January 31, 2013

Hey, Look, Real Tyranny (Almost)!

Words like “tyrant” or “fascist” are thrown around pretty willy-nilly in the modern political climate. Usually they’re just an epithet hurled against someone from the Other Team, regardless of whether the term actually applies (a late and dearly missed local radio host, who would be labeled a “communist” by callers, would sometimes ask them to define the term – they almost never could). When something really tyrannical is in the works it’s worth pointing it out and seeing what put a stop to it.

In December of last year, residents of Paragould, Arkansas (population 26,000), were worried about a spike in crime. In response to citizens’ legitimate concerns, the local police chief announced a plan to address the problem at a town hall meeting (via):
Stovall told the group of almost 40 residents that beginning in 2013, the department would deploy a new street crimes unit to high crime areas on foot to take back the streets.

‘[Police are] going to be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their neck,’ Stovall said. ‘If you’re out walking, we’re going to stop you, ask why you’re out walking, check for your ID.’
Lest anyone thing particularized suspicion, the hallmark of “reasonableness” under the Fourth Amendment, was involved, Stovall explained that they were going to “do it to everybody” because “[c]riminals don’t like being talked to.”

The Mayor, too, was on board:
[Mike] Gaskill backed Stovall’s proposed actions during Thursday’s town hall.

‘They may not be doing anything but walking their dog,’ he said. ‘But they’re going to have to prove it.’
Unsurprisingly, Stovall did not consult with an attorney before coming up with his plan. What was it that he thought would bring such roving armed patrols within the ambit of the Fourth Amendment?
This fear is what’s given us the reason to do this. Once I have stats and people saying they’re scared, we can do this,’ he said. ‘It allows us to do what we're fixing to do.’

Stovall further elaborated on the stop-and-ID policy Friday morning, claiming the city’s crime statistics alone met the threshold of reasonable suspicion required to lawfully accost a citizen.

‘To ask you for your ID, I have to have a reason,’ he said. ‘Well, I’ve got statistical reasons that say I’ve got a lot of crime right now, which gives me probable cause to ask what you’re doing out. Then when I add that people are scared...then that gives us even more [reason] to ask why are you here and what are you doing in this area.’
In the lawyer biz, we would technically label Stovall’s reasoning “full of shit.” Courts have repeatedly held that, standing alone, being present in a high crime area is not a valid basis for stop under the Fourth Amendment. See, Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 52 (1979); United States v. Moore, 817 F.2d 1105, 1107 (4th Cir. 1987)(holding that while an area’s reputation as a high crime area may be a factor which can be considered along with other factors, being seen in a high crime area, without more, carries no weight).

So what happens if, say, you’re out walking your dog and don’t have ID handy when the cops find you?
Should an individual not produce identification, Stovall said his officers would not back down. Individuals who do not produce identification when asked could be charged with obstructing a governmental operation, according to Stovall.

‘I’m hoping we don’t run across [any] of that,’ Stovall said. ‘Will there be people who buck us? There may be. But we have a right to be doing what we’re doing. We have a zero-tolerance. We are prepared to throw your hind-end in jail, OK? We’re not going to take a lot of flack.’
Zero tolerance - what could possibly go wrong? Heavily armed cops, juiced up on fear, prowling neighborhoods with a “take no shit” attitude from anyone they encounter. How long would it take before some completely innocent poor soul got gunned down?

If you think this all sounds just a bit like martial law, you’re not wrong. Not that the cops care:
[Stovall] even remained undaunted when comparing his proposed tactics with martial law, explaining that ‘I don’t know that there’s ever been a difference’ between his proposals and martial law.
Unfortunately, as Radley Balko explains, Paragould wasn’t going to break new ground:
Using SWAT teams for routine patrols isn’t uncommon. Fresno did this for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city sent its Violent Crimes Suppression Unit into poorer neighborhoods and stopped, confronted, questioned, and searched nearly everyone they encountered. ‘It’s a war,’ one SWAT officer told Christian Parenti in a report for The Nation (not available online). Another said, ‘If you’re 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods, and you're not in our computer, then there's something definitely wrong.’

A 1999 report in the Boston Globe found similar units patrolling the streets of Indianapolis and San Francisco, which the reporter noted gave the communities under siege ‘all the ambiance of the West Bank.’
In a way what happened in Paragould is a microcosm of recent American history. Gripped by fear of something, we as a society are ready to give away liberty for the false sense of security that an increased police presence brings. The fear of drugs leads to the dismantling of the Fourth Amendment. The fear of terrorism leads to the wholesale abandonment of principles about torture, due process, and “just” wars, not to mention airport security theater. Think about when you’re afraid – do you make wise, thoughtful decisions in that frame of mind? Why should large groups of people act any differently?

At least, in the case of Paragould, there appears to be a happy ending. There was a backlash to Stovall’s plan and, almost immediately, the city powers that be began walking back the idea:
‘It is my understanding that if they get a call in an area and they go to an area because of some calls of suspicious activity, they’ll make contact,’ [City Attorney Allen] Warmath said.

Warmath said while he had not directly spoken to Stovall, he understood that the street crimes unit would actually be less confrontational than Stovall let on.

‘If they have a call that there’s some problems in the area, they’re at least going to talk to you,’ he said. ‘Maybe that person walking their dog saw something. It gives them some information and some leads to find out what's going on.’
And, according to at least one source, the entire plan’s been scrapped. If so, kudos to the powers that be for wising up. But even more so, kudos to the people of Paragould who stood up and voiced their objections to their city becoming an occupied territory. Cooler heads prevailed against a rising tide of fear.

It’s easy to give into fear – it is the mind killer, as they say. It’s harder to stand up against it and say, “hey, wait a second, do we really want to go that far?” We owe it to ourselves, and to those around us, to take that second step.

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