During a July speech to police in Long Island, Donald Trump joked that when officers "put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head" that "you can take the hand away, okay?"
Many of the cops laughed approvingly, but civil liberties groups—and even some law-enforcement officials—were upset that the president made light of police brutality, especially given some troubling nationally publicized incidents.
Trump's defenders argued that he was only joking about the treatment of killers, and that the rest of us need to lighten up. Didn't Ronald Reagan joke about bombing Russia as he prepared for a radio address? Well, yes. But those arguments aren't persuasive given that the administration's actual policing policies seem likely to encourage abusive police behavior in a variety of ways.
Even the Republican-controlled House of Representatives seems to understand that point. Last Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly approved amendments to a spending bill that try to limit the U.S. Justice Department's efforts to let police officers expand the use of a policy known as "civil asset forfeiture." Some forms of forfeiture have been around for centuries, but it really ramped up in the early days of the drug war, with policies designed to let police grab property and proceeds from major drug enterprises.
Like most government programs, it expanded beyond recognition. It's turned into an astoundingly abusive process by which police seize the property of people who have never been convicted—or even accused—of a crime. In 2012 in Anaheim, federal authorities tried to seize a $1.5 million commercial building from its owner after one of his tenants, a medical-marijuana clinic, was accused of selling $37 in marijuana to an undercover cop. The feds eventually dropped the case amid blistering media coverage, but it shows how seriously this power can be abused.
Many states, including California, have passed laws requiring police agencies to gain a conviction (in most cases) before taking a person's property. To get around those laws, local cops would "partner" with federal agencies and then operate under looser federal standards. After the property was taken, the local and federal folks would divvy up the proceeds—and then use the money to bolster their departmental budgets.
Two Justice Department officials who helped start the program in the 1980s later argued that the process "has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits." The recent House vote seeks to block Attorney General Jeff Sessions from overturning Obama administration rules that put a few limits on these local-federal partnerships.
In another example of the administration's lax attitude toward abusive government practices, Sessions last month decided to restore a federal program that provided rocket launchers, tank-like vehicles and other military gear to local cops. Police departments are supposed to protect and serve the community, not behave like an occupying army.
Before the last administration reined it in, the military acquisition program had gotten out of hand. A San Diego school district received a $730,000 mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) surplus vehicle from the military. Before they were pressured to return it, school officials said, "There will be medical supplies in the vehicle. There will be teddy bears in the vehicle." Oh please. What kind of uprising are these police departments and school security offices trying to subdue?
Years ago, one official told me that his department eschewed high-powered equipment. That's because once the agencies have new toys, they want to use them—even in situations where community policing operations are more appropriate. The equipment encourages police-state tactics. Yet the Trump administration thinks this is a good idea.
Newsweek reported that Sessions in June "submitted a letter asking certain members of Congress to remove federal protections that prevent the Department of Justice from cracking down on medical marijuana patients, cultivators and dispensaries that are in line with state law."
Conservatives often talk about their fealty to the U.S. Constitution. But the 10th Amendment says, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." States clearly have the right to set marijuana policy, yet the feds want to crack down on clinics anyway. Like it or not, California's voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996.
Don't bother arguing that these "law and order" policies are only about the "rule of law." The president last month pardoned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt, a misdemeanor, for defying a judge's order that his department stop "detaining persons for further investigation without reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed," according to the verdict.
There's a clear message from the pardon and from the president's actions regarding asset forfeiture, police militarization and the drug war: Law enforcement has more latitude now to bend and break the rules. That certainly is no laughing matter.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.