Ferguson, and the Overextension of Police Power

Let me preface this post with my usual comments whenever I discuss police power and its potential abuses: The vast majority of police officers serve honorably. They have a hard and oftentimes dangerous job, and we should be grateful for the fact that they are brave and tough enough to do it.

That having been written, the abuse of police power is appalling, and in Ferguson, Missouri, the police are abusing their power in a manner that should shock us all. Claire Berlinski (who writes from Turkey):

This video establishes clearly that the police attacked people who were running away.  Police in military garb, with military gear, attacked the very kind of assembly our Constitution was designed to protect, and terrorized an American city. . . .

This is both a domestic disaster and a foreign policy disaster.  Turkish officials are already gloating, joined by tinpot thugs the world around.  I cannot count the number of times I told people in Turkey that what we were seeing would never happen in America.  I was wrong.

There can be no minimising or excusing this.  The entire world saw this, or will see it soon enough.  This, as Julia Ioffe wrote, is not what I told people America was.

Conservatives and libertarians should be outraged by this, and to their credit, they appear to be. Both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have spoken out against the police reaction in Ferguson (though Paul’s statement was stronger than Cruz’s was). More conservatives and libertarians should follow Paul’s and Cruz’s example; if any incident demonstrates the dangers of having an excessively powerful government that can trample the rights of ordinary citizens, it is the ongoing drama in Ferguson.

And of course, it is worth noting that the federal government has played a role in the excessive militarization of police across the country:

Since 2006, the Pentagon has distributed 432 mine-resistant armored vehicles to local police departments. It has also doled out more than 400 other armored vehicles, 500 aircraft, and 93,000 machine guns.

As The New York Times reported in June, the Defense Department has been making use of unused military equipment by giving it to local precincts.

This is despite the fact that violent crime in the U.S. has steadily plummeted since 1993. Between 1993 and 2012, the violent-crime rate dropped by nearly 50 percent.

Yet today, local police—in cities and small towns across the country—are increasingly loaded for bear. How did this militarization of the police force come about? It all seems to have started with an obscure section in a defense bill passed more than 20 years ago.

Can you say “overreaction”? I knew you could. More on the Pentagon’s role in augmenting police power here. With all of the weaponry and power available to them, Ferguson police are engaging in massive violations of constitutional rights. This kind of thing is not supposed to be happening in America, but it is, and we should all be embarrassed and infuriated by that fact.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t close this post without mentioning that Glenn Reynolds saw these problems coming back in 2006. More people should have taken note of his warnings–myself included.