What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
Cheye Calvo was the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, in 2008 when law enforcement officers raided his home as part of a botched drug raid. The mayor and his mother-in-law were held at gunpoint, and officers shot and killed the mayor’s two dogs—one while it was trying to escape to safety. If this story is unfamiliar to you, read Radley Balko’s summary here.
Calvo and his mother-in-law were completely innocent, and the officers involved in the raid faced no repercussions. The Sheriff was even so bold as to say that “we’d do it again. Tonight.”
The mayor began lobbying the state legislature for reform, and succeeded in passing a bill that would bring a bit of transparency to law enforcement. It required every Maryland police agency with a SWAT team to periodically issue a report on how many times the team was deployed, whether shots were fired, the nature of the alleged crime, etc. It did not enact any restrictions on law enforcement activity, yet it was opposed by every police organization in the state. Still, it passed. Crisis paved the path for reform.
I share this story because a similar situation is unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police, sparking riots and protests in the small city. The conflict has significantly escalated, and peaceful protestors and reporters alike are being targeted and arrested by police officers eager, it seems, to shield their activity from public scrutiny.
After the proverbial (and literal) smoke clears, then what? As tragic as Brown’s shooting is, it’s not unique—people are harmed and killed every day by law enforcement officers. District Attorney Sim Gill recently said, at our Fourth Amendment Forum, that “When you fail to hold bad officers accountable, good officers suffer.” So how should we hold bad officers accountable? What reforms are needed? And more importantly, will there even be an attempt for substantive reform?
Millions of Americans watch the footage from Ferguson outraged, and their slacktivism leads them to share updates on Facebook and Twitter. There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, it’s a good thing to widely disseminate details of what’s going on. But if that’s all that’s done, then an opportunity has been lost. Brown’s death, while tragic, should serve as a catalyst for necessary reform.
That’s what happened in Utah. The shootout between Matthew David Stewart and police officers over a few plants turned our state, with Libertas Institute leading the way, to become “a hotbed for police reform.” As in Calvo’s case, the Utah legislature overwhelmingly approved a transparency bill—even better than the one in Maryland—that will help policy makers see a bird’s eye view of the level of force being utilized in our communities. But Utah went further, passing other legislation which included restrictions on when forcible entry warrants can be used.
There is a healthy appetite for reform, and reasonable minds recognize that systemic reforms may be necessary to prevent the type of abuse being witnessed in Ferguson. All around the country, and most recently in Ferguson, catalytic events offer opportunities to press for reform. We in Utah have been doing our part. Others elsewhere should do the same.