The Founding Fathers never wanted a national police force. In fact, there were adamantly opposed to the idea, having a strong distrust of centralized authoritarian structure.
They specifically left out the powers to form any kind of national structure for domestic policing, leaving that entirely up to the states, with one teeny, tiny exception — this bit of power ceded to the federal government in the Constitution:
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
The Commerce Clause, it’s often called. And for many years, that worked just fine, and was accomplished without any national force. It wasn’t until 1865 that the Department of the Treasury established the Secret Service to combat counterfeiting — a relatively easy fit for the role of “regulating commerce among the several states.” In 1908, the FBI got its start (although the name was different then) with a grand total of 10 agents.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established by the Department of the Treasury in 1930 under commissioner Harry J. Anslinger. It later became the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1968 and was supplanted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, established by President Nixon. There are now over 10,000 employees of the DEA, over 25,000 employees of the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security had 183,000 employees in 2004.
Even as these national police forces grew, there was an historic view of the importance of keeping policing a state matter, except when “necessary.” Those my age can remember all the old TV shows where the feds couldn’t do anything unless the crooks physically crossed state lines….
… and yet in Raich v. Gonzales in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that federal agents could use a federal law to enter a state and seize a plant wholly grown in that one state with no money changing hands, even where that plant was fully compliant with that state’s laws.
This is pretty bad. The existence of massive, bloated, power-hungry federal police forces is only one part of the problem we’re facing, however.
In many ways, the scarier effect is the increased loss of local accountability in local and state police forces.
This is also a function of the drug war (and, in more recent times, also a function of the war on terror which grew out of the drug war). The drug war brought about the proliferation of the multi-jurisdictional drug task force, teaming up local police with federal police, with additional funding often coming from federal grants (most notably the Byrne grants, which have led to numerous gross abuses of police power).
The feds offer training and money, and the Pentagon gives them toys (16,000 departments received more than 380,000 pieces of equipment just in 2005, including armored vehicles). It’s no wonder that they start to look at the feds as not only their friends, but as their source of authority, rather than their local communities.
Now, consider the idea that a local community might like to reduce the amount of police time spent on certain pursuits (it’s their police, after all). Maybe they’d like fewer marijuana arrests and more effort spent on solving difficult crimes or community building (mandates like this have been set in a variety of local communities and states). Well, if the cops are part of a multi-jurisdictional task force getting Byrne grants, their receipt of funds is judged on the following criteria:
- Number of offenders arrested
- Number of offenders prosecuted
- Number of drug seizures
- Quantity by weight (e.g., ounces, grams, dose units) and drug type
- Total value of funds and assets forfeited
Now you’ve got police with a financial incentive to ignore local mandates, and you’ll immediately hear them running to the press saying that they have no option but to enforce the federal laws…
Asset forfeiture is another area where the state police are seduced to work for the feds instead of their own state:
Under the federal equitable sharing law, if state police want to circumvent state forfeiture laws Ö for example, because the state law allocates forfeited assets to the state’s education fund Ö they simply turn the forfeiture over to federal law enforcement authorities. Federal authorities keep 20% and return roughly 80% to the state police.
This dangerous trend toward nationalizing drug police is exacerbated by organizations like the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, led by President Ronald E. Brooks (who I’ve ridiculed before). This is an organization working to coordinate local, state, and federal police forces into promoting sentiments like this:
The resolve to fight drug abuse must be stronger than ever. It must be
understood that drug trafficking is terrorism. We must fight the efforts to reduce our nation’s commitment to fighting drug abuse. Most importantly, we must fight those groups that are working to legalize or decriminalize drugs through strategies of harm reduction, medical marijuana, and industrial hemp.
That’s right. They’re saying it’s the role of the police to fight reform groups.
And they’re very clear about their goals:
- To ensure that the Edward R. Byrne Memorial Fund is fully funded…
- To maintain, increase, and intensify drug asset revenue sharing…
- To assist in the preparation of the National Drug Strategy…
- To have an impact on legislation affecting narcotic officers and narcotic enforcement in the United States.
They don’t even hide the fact that part of their desire is to break down the old notion of a locally accountable police force.
past fifteen years, thanks to the HIDTA Program and Byrne-funded multi-jurisdictional drug
task forces, Federal, state and local drug investigators are co-located and working
cooperatively in cities, towns, and rural communities throughout the country. […]
The Byrne Justice Assistance Grants
fund multi-jurisdictional task forces that don’t replace state and local funds, but rather provide the incentive for local agencies to cooperate.
And they’re not alone. When it came to lobbying for federal Byrne grant money, they were joined by such organizations as: National Alliance of State Drug Enforcement Agencies, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriffs’ Association, National District Attorneys’
Association, Major County Sheriffs’ Association, National
HIDTA Directors, and the National Troopers’ Coalition.
So what’s the result of such a breakdown of local accountability?
Despite the fact that medical marijuana has been the law of the state for years…
They are training police officers to believe that state laws are a lie and that their own citizens who passed the laws are wrong. And how does this lead to “protect and serve”?
We’ve seen this all over the country. Police in Massachusetts and Minnesota complained endlessly about the decrim and medical marijuana laws passed in their states in 2008 (and still are). Police are regularly trying to influence legislators and governors (such as the recent medical marijuana veto by Governor Lynch in NH) to fall in line with federal laws rather than passing laws that will help their own constituents.
And, of course, California cops have not only ignored local mandates, but actively worked with the feds to subvert them by calling in the DEA to conduct medical marijuana raids, etc.
This is dangerous on many levels. One of the reasons to have police accountable locally is part of the checks and balances on government to prevent the tyranny that can come from an unchecked authoritarian national government.
The founders also understood the necessary, yet potentially dangerous, power possessed by the police force, and that it was way too much power to give to a national domestic entity.
Finally, the police serve an incredibly important function in society, and that function works best when the police are an integrated part of the local community. Police have lost much of their effectiveness because they are no longer seen as part of the community and (much due to the fault of the drug war) are no longer trusted by large portions of the community. More and more, police see themselves as soldiers facing an enemy in an occupied land, rather than as civic friends who can help.
These problems are a result both of the destructiveness of the drug war, and the trend toward nationalization of police (also a by-product of the drug war). Unfortunately, our attempts to solve the dual problems relating to policing trends will be vigorously fought by national police lobbyists. And every step we get closer toward a national police force will make reform even harder.
who got me thinking about this at last week’s Q&A after my talk.]