Keep telling yourself it isn't a

Police state.


douglas said...

I see that as more an example of what people do with other people's money. The Feds just give away stuff, and the locals hoard the freebies. No surprise there. As it was noted in the article- most of that equipment will never be used except in some likely rather fun training sessions.

Cassandra said...

Simply asserting a thing does not make it so, Eric.

According to your implied argument, mere possession of military equipment is somehow magically conflated with use of that equipment in ways traditionally associated with a police state. But you have not shown that this is happening.

Apparently John Donovan is a threat to public safety, too. After all, he has a basement full of guns that could be used in ways we wouldn't like :p

There are arguments to be made against militarization of civil police forces, but I'm not seeing them here. I'm just seeing an assertion with no real supporting argument (though I'll be happy to entertain the argument if it's presented).

raven said...

The problem is not equipment, it is mindset.
I would encourage anyone concerned about this to read a couple of very instructive and terrifying books.
One is M.Scott Peck's "People of the Lie". A treatise on evil, and how repeated sub-selection of people will eventually obtain humans(barely) that will literally do anything. He was one of the guys the Army had looking into the reasons for the Mai Lai massacre.
The other is "Ordinary Men", the story of Police Reserve Unit 101". Truckers, laborers, factory workers, clerks, and mass murderers.
The more we encourage the rough tough macho swat team hero image in our police forces, the more likely hood we select for abuse of the public. Once this wedge is driven deep enough, and the public at large believes the police on no longer on their side, there will be hell to pay. The process is well under way.

Cass said...

Now that's an argument I will buy off on (though I'd want to see data that confirms this is true in reality as well as in theory, and I'd also want to see how SWAT teams are typically used, and some cost/benefit analysis as well).

I do think we need to be extremely careful about gauging public sentiment by our Internet readings. The Internet is like a huge funnel in many ways, and makes us more susceptible to judgment errors based on the availability heuristic (i.e., we confuse how easily we can think of an example of something with its actual frequency/severity in the real world).

Grim said...

What do you think is the right way to judge public sentiment?

As for whether we are a police state, I'm not sure there's a clean definition. The Wikipedia consensus is: "A police state is one in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic, and political life of the population. A police state typically exhibits elements of totalitarianism and social control, and there is usually little or no distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive."

There are definitely some elements of that ongoing: the use of executive orders and executive regulations (by the President and the numerous alphabet agencies) is increasing by more than 80,000 pages of regulations a year. A lot of these are aimed at social control, including control of areas that have traditionally been off limits for the government. It's not just sodas and drinks; I think of the attempt to force the Catholic Church to submit to buying birth control. That strikes me as a clear First Amendment violation, but the government has ordered it and appears to be serious about defending the policy and enforcing it vigorously.

There remains some check from SCOTUS, sometimes; and the enforcement is by Federal tactical police teams only sometimes, though in ways that indicate that the idea of using SWAT-type teams even where no threat of violence is extant is gaining ground.

A British philosopher named Timothy Williamson has a particular approach to thinking about vagueness that seems to me to apply here. It may be the case that we can't say with certainty that the United States is a police state.

But I don't think we can say with certainty, anymore, that we're not.

Cass said...

Any law that limits or sets penalties for human behavior can be said to be some form of social control.

Our politicians seem addicted to using ordinary words in ways that conflict with their ordinary meaning. The polity now do so as well.

By your reasoning, any time you can find some aspect of something that resembles some other thing you don't like, you are somehow justified in painting the entire character of that thing with a broad brush that makes it impossible to distinguish between, say, the Sudan and the United States.

Clearly that's a silly comparison - on any spectrum of "police state-ness", the US is located nowhere near those countries. Our system of government contains ample protections for the rights of accused persons, and those protections are invoked with great regularity and as a matter of course.

How anyone can get from a country with a robust set of protections for the accused to trying to pretend that it's the same as a country with FEW or NO protections without abandoning reason escapes me.

Redefining things or defining them in loose ways (defining them down) doesn't change their essential character. When we get to where people are regularly being locked up or "disappeared" or killed with no legal recourse, I'll be more than happy to entertain the idea that we are a police state.

Grim said...

As I said, I'm not sure what definition we're using; and we're not clearly in the police state category yet. But we've left behind a clear-cut separation of legislative law on the one hand, and the use of executive power for political reasons. I find that worrisome in a way that, I gather, you don't.

I want to ask the question I posed again, though, because I'm genuinely curious about the answer. The other day you wrote:

Polls are unreliable and swing back and forth.... Voting is too general, and anyway most voters are not well informed.

Your point today about judging from internet stories is well taken; but at the nexus of the three points lies a real problem. How do you think we should judge public sentiment? It's a hard problem, but these three ways -- polling, elections and reporting -- are the only answers I know. Getting out and talking to folks is a great way to learn about public sentiment locally, but in a country the size of ours it's almost useless.

That is part of my point about the importance of pushing down power, so that 'consent of the governed' happens at the most local level possible for that power -- this is the only place where I think we can be sure consent exists. Thus, I think part of the question of legitimacy of government (in a democracy or a democratic republic) is tied up with keeping the scale right.

Grim said...

By the way, the objection to executive political power becoming a kind of law isn't just a separation of powers issue -- although that is also a bedrock principle of our system. It's also that the executive represents only one party, whereas the legislature has at least representation from all sufficiently large parties (the two main ones at the Federal level, mostly, but there are smaller parties in state legislatures).

There's a danger of having even the enforcement of a legitimate law politicized by the executive branch. When the executive is functionally writing the laws as well, with no input from the opposition party or parties, there's an even more severe danger of losing that legitimacy which comes from consent of the governed. You end up with a situation quite similar to the one that provoked the rebellion, in which there is no representation for the party suffering from the exercise of power.

raven said...

Was it Tocqueville who talked about a "soft" nanny state tyranny? Can a soft tyranny be a police state? We don't have to be beaten up or locked up for the law to act as a straightjacket. Lot's of things that have no criminal intent what so ever are deemed illegal, from drinking a beer in public to lighting a bonfire on the beach- the list of "prohibited" behaviors and items ever grows... We are in a society that deems a 1/16th of an inch in a gun barrel the difference between legal and a federal felony. I would love to see some changes in the law designed to punish "intent to harm", not some arbitrary law established to define certain items as illegal, and other nearly identical items as legal.
I have two model 1895 Mauser rifles. Identical in pattern , caliber, country of issue. One was made in 1895, and I can legally send it through the mail, sell it in another state, etc- It is by definition an "antique".No Federal firearm laws apply. The other was manufactured in 1899, and the above actions constitute a Federal Crime. . Is there the slightest bit of sense here?. Were we to discuss the definition of arbitrary, this would serve as a fine example.

Cass said...

...we've left behind a clear-cut separation of legislative law on the one hand, and the use of executive power for political reasons. I find that worrisome in a way that, I gather, you don't.

Well, I"m not sure that's an accurate impression. I am concerned, but I also believe that police in general are far more limited now than they were when we were growing up. This is true both as a matter of law and as a matter of actual practice.

So I don't get the notion that all of a sudden, there's a problem that didn't already exist. There has ALWAYS been a tension between legitimate law enforcement authority and individual freedom. What I don't understand is the suggestion that this is any different from the many decades when police regularly did things that should curl your hair (and not in a good way) and the legal protections we now enjoy did not exist. Just look at how the notion of cruel and unusual punishment has evolved over time.

How do you think we should judge public sentiment? It's a hard problem, but these three ways -- polling, elections and reporting -- are the only answers I know.

I don't care equally about all public sentiment, nor do I really care about monitoring the level of public support for various laws. There's already a vehicle in place for this: it's called an election.

If someone can't be bothered to stay informed, to vote, etc, I don't much care about their opinion. I don't trust reporters to assess (much less report) what I think. and most polls are worthless. So, voting is an imperfect vehicle but it's probably the best one we have.

We can vote individually and we can organize and cooperated with other voters to inform the public and influence both public sentiment and the actions of lawmakers. If we're just too durned lazy to do that... well, we get the government we deserve.

That is part of my point about the importance of pushing down power, so that 'consent of the governed' happens at the most local level possible for that power -- this is the only place where I think we can be sure consent exists.

That's federalism. And yet, under federalism some pretty egregious civil rights violations took place, so it's hardly any kind of bulwark against abuse of government power. I doubt blacks "consented" to Jim Crow laws. Which, come to think of it, is why some basic rights are guaranteed at the federal level.

I don't need to remind you that under federalism, blacks were lynched or otherwise abused, often with the willing help of the local constabulary.

We're dealing with human beings here, whether at the state or federal level. There are no guarantees.

Grim said...


Let me ask you to re-imagine how you think about that period. If the model I'm suggesting is right, the way to protect the interests of the blacks in the South would have been to empower them within their own communities; and to ensure that those communities could set their own laws, and defend their own interests.

In fact, that's just what the Freedman's Bureau tried to do during the postwar period. It set up black communities, black political representation, and black militias to defend those communities.

That worked for a while, until it was undone by the higher level of government. What happened next was that a higher order of government used its legitimate law enforcement authority in a politicized way. It stripped the blacks of their arms, and that paved the way for the stripping of other rights -- through a legal legislative set of maneuvers. These laws and state constitutional changes were all duly enacted.

Were those changes legitimate? They were certainly legal. They were enforced by law enforcement officers, and they were crafted by legislatures.

Did the local communities consent to them merely because they were also citizens of the state? They did not; and that seems to be what causes the maneuvers to be illegitimate, though legal.

It's easy to see the Federal involvement as having been on the right side, as it was protecting the weak from predation by the strong. That is a legitimate purpose of government, insofar as it is coherent with rights and where such predation is actually occurring. But there was no magic about looking to a higher level for protection for basic rights: the State was a higher level than the local communities.

We have to look elsewhere for legitimacy. I think we've got a principle there -- that it was justified in the one case and not the other because it was about protecting the weak from predators, vice enabling predatory behavior.

That's a Christian moral principle, though, not a constitutional one. Notice, too, that it's out of order with having less concern for the politically less-informed or less-engaged. They also tend to be the weak, through poverty and lack of education (especially in the South among blacks at that time, that was so). It may be that their consent is the consent that matters most to the kind of legitimacy that this principle looks toward.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

douglas said...

"We don't have to be beaten up or locked up for the law to act as a straightjacket."

Ain't that the truth. You would not believe what it takes to build a house in the City of Los Angeles today, and believe me, a lot of the zoning code that makes it discouragingly difficult to do was written not in the interest of public safety but was pushed by the interest of anti-development activists. Police-statish to be sure.

Similarly, I think you'll never not be able to come up with examples like those given here where an agency or group of officers, or officer singly are acting in ways that, were the actions widespread enough, would have to have us agreeing that we were in a police state. The question is are any of these sorts of incidents occuring at rates that would make them a trend? That we can aggregate information from far flung localities more easily today- I hear about a pool hall in Georgia being closed because of the internet, but before, what was the likelihood of me hearing about it? Next to nothing. So far, what little I've seen that had numbers to analyze leaves me with the impression that these incidents are relatively rare, and do not constitute a trend- on the other hand, the same accessibility to information that makes anecdotes appear as a trend can also become an influence on greater numbers of people- and could start to create an ability for LEOs say, to begin getting the impression that corralling a whole group of people who happen to be at the same stoplight as a GPS device taken in a bank robbery is a great idea, so I do worry. But as of yet, I do not see a trend that would lead me to believe it's an institutionalized problem that defines our state.

Anonymous said...

douglas said...

Reading the last link, perhaps it's more a problem in small municipality jurisdictions, than it is here in a large metro area. Having talked to a SWAT officer in a local agency that has a joint team with neighboring small cities in the L.A. area, I discovered that there is a suitably complex process to authorize use of SWAT teams, involving a detective, his detective sergeant, a judge, and a SWAT supervisor. I suspect smaller cities may not have that many people sticking their necks out to approve a raid, and that could be a problem.

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