The Mind of James Donahue

Police State?

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Why Do We Think
We Need More Police?

It angers me that Congress, in one of its final actions before breaking for winter recess, adopted a Year-2000 budget that sets aside $900 million for additional police.

If there is anything we don't need in the United States right now it is more police. In any place I have lived in recent years (and I have moved around quite a lot) I see more police and police cars around than we have streetlights. They are so plentiful that the general public no longer feels protected by them. We are starting to feel threatened.

There is good reason for us to feel threatened. Many of us watched in horror while armed and armored police officers kicked, clubbed and gassed their way through crowds of peaceful protesters demonstrating in front of the Seattle World Trade Organization meetings. It was only the latest of an increasing number of publicized incidents of police brutality making headlines across the country.

Our jails are so crowded we are constantly building more of them. A recent report said we have 5.9 million people under some form of incarceration, either in prison, in jail or on probation for various "criminal" offenses. That breaks down to one out of every 34 adults. The prison population alone is approaching 2 million people, and they are costing the American taxpayer nearly $40 billion a year to house. Yet annual FBI reports indicate that crime in this country is on the decline.

On any "average" evening, it is common to drive along one of the major US highways like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-40 or I-75 and see flashing red lights over every hill. There are so many police I suspect they are stopping drivers on whims, sometimes making up reasons, to make drug searches, check for alcoholism, and keep personal records to justify their jobs.

The situation is getting so bad that most drivers instantly expect to be stopped and issued a summons to appear in court for something, God only knows what, the moment a police car appears in their rear view mirror.

Because they are such a nuisance in our daily lives, we have created cultural myths about how to protect ourselves from police harassment while we are traveling. One of the reasons white cars are getting so popular is that the story is circulating that police don't stop them as often. Flashy red cars and bright yellow sports vehicles are among the most frequently stopped. Also older people driving stripped-down, tan, green or pale blue four-door sedans are less frequently stopped than younger drivers in vans, four-wheel-drive trucks and sporty vehicles covered with chrome.

The time of day that we travel also makes a difference.

About two years ago I was stopped by a city police officer while driving through a well-known speed trap in Payson, Arizona. I had my wife and son with me. We had been visiting our daughter, who was attending school in Phoenix, and we left quite late that night for a four-hour trip back to Show Low, where we lived. It was about 2 a.m. and there wasn't a car on the road. Nevertheless, because I knew the reputation of the police in Payson, I was checking my speed. I made sure I was driving within the limit. In spite of my precautions, a police car suddenly pulled out of nowhere and began following me. And sure enough, the officer turned on those flashing red, white and blue lights, flipped on those alternating flashing headlights that confuse the mind, turned on his intensive white spot lights that leave you totally blinded, and stopped me.

If you haven't been stopped by the police while driving at night, let me say that it is a frightening experience. The glaring lights that silhouette armed uniformed officers dressed in black and leather when they appear at your window, is carefully designed to make even the most daring soul turn into a submissive mouse.

The officer said he saw my car "weave a little" and suspected that I had been drinking. He found me quite sober. Yet he held me there for some time, obviously using his radio to check my driver's license number and auto registration plate number. I am sure he was hoping that I might be a fugitive who failed to pay a traffic ticket somewhere and that a judge had written a bench warrant for my arrest. Or, better yet, that the car might be stolen. Or that I was carrying improper plates. I live a relatively clean life and he could not find anything out of order. My only crime was that I dared to drive through Payson at two o'clock in the morning. He ended up writing me a speeding ticket. It said I was driving ten miles over the limit.

What does one do about something like that? It was the middle of the night and the municipal judge wouldn't be in his office for hours. If I argued with the officer he probably would have arrested me for resisting arrest, obstruction of justice, or even assaulting a police officer. He had the badge. He had the gun. He owned that stretch of the road. We lived about two long hours of mountain driving away. If I chose to plead innocent and return for a trial, it would have cost me a day of work and lost pay, just to try to beat a $100 speeding ticket. Then it would have been my word against that of the police officer. I was sure the dice would have been loaded in that game. I paid the fine and wrote it off as a bad experience with a crooked cop.

There was a time, early in my career as a newspaper reporter, when I had nothing but respect for the police. I worked in Michigan, where the Michigan State Police were among the finest, best trained, and brightest officers in the nation. I had many friends not only in the State Police, but among the deputies for the many different Sheriff's Departments and City Police departments whom I worked with over the years.

The police didn't seem to start "going bad" until recently, after the federal government began pumping millions of dollars into local coffers to beef up the nation's police protection and wage the country's fake "war on drugs." Now the police departments all seem to be mixed with thugs and bullies who enjoy using the authority of their badges and guns to make life miserable for the common folk. I don't want to think that all police are bad. I think we just have a few rotten apples who are giving all police departments a black eye.

I have a theory about this. I suspect that there is a demand for new police officers, while there also has exists a decline in the nation's work force. To get the manpower they want, the various police departments have dropped their standards for accepting new officers. They are no longer hiring quality for the sake of having quantity. The problem is self-perpetuating. As more and more stories are told about police atrocities, police are quickly losing the general respect they once enjoyed. Thus it is harder than ever to find young men and women interested in careers in police work.

I am back living in Michigan. And I am surprised to find that the State Police have gained a reputation as a scourge of the road. People cringe when they see those blue cars with the yellow markings because they know they are going to have trouble. And a traffic summons for any offense these days usually brings a stiff fine ranging from $100 to $500, which is more than most of us can afford. It robs us of our food or rent money. Or takes those few extra dollars we were trying to save up to get the brakes on the car fixed or maybe go to the dentist.

The departments have their share of bullies in Michigan as well.

My wife, who works as a medical technologist at the local hospital on the midnight shift every weekend, encounters the police regularly. They frequently bring "drunks" off the road for blood tests. Even though she is a professional offering her services as a courtesy to the police, she has been personally bullied by them. Certain officers entered her work place and threatened to arrest her on two different occasions for "obstruction of justice" because she refused to sign an improper witness form. She has been doing this work for so long she knew it wasn't the right document and that signing it might mean lost time in court and even jeopardize the police case. But the officers forced her to sign it anyway, or go to jail. The last time it happened she was so upset she had to be treated in the emergency room for an anxiety attack. I was summoned to the hospital to bring her home because she was in no condition to drive.

I filed a complaint with the commander of the local State Police Post and nothing happened. He didn't even have the courtesy to return my telephone calls. I filed a complaint with the county prosecutor, who asked the State Police Office of Internal Affairs to investigate our complaint. The Internal Affairs officer came to us with a story that he had talked to officers from two other police departments. These officers allegedly said they also threatened to arrest my wife for refusing to cooperate with them over nighttime blood draws. That was a bald faced lie. If they said it, it meant the area police were ganging up on us. When a brotherhood like that exists among crooked police, who can the public turn to when there is abuse. Who guards the police?

I say that Congress is throwing another $900 million down a rat hole by setting this money aside to hire more police. By doing this, they are only compounding an already bad social problem.

In our rush to try to keep social order in an overcrowded world, we are unwittingly giving up our freedoms and creating a police state. It may be too late now to reverse what we have done to ourselves. What really scares me is that most people don't seem to be willing to admit that anything is wrong.


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