It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the bloody “Rodney King” riots ripped through Los Angeles. In the years since those horrific events in 1991, police departments across the country have been faced with numerous racially-charged altercations – including many involving police shootings of civilian suspects. During that same time, American taxpayers at all levels of government have seen hundreds of billions of their dollars spent to improve law enforcement training, procedures, and equipment. But, have we learned anything?
If what is unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri following the August 9th fatal shooting of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer is any indication, all that training, money and equipment has been utterly wasted.
In less than one week, Ferguson transformed from a small and largely unknown St. Louis suburb into an occupied territory in the middle of a raging warzone. The act that initially sparked this unfortunate series of events -- the shooting death of Brown – was quickly overtaken by an embarrassing series of missteps by political and law enforcement officials. The manner in which these bumbling officials issued conflicting and inconsistent statements and took similarly indecisive actions, serves as a lesson in how not to handle such an incident.
One of these factors, of course, is the danger posed by the over-militarization of civilian law enforcement. This highly problematic process moved into high gear with the 1993 ATF-Branch Davidian confrontation outside Waco, Texas, and accelerated rapidly after the 911 terror attacks. In recent days, many commentators and experts have focused on this very real and continuing threat to our civil liberties (I have written in the past about this alarming problem). Still, the infatuation many local and state law enforcement agencies have with whiz-bang military firepower, vehicles, clothing and mindset shows little sign of abating.
As serious as is the problem with over-militarizing domestic law enforcement in 21st Century America, in a broader sense it is a merely a symptom of an even more fundamental disease plaguing law enforcement organizations across the country and at all levels of government: the failure to understand, remember, and act upon the foundational principles on which our constitutionally-based federal republic was formed. These First Principles include, among others of course, that: ultimate authority in America resides in the citizenry, not government agents; government exists to serve the People, not vice versa; the Bill of Rights provides checks on government power rather than serving as a road map for government to erode individual liberty; and, federal government powers are defined and limited.
Occasional lapses in such understandings can be tolerated, but when married to the utter incompetence such as displayed by those involved in trying to control the discord in Ferguson, it is a situation guaranteed to worsen, to spread, and ultimately to feed precedent for further mischief by those always sniffing around for such opportunities.
When elected and appointed officials forget the Constitution and what it stands for, bad situations turn worse. The cast of characters reflecting this phenomenon now includes (among others) the mayor and police chief in Ferguson, and the U.S. Attorney General with his heavy-handed and premature move to seize control of the local situation.
It is said that “nature abhors a vacuum.” The modern corollary to that time-tested truism, however, is “government loves a vacuum” because it provides opportunity to step in and assert or take control. This is what happens time and again in these situations; Ferguson is but the latest example.
When local and state officials exhibited indecision and vacillation in their statements and actions in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, it created a vacuum. The national media, of course, rushed in to define and hype the situation to its benefit. This was followed closely by the usual “civil rights” champions elbowing their way to the camera banks -- the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton, and the “New” Black Panthers. The unraveling of the situation accelerated quickly thereafter.
Even after it became obvious to even casual observers that initial comments and actions responding to the Brown shooting were mishandled, those same local and state officials continued to bungle their statements and actions; wavering between toughness and choruses of “Kumbaya,” and between detachment and forceful engagement. Not surprisingly, Uncle Sam recognized an opportunity to take control, and strode in with new directives, more “observers,” dozens of FBI agents, and the Attorney General himself. The feds claim to have taken the high moral ground; and, in so doing have once again diminished and pushed aside that authority which under our constitutional framework is supposed to be paramount – state and local government.
If we the People allow this inversion of constitutional power and federalism again to stand, it will confirm that we, too, have learned nothing in the past generation.