behavior by the authorities, who, as an aside, increasingly look like paramilitary rather than community officers. Police say society has become more dangerous, but crime rates are falling even during tough economic times. The number of officers killed on duty is at record lows.
In my view, the reason for the incidents is the nature of policing has changed. Following the 9/11 attacks, officers have convinced themselves that every member of the public is a potential threat. Every local police department is awash in grants from "Homeland Security" to buy the latest toys and weaponry. Attitudes have changed and the local police aren't your friends any more.
From a practical standpoint, these incidents remind us to think carefully before calling for police help. From a policy perspective, it's time for a wide-ranging debate about use-of-force issues that's not dominated by police unions and their political courtiers.
This is from the Los Angeles Daily News this week: "Abdul Arian, the 19-year-old Winnetka man killed in a hail of police bullets on April 11, was buried Tuesday at the Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood. … [M]any attendees who knew Arian expressed anger about the way he died, following a car chase through the San Fernando Valley that ended on the 101 Freeway … ."
I've written about such shootings at the hands of deputies and police officers. Sometimes they are justified, but often the killings leave me wondering whether those officers would have reacted as they did had it been their child driving the car or their mentally ill son squirming on the ground.
Many people have been outraged at the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and liberal critics have blamed those "stand your ground" laws that allow the use of deadly force by ordinary citizens when they are under attack rather than forcing them to retreat before defending themselves.
Such laws might embolden people, but I wish these critics—who insist on putting a racial tilt on a matter that has far broader implications—would also look closely at government-sanctioned use of force. If "stand your ground" laws embolden armed citizens, what happens when armed officials are given the broadest legal latitude to kill and also are protected by their departments and their unions?
Police officers sometimes have to use deadly force. We all understand that. It's an oftentimes tough job. But we keep seeing the fruits of America's slide down that slippery slope toward a police state: 6-year-olds searched at airports, armed police patrolling the halls of junior high schools, drones deployed over U.S. skies to crack down on crime, SWAT teams arresting the sellers of unlicensed raw milk, armed agents shutting down peaceful medical marijuana clinics, code officers and other regulatory agents granted the powers and weaponry of peace officers, trigger-happy police who seem to reach for their weapons before trying other, less-deadly alternatives.
We've become a society of checkpoints and searches and increased surveillance wherever we go. We have federal officials who monitor bank accounts and gain added powers to snoop on us, broad anti-terrorism laws that allow the authorities to detain citizens indefinitely without due process. Many conservatives applaud these expansions of power because of their concern about terrorist threats and street crime. Liberals applaud them also, given how eager they are to use government to "improve" our society. The more laws and regulations one passes, the more authorities one needs to enforce them.
Whatever happened to civil libertarians, who must be in hiding somewhere? Why aren't Christians—who are more than willing to flex their political muscle on gay marriage and other issues—talking about the impact of these policies on the least among us, or thinking seriously about those in jails and prisons?
We're creating a brutal and inhumane society. This is from a recent Los Angeles Times article: "A Los Angeles County commission investigating jail abuse heard tearful testimony … from clergy and civilian monitors who worked in the lockups and said they witnessed deputies assaulting inmates and bullying witnesses to keep quiet. One jail monitor broke down as she recounted being intimidated by a deputy whom she said saw beat an unconscious inmate. A weeping jail chaplain described deputies calling him a rat after he reported another beating."
When officials misbehave so egregiously, it undermines our society and our form of government in deep and disturbing ways.
Ultimately, it is up to we, the people, to push the pendulum back in a more sensible direction. Since 9/11, Americans have placed their security over their freedom, but I'm sensing an understanding of the problem among serious people from all political perspectives.
When Americans think about public employee issues these days, they think about the pension crisis. But as serious a problem as that is, the biggest public-employee issue relates more directly to who we are as a people and what kind of society we want to live in. We need to demand that the authorities behave more like members of our community and less like an invading army.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.