Friday, September 26, 2008

Pushed to do the impossible, cops go too far

Reason magazine's Radley Balko has written a fascinating piece on how Virginia's case against accused cop-killer Ryan Frederick appears to be falling apart -- and how that really is a good thing. Before your eyes bulge completely from their sockets, get a feel for the details:

Frederick has said in interviews and in letters to his family that he was awoken by his dogs barking at the intruders, then heard the sound of someone breaking down his front door. He says he grabbed his handgun and ran to his living room, where he saw that the bottom panel of his door and been busted out and saw someone reaching up through the broken panel toward the door handle. Frederick says that's when he fired, striking and killing Det. Jarrod Shivers.

Unusually, Frederick's neighbors and then many other Virginians quickly rallied in support of the shooter. Many thought that the alleged marijuana-growing operation that Frederick supposedly had going in his home made a poor excuse for a violent police raid -- and that the innocuous plants and personal-use quantity of marijuana that were actually found made Frederick's story more believable than that of law enforcement.

Now it appears that the police may have found out about the "marijuana" in Frederick's home from a burglar who the police used as an unofficial means of scouting people's homes without bothering to obtain warrants. Anyway, be sure to read Balko's piece for the full story to-date.

The lesson I take from the Frederick tale -- and from earlier incidents like the lethal shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police -- is the danger inherent in allowing police to use rough-and-ready tactics against the public in a doomed effort to hold the line on unenforceable laws. In Johnston's case, Atlanta police didn't even bother with illegal surveillance tactics -- they just manufactured phony testimony they pressured an informant to endorse after the fact. They then planted drugs on Johnston's body after forcing their way into her home.

These over-the-top tactics--and the bullet-riddled bodies of Detective Shivers and Kathryn Johnston--are probably inevitable when we demand that police enforce laws against activities that involve consenting participants who won't willingly cooperate with the authorities. Police resorted to burglary in Frederick's case and manufactured testimony in Johnston's because that's a lot easier than convincing happy buyers and consumers of whatever gets you high to fink on their supplier. That the stuff didn't even exist illustrates how dangerous such a shortcut is.

Even when there's no tragedy and the over-the-top tactics are conducted within the boundaries of the law, the operation still comes off as ridiculously disproportionate to the "wrongdoing." In Shelbyville, Tennessee, police recently conducted a raid on a "gaming house."

The raid conducted last month followed a four-month investigation by Shelbyville police, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the 17th Judicial District Drug Task Force, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol, along with an area FBI agent.

Authorities seized $48,000 in cash, gambling paraphernalia, a small amount of marijuana and firearms in the raid. Detective Brian Crews of the Shelbyville Police Department headed the investigation.

Surveillance was conducted on the building for several nights and authorities also had undercover agents in the building.

And what have been the wages of sin for the gamblers caught in this net?

Judge Charles Rich ordered that the 15 who pleaded guilty must pay a $50 fine, plus court costs, which would total $327, plus forfeit any money that was seized the night of the gaming raid.

Even allowing that the cops get to keep that 48 grand, I don't think the take is going to cover overtime. That's an awful lot of time and effort to catch gamblers.

But pointless and expensive is a lot better than dead. I'm sure Detective Shivers and Kathryn Johnston would agree.



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