Freeze! Police Tactics Endanger the Public
If an armed gang in street clothes attacks you in New York City, it is dangerous to try to defend yourself. They could be the police.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
This is what happened to an unarmed immigrant in New York City in February 1999. The killing did not have a racist motive, nor was it a fluke accident. According to a study by the Cato Institute, the death of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, West Africa, was the result of the new style of policing practiced in New York City.
Back in the old days when the U.S. Constitution was respected and there was a rule of law, there used to be a concept called "false imprisonment," an antique common-law principle that preceded the US Bill of Rights. Supreme Court rulings have eroded that concept into dust. This is dramatically demonstrated by New York City's "stop and frisk" tactics practiced by its Street Crimes Unit.
False imprisonment is the same as false arrest. These are any unlawful and unwilling detention of a person. This is no longer unlawful. A key distinction between a police state and a civil society is whether the police are governed by law or the police are the law. The antiquated Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution required the rule of law: the people were to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, with warrants issued on probable cause.
But it is now routine for the police to make arrests without warrants, with the approval of the US Supreme Court. Ironically, the Supreme Court's rule regarding the law has created a police which are now law themselves. The key case was Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Technically, the Supreme Court had some qualifications, but in practice, as stated by the Cato Institute Briefing Paper No. 56 of March 31, 2000, by Timothy Lynch, "as a practical matter, the ruling gave the police a green light to falsely arrest citizens" (p. 4).
That gets us to New York City's Street Crimes Unit. Their usual practice is "to quickly swarm on a person, with pistols drawn, all the while barking commands laced with vulgarities" (p. 5). Most of the victims are innocent. The police don't keep track of how many people they stop and press against the wall, searching the pockets.
On February 4, 1999, officers not in uniform, riding in an unmarked car, saw Diallo standing in the entrance hall of his apartment building. The four policemen exited the car, drew their pistols, and approached Diallo. They yelled "freeze!" Instead of staying still, Diallo took a few steps and then reached for his waist.
One of the police thought he was drawing a weapon and yelled "gun!" All four officers fired at Diallo. Of the 41 shots, 19 hit him, and he died. He was not armed. Perhaps as a recent immigrant he did not understand that "freeze!" meant for him to not move. All four of the police officers were later acquitted of charges.
The response of the New York City government has been to put more minority police on patrol. But this was not the central problem. The problem is the legal framework in which the police operate. So long as they can attack, arrest, and even kill people at will, the racial make up of the police is not so relevant. The problem is the whole stop-and-frisk doctrine and the overturning of the law of false imprisonment and false arrest.
Unfortunately, the practices of big cities often serve as a model for smaller cities. Police everywhere now practice stop-and-frisk as well as asset forfeiture. This amounts to a random tax on the public. In the past, most of the victims were minorities, most subject to being racially profiled. Complaints about racial discrimination will most likely lead to more stops in middle-class non-minority neighborhoods and more racially equal false arrests.
City councils who wish to curtail such practices may be powerless to stop it, because the police feel legally obliged to enforce state and federal law. They can get funds from the federal government, as well as being able to finance their activities from confiscating cars, houses, and cash through civil forfeitures.
The United States of America is not quite yet a police state, but the war on drugs, war on guns, war on the human body, and war on unreported enterprise are relentless driving us towards that goal. These are ultimately wars on liberty, and our dysfunctional voting system is powerless to stop the advance of the rule by police. Only an educated, aroused, and resistant public can stop the disintegration of what is left of the rule of law in the USA.
(For the CATO briefing paper on the confrontational police tactics that endanger the public, see CATO 56 .)
-- Fred Foldvary
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Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.