The debacle in Ferguson has several components: the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, the suppression of free speech and press, the legacy of “Broken Windows” policing, and the looting, to name a few. But the common thread is the militarization of the police; without their actions, none of this would have escalated to national news.
And the cause of the militarized police—and the police state in general—clearly lie with the violation of separately defined powers as laid out in the Constitution. In fact, this problem in Ferguson is a direct result of federal overreach into areas that should be outside its purview.
In fact, if the federal government weren’t constantly overrunning its appointed boundaries, we wouldn’t have this problem at all.
The federal government is not supposed to be involved in law enforcement.
According to the Constitution, public safety is left to the individual states to oversee. Other early documents, such as Federalist Paper Number 17 by Alexander Hamilton, clearly indicate the founders’ intentions that public safety not be a federal concern.
Even as late as the 1950s, the federal government was not involved in criminal justice functions at all. After that, it began providing assistance, normally in the form of expertise or money. By the 1980s and 1990s, Congress had started passing criminal justice laws, most of which were redundant and already covered by state law (for example, the federal law against church burning was unnecessary, given that arson was already against the law in all states). However, once it became clear that there was political capital to be gained in creating new criminal justice laws, Congress saw no reason to stop.
By multiplying laws about minutia and emphasizing heavy punishment, Federal laws make it easy for police to terrorize communities in the name of ‘zero tolerance’
There are currently over 4,450 federal crimes on the books, plus as many as 300,000 federal regulations that can be treated as criminal offenses if violated. These regulations might have been introduced by the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or any other of dozens of federal agencies. In any case, violation of these regulations can mean imprisonment.
“Zero tolerance,” a general idea which came out of the federal War on Drugs, is the policy by which the minutest infractions in schools are heavily punished, and was kicked off with a federal law, the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989. This law, which is disproportionately enforced among lower-income and minority students, has created a school-to-prison pipeline.
Other federal laws mandating minimum sentences, regardless of specifics, (and normally in relation to non-violent drug offenses) and truth-in-sentencing laws also contribute to the police state by ensuring that those convicted will remain in jail for a long time.
The people of Ferguson were heavily policed long before Michael Brown’s death. Harassing, arresting and imprisoning people for minor infractions is unjust, and contributed to the sense of oppression felt by the Ferguson community. This is the larger picture, the context for Michael Brown’s death, which prompted much of the response.
And, of course, the federal government also provided the weapons and the training to militarize the Ferguson police.
The provisioning of military-grade weapons to local police forces all over the country under program 1033 began in 1990. Since it was first started, this program has provided tens of thousands of pieces of military-grade weapons, worth over $4.3 billion. The well-documented “weapons effect” indicates that merely providing weapons makes it more likely that violence will escalate. Without the weapons and training provided by the federal government, in violation of the Constitution, the protests in Ferguson would have elicited an entirely different response.
While it’s appropriate to blame the local police for responding with unnecessary force, remember who put guns in their hands and created an atmosphere of militant enforcement.
I’m not supporting local powers over state or federal; nor am I supporting federal power over the other two. Rather, I’m saying that no one in power can be trusted, whether it be an arrogant racist rookie cop or a Senator in D.C. And since no one can be trusted, then let’s make sure that our system of checks and balancing is working. And lately is hasn’t been.