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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tools of Injustice

The Atlantic is on point with its journalism these days. If you haven't read its absolutely stellar piece on the Islamic State, by all means be enlightened. Its long but you'll never wonder what the fuck is up with ISIS again.

Today, their piece on the Ferguson DOJ report has been popping up in my newsfeed. There's a few things in it that I think are worth noting, beyond the obviously stunning display of blatant racism regularly practiced by the Ferguson PD.

Ferguson, MO, it turns out, is a great case study on all the little ways that the state manages to slip oppression under the radar through formal, but seemingly miniscule loopholes, tricks and caveats. It illustrates perfectly why people with even a small amount of power can never be trusted... and why "freedom" is a process (or more correctly a constant struggle), not a state of being protected by judges and pieces of paper.

Conor Friedersdorf outlines some of the more egregious abuses by Ferguson cops. Much of it was a litany of race-related abuses most of us who are paying attention are familiar with by now. What was really fascinating to me was a slick, under-the-radar way that the little dictators in blue manage to subvert the rule of law. If a cop suspects someone of a crime but doesn't have probable cause, he can post something called a "wanted" status into his department's server.

This creates yet another magical immunity power-up for police that renders them lawfully able to arrest someone without probable cause.

From the report:

FPD and other law enforcement agencies in St. Louis County use a system of “wanteds” or “stop orders” as a substitute for seeking judicial approval for an arrest warrant. When officers believe a person has committed a crime but are not able to immediately locate that person, they can enter a “wanted” into the statewide law enforcement database, indicating to all other law enforcement agencies that the person should be arrested if located. While wanteds are supposed to be based on probable cause ... they operate as an end-run around the judicial system. Instead of swearing out a warrant and seeking judicial authorization from a neutral and detached magistrate, officers make the probable cause determination themselves and circumvent the courts.

... If officers enter wanteds into the system on less than probable cause, then the subsequent arrest would violate the Fourth Amendment. Our interviews with command staff and officers indicate that officers do not clearly understand the legal authority necessary to issue a wanted. For example, one veteran officer told us he will put out a wanted “if I do not have enough probable cause to arrest you.” He gave the example of investigating a car theft. Upon identifying a suspect, he would put that suspect into the system as wanted “because we do not have probable cause that he stole the vehicle.” Reflecting the muddled analysis officers may employ when deciding whether to issue a wanted, this officer concluded, “you have to have reasonable suspicion and some probable cause to put out a wanted.”

At times, FPD officers use wanteds not merely in spite of a lack of probable cause, but because they lack probable cause. In December 2014, a Ferguson detective investigating a shooting emailed a county prosecutor to see if a warrant for a suspect could be obtained, since “a lot of state agencies won’t act on a wanted.” The prosecutor responded stating that although “[c]hances are” the crime was committed by the suspect, “we just don’t have enough for a warrant right now.” The detective responded that he would enter a wanted. There is evidence that the use of wanteds has resulted in numerous unconstitutional arrests in Ferguson.
It's that easy! I was under the impression all these years that if a suspect was "wanted" by the law, that meant they had probable cause and an arrest warrant on hand. Assuredly, this is a power that gets abused by cops all over the country.

These abuses are tough to find out about; the political will needed to expose them is massive. We have it in Ferguson. But Ferguson will blow over soon enough and everything goes back to normal. The struggle against power is something that power gets to dictate the terms of. Maintaining some reasonable level of transparency is essential to maintain accountability, but in an increasingly (and paradoxically) fearful country, the state's argument for secrecy rings bells for most people.

So Ferguson PD has been exposed, and the cockroaches of fascism will skitter back into the darkness for now. Great. Only around 18,000 police departments and other law enforcement agencies to go.

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