Threats to Your Freedoms: Five of America’s Alarming Policing Trends


It’s almost football season. But before you pull out your old jersey, are you ready for…the Democratic National Convention? As a recent transplant to Charlotte, I can tell you our beautiful city is ready to welcome you with open arms. We have luxurious hotels, first-class restaurants (no, it’s not all barbecue!), impressive museums, a vibrant arts scene, and even a pretty damn good football team. Think you might want to bring your son or daughter who’s ready to march with the Wall Street South protest? Or maybe you’re ready to join the Occupy the Military Industrial Complex folks? Think again. That rite of passage has gone the way of tie dies and flowers in your hair. Today, you could be rounded up by military police and detained without trial, indefinitely. No, not in my America, you protest-surely that will never happen in our country.

Signing the U.S. Constitution

We hope not, but make no mistake, it can. Under a provision tucked into the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act the military can detain without trial any American citizen they suspect might be a terrorist or might support terrorists who plot attacks against the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has called this provision “an extreme position that will forever change our country.”

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The indefinite detention provision is just one of many recent alarming trends in policing and law enforcement that has crept into American jurisprudence since 9/11. New technologies as well as the risk-averse attitude of both lawmakers and law enforcers pose real threats to our once revered Constitutional rights. Does it really matter if a couple of innocents are thrown in jail in the name of national security? “Hey, don’t call me soft on terrorism,” says your Congressman proudly. Forget real solutions to the underlying issues.

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Here are five examples of these trends that are especially troubling:

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1. Indefinite military detention of U.S. citizens

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Proponents of this provision say that “America is part of the battlefield,” so Americans should be fair game when it comes to finding and arresting terrorists. Sounds reasonable, except-the law gives the military the power to arrest and indefinitely imprison any American citizen even suspected of supporting the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist group. No trial, just detention “until the end of hostilities,” whenever that may be. Never before in our history has the military been given such power over American citizens, a slippery slope indeed.

If this law had been in force during the Vietnam War, surely Jane Fonda would still be in prison and you would have missed Barbarella. How many protestors would have spent how much time in a military prison after attending the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago or the massacre at Kent State?

2. Targeting U.S. citizens for killing

The White House has admitted the existence of a “secret” memorandum from its Office of Legal Counsel that was used to authorize the targeted assassination of an American citizen, specifically one Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American cleric living in Yemen. One bad guy, you say, so what? Here’s what should really scare you: the White House refuses to reveal the contents of this memo. It doesn’t just cover up a questionable field operation; it creates legal policy and precedent. Moreover, it opens the door to the assassination, the killing, of U.S. citizens without due process or a trial by jury–in other words without any of the rights guaranteed by our Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the ACLU, has said that the targeted killing program sets up a precedent in which “U.S. citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government.” At the very least, this provision blatantly violates the Fifth Amendment‘s guarantee of due process. A secret memo apparently trumps the U.S. Constitution.

The Obama administration defends the practice by saying that American citizens are legitimate targets when they take up arms against the United States. According to press reports, there already exists a “kill or capture” list, drawn up by a “secretive panel of senior government officials.” Don’t you want to know who has that kind of power over U.S. citizens and whether you’re on the list? Regardless of the conditions or safeguards that may exist to determine who goes on the list, the result is the same: a secret law, kept from the public, ripe for abuse. Remember Joe McCarthy?

3. Arresting witnesses for recording police action

Here in Charlotte, both convention organizers and federal and local law enforcement are dealing with the issue of balancing access with security. Officials, conventioneers, members of the press, vendors, gawkers, and even protestors need to be kept safe and security will be tight. Tough restrictions have been placed on those who wish to protest or express their views in front of the enormous international assemblage. Don’t expect Occupy Wall Street South to appear in front of the Bank of America building.

But you might witness a relatively new policy development-limiting media access to police operations. As many as 30 journalists have been arrested while covering Occupy protests around the country, despite having identified themselves as credentialed members of the media. Officials in New York and Los Angeles have restricted media access to the Occupy encampments, setting up barricades far from any police activity and allowing only a few handpicked journalists behind police lines. The international community, indeed our own government, defends and even relies on journalists to report scandal and abuse in places like Libya and Syria, but who’s watching us?

These media restrictions are part of a broader trend in law enforcement evidenced by the arrest of ordinary citizens for recording police actions in public places. Twelve states have adopted “eavesdropping” laws that prohibit people from videotaping police actions without the officers’ consent. In California, police officials have openly stated that they will arrest people taking photographs without “apparent esthetic value.” Who’s the supposed arbiter of aesthetics, as it’s properly spelled? How often has police brutality been proved by the camera or recorder of an innocent bystander? It’s okay to put cameras on street corners, wiretaps on most anybody, drones in the sky-but not okay to photograph a cop?

4. Tracking Americans

In January 2012, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court restricted the police from using a GPS device to track criminal suspects in a first test of how privacy rights will be protected in the digital age. The court rejected the government’s claim that long-term surveillance by GPS tracking is no different than traditional, low-tech forms of monitoring. But its decision was case specific and incremental, leaving open the larger questions of how government may use the information generated by modern technology for surveillance purposes.

Before you get too excited about this limited victory for your right to privacy, meet the Domain Awareness System announced last week by New York Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelley. Developed by Microsoft, this complex network of 3000 closed-circuit cameras and 2600 radiation detection devices can aggregate and analyze information from cameras, license plate readers, 911 calls, videotape footage and law enforcement’s many databases. Kelley touts its potential “to help combat both terrorism and conventional crime, city-wide.” Fans of the current TV hit, Person of Interest, will surely recognize “the machine” and its capabilities.

5. Surveillance Drones

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Look! Up in the sky-it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a domestic surveillance drone. Yes, state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the Homeland Security Agency, are considering the use of drones to conduct surveillance. It’s anyone’s guess what the FBI, DEA and NSA is already doing. Drones are currently used to patrol our borders, and now police across the country are promoting drones as a means to track down fugitives, find missing children and monitor sex offenders. I suppose they can even monitor who comes to W’s next barbecue, if they’ve got nothing better to do.

Advocates note that drones can use artificial intelligence to seek out and record “suspicious behavior.” Who defines “suspicious?” Maybe that secret White House committee? Law enforcement agencies initially requested two spy drones to help police the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa, a request later deemed too expensive. Some police officials have even openly discussed arming the spy planes with “non-lethal weapons” like Tasers or beanbag guns. How soon will it be before some secret government panel uses a secret White House memo to arm these drones with the same weapons that killed a U.S. citizen in Yemen?

Restrictions on the Press, unmanned drones, unlawful seizure, secret laws and memos-sounds like the tactics of some Middle East tyrant about to be overthrown, doesn’t it? We are becoming the unintended victims of our own “war” on terrorism-brought to our shores not by the terrible actions of 9/11, but by our own leadership. Their rush to bring the war home threatens our core protections and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The erosion of these protections has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans and, as put by the ACLU, “goes to the very heart of who we are as Americans.”

So go ahead with your plans-come to Charlotte in early September. Have a good time, enjoy the parties, and nominate the next President of the United States. But while you’re at it, remember the freedoms that allow you to be here, that allow you to elect your leaders and allow you to protest when you think they’re wrong. Remind yourself and your children of our responsibilities as American citizens. As a nation we’ve fought countless wars, both at home and abroad, to win and protect our freedom. Don’t lose those freedoms, paid with your forebears’ blood, because you weren’t paying attention.

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