Silent Creep to the Police State

05/04/2015 11:40

by Chris Campbell


We’ve tapped much virtual ink about the potential for social unrest and martial law in America. It can happen in any city, we’ve said. It’s no unreasonable feat due to the laundry list of our dimming nation’s problems. And now, as if all our pontificating summoned it out of the ether, it’s threatening to plop itself right outside our doorstep.

Here’s one picture I snapped downtown where the National Guard is posted…Baltimore

The reason all of this is happening, the world is told, is because a bunch of thugs went around breaking things. That’s it. End of story. But, hey, let’s discuss the word “thug.” Because that’s what’s important about this situation. Semantics.

I mentioned Tuesday that I observed last Saturday’s protests.

They were, at first, peaceful and impassioned. And then came the spark of violence, which was only a small taste of what was to come a couple days later -- when the riots began.

The meetup point of the protest was, as mentioned, in West Baltimore. Specifically, the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood -- an area where over 33 percent of the homes sit vacant and the blocks look like this:

Locally, it’s known simply as “Sandtown.” The name comes from the trails of sand left behind from horse-drawn wagons when people would come in to fill up at the local quarry… back when they used to do such things. And when they had a quarry.

Today, Sandtown-Winchester has replaced its quarry with a whole bunch of poverty. And its sand with a whole bunch of drugs. The 72-block area is also, I should mention, where Freddie Gray grew up -- and where he was chased down by the police.

His crime? Eye contact. Punishable, apparently, by death.

Freddie’s untimely death notwithstanding, the life expectancy in this neighborhood is 65.3 years -- worse than Pakistan and Cambodia and nearly on par with Yemen. The mortality rate for 25-44 year olds is 44% higher than anywhere else in the city. Unemployment and poverty rates are double the city average. Drugs are the only economic wheelhouse. It’s not surprising, then, that Sandtown is also home to more state prison inmates than any other place in Maryland. And has more alleged incidents of police brutality than anywhere else too.


In the mid-1990s, efforts were made -- public and private -- to lift Sandtown out of poverty. Over the span of eight years, $130 million in funding was poured into the area as a “neighborhood transformation initiative.”

During this effort, 1,000 new housing units were built. Another thousand were renovated. And the organization leading it, Community Building in Partnership, helped educate residents on issues ranging from teen pregnancy reduction to school reform and job training. For a little bit, it looked like things might turn around for the deprived area. But then the economy slowed, funding was pulled, and the effort, ultimately, split apart at the seams.

As we know all too well, you cannot spend your way into prosperity if the underlying foundation is crumbling. Poverty, of course, is only a symptom of a larger problem.

If we’re going to talk about violation of rights… and modern-day impediments of an individual’s pursuit of happiness…

We must talk about what’s happening in the poverty-stricken and neglected areas of our cities. If we’re to speak about the oppression of big government, we must acknowledge what’s being done under the permission of our own tax dollars to those without the means to defend themselves. We must recognize that as our rights are getting culled in the interest of our “safety,” it’s the impoverished that are feeling the most weight of the jackboot.

In this city, and in cities all across the U.S., Americans are forced to deal with a barbaric criminal justice system where the officer -- no matter how sociopathic, violent, petty, or stupid -- is always in the right. And is basically never accountable for his or her actions.

Most, we realize, don’t, but many police officers take advantage of this situation. It’s only until someone records it on their phones and uploads it online that these officers face any consequences -- which are, 99% of the time, negligible.

The problem is not the police officer. Just as black lives matter, as has been the mantra here in Baltimore, so do police officer’s. The problem is the vast amount of power the police are given to lord over not only you and I -- but also society’s most vulnerable. And just like the middle-school bully, or the predator in the wild, or the common criminal -- the easy targets become the easy takes.

Again, this wouldn’t be much of a problem if it weren’t so hard to weed out the corrupt cops in favor of the ones who conduct real, dignified police work. Work that does not count in numbers -- but judges his or her actions by the impact it has on the community. Work that protects the city’s vulnerable and tightens the communities that need it most. But that’s not what is happening. Not in Baltimore. And not in any city in the “Land of the Free.”

As it stands, police unions make it unbelievably difficult to fire an abusive, corrupt or sociopathic cop. It’s less trouble just to keep him or her on the payroll. Moreover, many police union contracts state that officers are not held liable for their misconduct -- which is why cities dole out vacation and settlement pay with your tax money when an officer breaks the law.

There’s another, even wider, crack in the criminal justice system.

If you care at all about your civil rights, you need to know about this ever-widening chasm. Because two words, more than any other, are responsible for the slow creep of the police state. And banishing them could help to prevent what’s happening in Baltimore from ever happening again.

Two words are the reason -- and I hope I’m wrong about this -- that the officers responsible for Freddie Gray’s death probably won’t be held accountable for what’s happened here in Baltimore.  (If I’m right, I might be reporting from rooftops a lot this summer. I don’t want to be right.)

In the past decade, there has been a silent coup d' etat,” Norm Pattis, a Connecticut-based civil rights lawyer writes on his blog.

“Our courts have transformed themselves into the guardians of a police state in a stunning, and largely unnoticed, act of judicial activism. Their primary tool was a tricky legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity, the civil rights blog of Bergstein & Ullrich explains, is a “legal doctrine that allows public defendants in civil rights cases to win the case if their objectionable actions did not violate clearly established law even if, in hindsight, the court finds that their actions were in fact illegal.”

Worst part? “This coup has gone unnoticed by the general public,” Pattis goes on. “Even academics seem blind to its import. Practitioners know better.

“We boast about the rule of law, saying that no one is beyond the law’s reach. That’s not quite true. The law recognizes broad immunities. If life is a board game, the rule of law defines what pieces on the board can do to one another. An immunity removes a piece from the board, placing it beyond the reach of the law.

“In the context of police misconduct litigation,” says Pattis, “judges are free to grant a police officer immunity from suit if the officer’s conduct does not violate clearly established law or if reasonable police officers could disagree about whether the alleged conduct violated the law. Translated into lay terms, police officers are given the benefit of the doubt in close cases. But judges, not juries, make this call. That’s the coup.”

In short, it is the judges, not the people, that get to decide what’s reasonable for police officers to do. This sets a dangerous precedent. And it also incentivizes corruption.

“The judiciary is self-satisfied about this, and why not? Throwing a case out of court is a whole lot less trouble than going to trial. But it comes at a cost. The cost is a police state. Officers are free to act with impunity, their conduct is beyond the review of ordinary citizens so long as it satisfies the jaundiced eye of a judiciary, free to decide without real review, what is and is not reasonable.”


Fortunately, the digital revolution has shifted the sands a bit in the fight against police brutality…

Before smartphones and Twitter it was your word against the cop’s.

“It used to be said -- correctly -- that the patrolman on the beat on any American police force was the last perfect tyranny,” David Simon, writer and producer of The Wire, who has been very vocal this week, told the Marshall Project blog. “Absent a herd of reliable witnesses, there were things he could do to deny you your freedom or kick your ass that were between him, you, and the street. “The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.

But it’s clearly not enough. Though it’s provoking outrage, the status quo isn’t shifting. That’s why, aside from banishing qualified immunity, there’s another way Simon suggests that could turn the situation in Baltimore around, before the situation becomes irreversible.

“Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized.


“Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized.

“It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.”

Coupled with Mayor O’Malley’s draconian “zero tolerance” policies, the cops were free to arrest anyone for anything. In fact, they were encouraged to do so. “There were two initiatives,” said Simon. “First, the department began sweeping the streets of the inner city, taking bodies on ridiculous humbles, mass arrests, sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night, thousands in a month. They actually had police supervisors stationed with printed forms at the city jail -- forms that said, essentially, you can go home now if you sign away any liability the city has for false arrest, or you can not sign the form and spend the weekend in jail until you see a court commissioner. And tens of thousands of people signed that form.

ACLU eventually discovered this monstrosity and sued the city, forcing a settlement. But the mass arrests made one thing clear to the communities on the East and West sides of Baltimore: That the police could -- and would, happily -- throw anyone in jail. No investigation or probable cause. No reason at all. Nothing. Members of Sandtown were as free as police said they were.

“And yet people were scared enough of crime in those years that O’Malley had his supporters for this policy, council members and community leaders who thought, They’re all just thugs. But they weren’t. They were anybody who slowed to clear the sidewalk or who stayed seated on their front stoop for too long when an officer tried to roust them. Schoolteachers, Johns Hopkins employees, film crew people, kids, retirees, everybody went to the city jail. If you think I’m exaggerating, look it up. It was an amazing performance by the city’s mayor and his administration.”

“So,” the interviewer asked Simon, “do you see how this ends or how it begins to turn around?”

“We end the drug war,” Simon responded.

“I know I sound like a broken record, but we end the drug war. The drug war gives everybody permission to do anything. It gives cops permission to stop anybody, to go in anyone’s pockets, to manufacture any lie when they get to district court. “You sit in the district court in Baltimore and you hear, ‘Your Honor, he was walking out of the alley and I saw him lift up the glassine bag and tap it lightly.’ No dope fiend in Baltimore has ever walked out of an alley displaying a glassine bag for all the world to see.

“But it keeps happening over and over in the Western District court. The drug war gives everybody permission. And if it were draconian and we were fixing anything that would be one thing, but it’s draconian and it's a disaster.”  Indeed.

All right. It’s midnight. Gotta’ sneak home now. Stay safe.


Chris Campbell is the Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today.  © 2015 Laissez Faire Books, LLC.