Distinguish Ourselves

"Distinguish Ourselves from a Police State"

The phrase above is a statement from a 1990 opinion by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski in which he finds that it is not against the law to verbally challenge and even insult a police officer. He said: "The freedom of individuals to oppose or challenge police action verbally without thereby risking arrest is one important characteristic by which we distinguish ourselves from a police state."

In short, Alex Kozinski affirms that in the United States, police officers:

  1. Have a higher requirement than a private citizen to ignore verbal insults and other forms of communication, and
  2. Cops can’t use the power of the state for personal revenge. It doesn’t constitute "breach of the peace" to tell a cop you think he’s doing a crappy job. That distinguishes us from a police state.

Does it? If we allow the phrase "police state" to mean "a state where the power of the state represented by armed enforcement is supported by law over the rights of individual civilians." I’ll also put forth that in a police state, the armed power of the state is used primarily to protect large corporations, who tend to fund and support the state.

By What Measure?
In particular, are we a police state when held in comparison to the nation our founders intended to build? The Bill of Rights holds several protections specific to keeping police power at bay. Over the years judges and other bureaucrats have largely whittled away at those protections by shifting the burden of proof from the cop to the citizen on key issues of civil rights. For example, at one time, if a cop didn’t do the right paper work, you walked free. A Supreme Court ruling a few years back essentially means that the citizen has to prove that the cop knowingly screwed up; having a cop that’s a piddle thumbs and botches the state’s case won’t get you off. That might even make a certain kind of bone head sense at first glance, but when you consider the tangled maze of the legal system as it really is, you understand that this ruling releases cops from true due diligence. This might be a measure indicating the system is no longer working to protect the innocent, but simply to help cops. In the middle 1700s an English Jurist named William Blackstone came up with a ratio of ten to one; he said it was better that ten guilty people went free than one innocent person suffer by error in the judicial system. That Englishman expressed a ratio that was reflected in our Founding Father’s ideal of a presumption of innocence.  It's possible that we don’t believe in innocence anymore.

Guilt/Innocence Ratio
What other evidence is there by which we can judge if we are more of a police state than a "land of the free?"

How about how many people we have in prison. The US has a larger percentage of its people in prison than any other developed nation and more even than South Africa had during the height of apartheid. Are Americans so much more evil or dishonest than the people of other nations?

Dangerous by Designation
In Eureka California a woman with a known history of mental illness was gunned down by swat cops wearing bulletproof vests. She had a small flare pistol, which justified the hail of bullets even though it had been identified as a flare pistol and not a firearm.

In a little town in the Sierras a business owner tapped a cop on the chest with an extendable cordless phone antenna, and was charged with assault.

An interesting exercise is to "google" the search term: people killed by police. Very rarely are cops who kill people punished, unless you consider time off with pay as punishment. Generally speaking, it takes public outrage, as in the case of the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant at the beginning of the year. In that case, cops brutalized, pushed to the floor, and shot in the back an 23 year old unarmed man. As is usual, there were no charges at first, but public outcry forced officials to act and Grant’s shooter was charged. Also usual for such trials, fellow cops took the stand and gave testimony justifying the shooter’s actions. Fortunately this is the digital age, and there were many videos and cell phone photos to evidence the truth.


These examples demonstrate how law is skewed in favor of the cops. You do anything at all to a cop, and you’ll do time. They shoot you and very little happens, at least legally.

Drug forfeiture laws are another great example of anti-American laws which nudge us toward being a police state. HERE.  Giving cops booty from drug busts essentially turns them into mercenaries. Local cops profit by taking part in busts with federal cops and literally getting a "share of the loot." In many instances, the goods taken are kept even if the person is not found guilty. You might be able to get your stuff back, if you have the money for attorneys, but it isn’t coming back in the same shape as when the cops took it. Cops can pull you over on the road, "smell marijuana", search your car and throw your back seat on the side of the road, take your cash and leave. You can get the cash back, but it usually costs more than it’s worth.

Finally, is law enforcement in place primarily to protect wealth?  There are many examples, including the "free speech zones" which became popular under Bush the Second. These are fenced areas, literally corrals, where protestors and others are sequestered when big business or big government get together. At one time, all of America was a free speech zone.

But, there is another, very specific example which demonstrates the purpose of law enforcement is to protect power. A small community in Northern California had a meeting with the county sheriff to complain that a well known nest of speed freaks (meth addicts) was stealing everything from chain saws to motorcycles. A neighbor had witnessed such a burglary and called the sheriff, but no one would come because the neighbor didn’t have authority to allow cops on the property.
The folks from the little community were told "we just don’t have the resources" to come up for burglary. They’ll send a form. They promised the retiree volunteers would try to drive through in a cop-like car.
A very short time later some hippies went up an old growth redwood tree in the community. Suddenly there were literally dozens of cop cars: CHP, county sheriff, cops from local towns, US forest service cops, CDF cops, cops in unmarked cars. There were so many cop cars on the little road through the community that the cops had to route residents around. The county sheriff could only send old folks with no arrest powers to the little community, but was able to deputize some logger to rough up the hippies.
That’s how much more important the tree was than the motorcycles and chainsaws of the residents.
Here (see Freshwater/greenwood heights)

If So, Why?
Why is our nation becoming such a police state? There are a lot of reasons. One is Homeland Security. Grants from the new uberagency fund a lot of important things that used to be funded other ways, like firefighter training and equipment. Still, HS funnels first rate arms to local law enforcement, supposedly to counteract terrorism. As has been demonstrated before, bees kill more Americans at home than terrorists do, and fat will kill hundreds of thousands more. Does anyone think turbaned Arabs are going to converge on the heartland? So, what terrorists are local cops being armed against, I don’t see anyone here but you and me.

But, HS isn’t really a cause, it’s more of a symptom. The real cause lies with Americans ourselves. People in our nation are easily frightened by strangers. Further, we accept and believe what we’re told until our own personal experience forces us to look more closely.

For example, we accept that cops are experts in ways they simply are not. When Nevadans tried to reduce the penalties for possession of a dried herb, county sheriffs spent tax dollars to speak out against decriminalization. Why? Are county sheriffs pharmacists, or doctors, or physiologists, or sociologists? Not usually. So what expertise allowed them to spend public money to fight a public political effort? None, really, but cops are served very well by harsh cannabis laws, as are jailers and public defenders and others. On that basis public money was spent. 

We demand harsh sentences and draconian laws because we believe that everyone nabbed and found guilty is really guilty. Sometimes they are only kind of guilty. The three strikes laws were meant to stop the "20% of criminals who commit 80% of the crime." But, harsh mandatory minimums and three strikes laws haven’t actually reduced crime, or the number of criminals. Indeed, no one knows what causes crime rates to rise and fall, and statisticians have made the strong point that what makes crime rates rise and fall has a lot to do with the statistics cops gather, how they classify crime and how the data is gathered.

None of this leads to a free society.


Why are we afraid?
One good reason is that a lot of Americans watch crap on television. Studies demonstrate that people who watch crime shows and other exhibitions of state violence on television perceive the world as more dangerous than it really is. They assume that violent crime is more common than it is, and that the crime rate is rising even when it isn’t. In 2007 six persons per 100,000 were murdered. The victim generally knew the murderer and was often related, and so they were typically of the same race and class. 
We demand a police state on the belief that cops won’t impact people like ourselves. 

Finally, television isn’t reality, cops aren’t usually really like that and police work isn’t what you think. Cops lie to people, mislead, make promises they’ve no power to keep. Most crimes are solved because someone blabbed, there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of police work.

A good first step away from a police state is to be more adult and responsible about what we watch on television, which is, after all, just pretend.

We also need to understand that, compared to other nations, the United States is not a dangerous place to live. Indeed, the U.S. is 24th on the list, though much higher than most European nations. 

What can be done?
Prison is college for criminals. It makes getting a job and living a legal life much harder and introduces you to people with better crime skills and more experience. Schwarzenegger has opened the prisons as an economic necessity, sending poorly prepared prisoners into society with no legal means to stay alive.

When the crime rate increases, the unwise will blame criminals, but in a police state, we’re all criminals, people who might be drunk in a car with a license. Being innocent doesn’t protect you in America, money does. Innocent people plea bargain all the time because it’s cheaper than proving innocence. Innocent people are disgraced in front of neighbors, have their cars taken, their lives disrupted.

It’s up to us to realize how bad things have become, and insist they get better.

One way would be to compensate the innocent. If the cop had to put your cupboards back on the wall and your car seat back in your car; if they had to pay for the splintered door and compensate the innocent for public humiliation, the number of such invasions would decrease.

If we would, as a society, realize the relationship between crime and criminals is a governmental one, a legislative and administrative relationship, we might approach criminal justice in a more enlightened way.

Then, perhaps, we could reduce our national incarceration rate to that of Cuba.

Police County
Is Sierra County a police state? All signs indicate, no. Our cops and judges and the DA tend to try to mediate before they incarcerate. There are instances, sure, but in general, you have a better chance at American style justice here than a lot of places. Still, ask the right person and they’ll tell you of incidents where local cops simply went too far, perhaps because they thought they should, or perhaps because that’s what they saw some TV cop do. When we know of those instances, we need to demand accountability. If we don’t do more than complain to each other, the problem will continue.

Incidentally, the Prospect doesn’t advocate following Judge Kozinski’s decision that you can tell a cop what you think of them. They just might decide they smell marijuana.



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