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Why US Police Are Out of Control
By Daniel Lazare
Consortiumnews (Independent Investigative Journalism Since 1995)
August 20, 2015
CHARLES SULKA COMMENTARY & CRITIQUE
Daniel Lazare attempts to make a case for increased centralization in America by examining the epidemic of police violence. The causes of police violence are many and complex; as complex and inscrutable as the rise in violence in general in America. Lazare’s examination of the problem of police brutality is superficial; the writer glosses over the sociological aspects, attributing the primary cause to something he identifies as ‘fragmentation’. The increasing militarism of the police is not explored in any depth, and other fundamental causes for widespread disregard for life and shift in values are totally ignored, such as (a) neo-conservative politics and the concomitant human suffering (nearly half of American families cannot feed their children without reliance on food stamps) (b) a widespread sense of hopelessness and despair in the face of a failed political system, with government that is neither effective nor accountable, (c) the government’s refusal to enforce the laws broken in the widespread criminal behavior at the highest levels of American society, (d) television and violent video games, (e) drugs, an epidemic of death and destruction, and (e) a breakdown of private and public morals (America’s TV preachers and sham faith healers are emblematic of this). The factors are complex and interrelated; Lazare’s attempt at over simplification does not serve the reader well.
At the same time, the writer does make a case for a re-examination of the American constitution. (He does such a good job of this that I actually ordered his book on the Constitution after reading this essay.) A re-write of the Constitution is absolutely essential for effective political reform. Eliminating the greatest failing of the American political system — the harmful influence of money in politics — will require a new and improved electoral process, and, I venture to say, an emphasis on decentralization. This is something which is simply not possible under the existing Constitution. Democratic reforms are also unlikely to come about during a state of emergency, the probable outcome of America’s current political malaise. While the writer does inspire one to think about the constitutional basis for our current problems … he fails to make a case for increased centralization.
Lazare points to the lower rates of police brutality in some other countries, i.e., several European countries. But this discussion is really irrelevant; it is questionable whether the situation in other cultures (far more insular cultures) can lead to understanding of America’s unique culture of gun violence. In this regard, the diversity that is one of America’s greatest strengths could also turn out to be a significant factor underlying the wave of violence.
The author makes passing reference to The ‘Arms Race’ and the ‘Militarization of Police’, two concepts proffered as explanations for the increasing police brutality. Many other important factors are overlooked entirely.
The writer misconstrues the “arms race” between the police and the citizenry by using a logical fallacy, that of inappropriate comparison, i.e. ‘apples & oranges’. The fact that an upsurge in sales of assault weapons has not been matched by an uptick in crimes committed by those bearing assault rifles is totally irrelevant. Assault rifles aren’t typically used in crimes (other than mass murders and assassinations carried out by America’s national (centralized) law enforcement agencies, such as the Ruby Ridge killing or the Waco massacre.) The problem, rather, is that increasingly police are facing individuals with concealed handguns (it’s hard to conceal an AR-15) and a propensity to use them. The widespread availability of high-capacity semi-automatic handguns one the one side, versus the militarization of police on the other, does indeed constitute an ‘arms race’.
There are other factors to consider. The ‘open carry’ and ‘stand your ground’ movements encourage confrontational attitudes between armed individuals. The people see violence on the rise everywhere as a result of the government’s failed economic policies — policies which export jobs to foreign countries (even communist countries) and then penalize the unemployed for the ‘crime’ of poverty. The public increasingly sees the government as the enemy, and not without reason. Government, business, and the institutions of democracy are all seen as corrupt and self-serving. Even the schools and churches are no longer safe. The populace is overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and rage. There is a general breakdown of law and order as a result of the nation’s failed economic policies, corruption is rampant in society, and the police are as likely as not to pull you over for a bogus traffic stop and murder you on the spot, or else murder you in jail … usually after you have been beaten, strangled, strip-searched, and tasered repeatedly (and this is the case for those innocent of serious crimes; actual criminals have it even worse.)
Still, consider … the circumstances of a traffic stop or street confrontation puts the police officer at a definite disadvantage. The police must be wary when dealing with strangers, many of whom are mentally impaired, emotionally disturbed, confused, afraid, angry, or out of their mind on drugs. And not a few are actual criminals.
So yes, the police are facing increased risk of being shot … as are the citizens. Fear begets fear. Violence begets violence.
The militarization of police is a big part of the problem. The fact is, police departments everywhere are being encouraged, through federal grants and national programs and policies to acquire military-style armaments and equipment and sophisticated high-tech electronics, none of which is in keeping with the police mission of ‘to serve and to protect.’ The police all think of themselves as ‘SWAT’ teams.
When the citizenry come to believe that the police are likely to kill them without justification in a hail of gunfire, or that their lives will be destroyed anyway by the criminal justice system — assuming the police don’t kill them first — it should be no surprise that the police find themselves coming under fire. There is no reason to think that centralization will improve things.
This reality does not justify the use of unnecessary force by police — local, state, and federal. But it is important that we try to understand the reasons behind the epidemic of insane police violence. In truth, it is beyond mere police brutality, it is widespread murderous insanity. Putting all of America’s police departments under one umbrella agency is Lazare’s proposed solution to the problem. Not only would this be politically impossible, it is an idea that is fraught with peril.
While the essay doesn’t really answer the question of why the police in America are out of control — nor does it provide any answers — the writer does point out some problems with the US Constitution that we need to address. Lazare has an interesting perspective on the U.S. Constitution as it relates to the concept of power in a democracy:
“Although civil libertarians celebrate America’s 228-year-old constitutional system on the grounds that it locks in the Bill of Rights, the consequences are not remotely democratic. To the contrary, the effect is not only to fragment power from above, but, more importantly, to muffle and disperse democratic political power from below by placing countless obstacles in its path.”
The author makes a valid point. It is known that the Founders were leery of democracy, of the unchecked passions of the populace. This is why they chose as the form of government a REPUBLIC which, assuredly, does “muffle and disperse” the democratic impulses of the people. But if the writer is calling for more accountability to the voters through the democratic process, it is not clear to me how this argues in favor of increased centralization. And with regard to America’s vaunted civil liberties, the Bill of Rights was an afterthought — a series of amendments to the Constitution.
Presumably, as part of rewriting the constitution, the author anticipates centralization of many government functions. In particular, he advocates centralization of law enforcement, insisting that this will reduce racial discrimination, reduce police violence, increase efficiency, and improve accountability. As will be shown, logic simply does not support this contention.
Since we have strayed this far off topic, we might as well mention other questions related to the Constitution. The question of centralization figures prominently in other areas, such as local control of the economy. It may be neither feasible nor desirable to have local control (some would use the term ‘interference’) over the economy. Regulation of the economy is specifically ascribed to the federal government in the US Constitution (and explicitly denied to the states.) Federal regulation of the economy is a core principle of the US Constitution and of the Union itself. The Founders were concerned more than anything about financial manipulation and unregulated banking, a serious problem in the Colonies, as it is today. Reigning in the financial manipulators is probably the American government’s biggest failing today … but that does not mean that the task should be performed in a disjointed manner by local functionaries who would be even less capable of doing so than the federal regulators. The problem is lack of responsible regulation, a result of failed a political system. It is debatable whether decentralization would result in better regulation of the economy.
“So do other strange aspects of the U.S. constitutional system – a Senate that gives the same number of votes to Wyoming (population 576,000) that it does to a multi-racial giant like California (population 38 million); an electoral college that triples the weight of certain lily-white “rotten boroughs” (as under-populated electoral districts were known in Eighteenth-Century England), or a two-thirds/three-fourths amending clause that, thanks to growing population discrepancies, allows 13 largely rural states representing as little as 4.1 percent of the population to veto any constitutional change sought by the remaining 95.9.”
These are valid points. I would agree that we probably need to draft a new US Constitution; yet I question whether further consolidation of the functions or powers of government would be beneficial.
Many have argued that decentralization, not increased centralization, should be emphasized in efforts at political reform in America. Decentralization would return power to the people, something which (as I point out elsewhere) the author endorses in principle. Decentralization would also seem to be more in accord with the Christian principle of subsidiarity, that decisions affecting a person’s life be made at the lowest level, closest to the individual.
At the same time, I recognize that centralized (‘federal’) programs frequently are better managed and more equitable than the hodge-podge of local programs. Examples from my own life experience:
(a) human services and the social safety net vary widely from state to state, often being absolutely wretched; the centralized, uniform, federal Social Security programs are vastly better;
(b) local and state courts (especially where judges are elected rather than appointed) are frequently corrupt and inept; abuses and civil rights violations are much more prevalent in state courts with more parochial attitudes and lower professional standards for lawyers and judges (as well as lower standards for local police.)
(c) school systems (which are generally administered locally) vary significantly in funding, quality of teachers and learning, facilities, etc.
(d) in my own life, I have been stalked, tormented, tortured, drugged and poisoned by the authorities. NOT the local authorities, but the (centralized) federal government agencies. Local law enforcement authorities do not have the capability of dealing with the criminal acts of the federal government. They lack the resources, the capabilities, and in most cases the legal authority to investigate crimes committed by federal government agencies.
What we have, in reality, is a situation where the federal government trumps local law enforcement, making the federal government a ‘law unto itself’, accountable to no one. It is government out of control.
(e) I have knowledge of a number of serious crimes committed by federal authorities, including several murders — even the murder of an investigative journalist (Danny Casolaro) right here in the town where I live — yet the local authorities are helpless, totally unable to protect the community from the crimes of centralized authority, the crimes of what I refer to as the ‘national security mafia’.
(f) as the author points out in this essay, local police departments’ performance varies widely. I do agree that the situation is deplorable, even frightening … and it is not apparent how things would improve. Something we do not understand is happening. Overall, it looks like we are living in a society in decay, with fascism and possibly anarchy looming in America’s future.
(g) Centralized law enforcement operations are not necessarily better. Recently the FBI, DHS, Secret Service, DEA, and ATF (among others) have all come under fire for egregious behavior of both individuals and groups, internal criminal activity, corruption, civil rights violations, abuse of process, questionable operations, falsification of evidence (another form of civil rights violations), and more. The internal safeguards barely seem to be working, and even then, only after a fashion (ask those falsely imprisoned or even executed for crimes they did not commit.) The bad actors have been ferreted out and the failed processes re-worked … most of the time … but generally only after a public outcry. This shows that transparency and accountability can and do work. Admittedly, this is generally not the case with *political* issues — such as targeting groups for persecution and prosecution — and covert operations (police stings, set-ups and entrapment, use of paid informants, etc.) Here the law enforcement agencies are completely out of control.
(h) A legitimate concern is that opportunities for ‘systemic’ (widespread) abuse is more prevalent in a centrally-administered program. Fascism, intrusive government, and civil rights abuses have historically been facilitated by centralization. Conceptually, ‘centralization’ and ‘checks and balances’ are diametrically opposed, as are ‘centralization’ and ‘democracy.’
(i) On the other hand, it took the direct action of the federal government to enforce civil rights legislation in the 1960 and since. Had the federal government not gotten involved, it is likely that racial discrimination would still be a problem in many parts of the country, especially the South, with its history of slavery and discrimination.
(j) you can’t get the same level of quality in staffing in local police departments with low salaries as can be had in high-paid federal agencies with much more selective employment process, rigorous training and performance requirements. At the same time, local police departments can’t afford to pay big-city salaries, and rural life might not appeal to many exemplary candidates.
(k) the centralized Mexican Federal Police (the ‘Federales’) is probably the most corrupt and vicious law enforcement agency on earth, and has been as long as I can remember.
Some serious flaws in this essay . . . .
(a) This essay is self-contradictory:
The writer states that:
“… the effect was to sidestep the issue of why the city had shunted off policing to a body far removed from voters’ control”
Unless I am reading this wrong, Lazare is here saying that law enforcement should be under local voters’ control. He is arguing against his own stated position, which is a call for centralization, something which, in practice if not in principle, removes the function from local control and oversight. Note that in his discussion of the Constitution Lazare points out that our Republican form of government effectively blocks out (“diffuses”) the peoples’ influence in governance. It is difficult to reconcile the writers’ stated belief in ‘people power’ with the dangerous belief in ‘consolidation’ in government. These concepts would seem to be mutually exclusive.
(b) The essay is presumptuous and the meaning often unclear:
“The absurdity of 18,000 autonomous police departments should be apparent to all, yet, for even the most ardent civil-rights campaigner, it disappears from view.”
The ‘absurdity’ is not apparent … to me at least. 18,000 cities (actually 19,000+ incorporated cities in America) requires this many police departments (and fire departments, and schools, etc.) What in the world does the reference to “the most ardent civil rights campaigner” mean? What ‘disappears from view?’ The absurdity? If anything is absurd here, it is the wording of this sentence.
It is probably more efficient — and I’ll touch on the question of efficiency again later — to have 18,000 separate police departments than it would be to have one huge police department with 18,000 city divisions. After all, public service functions are not competing business ventures; as a general rule no efficiency is to be gained from consolidation in government services. To the contrary, the work load remains fixed but the levels of management increases, seemingly exponentially.
Reduced efficiency is not the only argument against consolidation and the resultant increased bureaucratization. Accountability is another. The author himself says that law enforcement should be under local voters’ control. You can’t have it both ways.
(c) The logic fails:
The author seems to lack an understanding of some basic life principles, as shown . . . .
“Does San Diego County (population 3.1 million), to cite just one example, really need 65 separate fire departments? Does New Jersey (population 8.7 million) really need 565 municipalities and 591 school districts? Couldn’t the same tasks be accomplished more cheaply and efficiently if local government was consolidated?”
Answer: probably not. Consolidation often leads to inefficiencies and increased bureaucratization (the claims of the advocates of centralization notwithstanding.) The State of California centralized its schools’ administration years ago. The end result is, in California, there are more administrators than there are teachers (I am not making this up.) Not only that, since administrators earn higher salaries than teachers, the state spends far more on school administration that it does on teachers’ salaries.
When I was growing up, school administrators were called ‘principals.’ Each school had a principal, although in the elementary schools, the principal doubled as a teacher. The administrative staff consisted of the school secretary and a janitor. The high school, which had a greater number of students and teachers, also had a records clerk, and even had an assistant principal, a man whose job was to discipline the boys for their bad behavior (a never-ending task which would have been undignified for the principal, who was the most dignified man I have every known.)
California’s centralized school system has more administrators than teachers. This is typical of consolidation in government (which, as pointed out above, is quite different from consolidation in competing business ventures.) Nobody would call this ‘increased efficiency.’
Examples of poor writing (nit-picking):
“Much as Congress carved states out of the western territories, the states gained carte blanche not only to create as many police departments as they wish, but to carve out an endless number of municipalities and school districts as well, not to mention water and sewer boards, mosquito control commissions, and other exotic flora and fauna.”
‘other exotic flora and fauna’ is stupid and inappropriate. Florid prose serves no purpose here; it does not buttress the writer’s position nor make the essay more readable. Most Americans don’t know what flora and fauna are anyway. Americans only read at the 5th grade level … if they read at all.
“Ornate arrangement” should be “complex” ? Ornate connotes aesthetics, a visual image. This is flowery prose … not appropriate. To avoid overuse of the word ‘complex’ I guess ‘ornate’ might be acceptable, although there are probably better synonyms.
America is beset by violence. Some of the most shocking images of wanton disregard for life in America are those of police brutality resulting in the deaths of thousands of Americas (each year), many unarmed and innocent of any crime, a threat to no one. Like the phenomenon of mass killings, the cause(s) are poorly understood (and that is an overstatement.) Lazare sees the problem as caused by fragmentation and proposes consolidation as the solution. A national police force is probably not the answer to the problem of America’s epidemic of police brutality. We have a national police force now. Actually, as the author points out, we have more than a dozen federal law enforcement agencies. Are we any safer because of it? America’s ‘Federales’ so to speak, are even more corrupt than the local police. Consider the FBI. The FBI is up to its neck in dirty business, and I am not just talking about the revelations of widespread falsification of evidence which has compromised hundreds of criminal investigations, and of course we cannot talk about the others, those that have been effectively covered up. Ask the survivors (there weren’t any) of the FBI’s assault on panicked victims of religious persecution in Waco, Texas, where tanks and flame throwers were used to slaughter women and children on their knees, fervently praying to the Lord to save them … from the American government. An example of how widespread is the corruption within the FBI is the 9-11 terrorist investigation — or, rather, the ‘NON-investigation’. There has been no actual investigation of 9-11; all attempts by police, fire, and regulatory bodies to conduct investigations have been effectively blocked by the national security apparatus, so that a false narrative of what was actually an ‘inside job’ could be foisted off on a gullible public.
With America’s government waging an undeclared war on its own citizens — as well as the Constitution and the rule of law — is it any wonder that the people are tempted to shoot back at the police who are shooting at them? Does it really make any difference who shoots first? Everybody loses in any case. When government fails the people, everybody loses.
It is not clear how further consolidations in government or law enforcement will accomplish anything — not anything good, anyway.
(08-26-2015 17:30 -0500)
Why US Police Are Out of Control
By Daniel Lazare
Consortiumnews (Independent Investigative Journalism Since 1995)
August 20, 2015
Exclusive: U.S. police forces are so out of control there’s not even a reliable database on how many times police officers shoot citizens. So, beyond racism and fear of guns, the problem includes fragmentation in law enforcement and gaps in training among the 18,000 police agencies in the 50 states, notes Daniel Lazare.
America is clearly an outlier when it comes to police brutality. According to The Guardian’s highly useful “Counted” website, U.S. police kill more people in a typical day than police in England and Wales kill in an entire year. Where police in Stockton, California, killed three people in the first five months of 2015, police in Iceland, which has roughly the same population, have killed just one person since the modern Icelandic republic was founded in 1944.
Where the U.S. saw 97 police shootings in a single month (March 2015), Australia saw 94 over the course of two decades (1992 to 2011). And where police in Finland fired a grand total of six bullets in 2013, police in Pasco, Washington, pumped nearly three times as many last February into a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant named Antonio Zambrano-Montes whom they accused of threatening them with a rock.
A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)
A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)
What is the reason for vast discrepancy? The Black Lives Matter movement blames racism, which is certainly true as far as it goes, but potentially misleading since its suggests that racism is not a problem in countries like England and Australia, which is definitely not the case.
In a recent analysis, Alternet’s Steven Rosenfeld blamed police reliance on excessive force, an absence of supervision, and a confrontation mentality that leads urban cops to see their beats as veritable war zones. While this is certainly the case, the logic is more than a bit tautological since all Rosenfeld is saying is that police are out of control because police are out of control.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence blames a “continuing arms race between law enforcement and civilians” that causes cops to see every suspect as a heavily-armed combatant. But while the police are plainly upping their firepower – SWAT teams are often more heavily armed than front-line troops in Afghanistan or Iraq – there is no evidence that the average American is following suit.
Indeed, Gallup reports that the proportion of Americans who say they have a gun at home has declined since the 1960s, while sales of military-style assault weapons have so far had a negligible impact on crime rates. So there is no evidence that a street-level arms race is underway or that it is causing police to over-react.
Fragmentation of Police Forces
So what is the real reason that America is off the charts when it comes to police shootings? The most important explanation is one that almost no one notices: fragmentation.
Britain, for example, has some 50-odd separate police forces, the Metropolitan Police Service covering greater London, a slew of regional police forces covering the rest of the country, plus a Serious Organized Crime Agency to deal with higher-level offenses.
Germany has a federal police force plus one police department for each of the sixteen länder, or states, while France, thanks to the Jacobin tradition of centralization, somehow makes do with just three police forces in all: the National Police, the National Gendarmerie, and the Municipal Police, only half of whom are armed. Australia meanwhile has eight police forces, New Zealand has just one, while Canada, somewhat unusually, has more than 200, including two dozen or more among Native American tribes.
So how many police departments does the United States have? The answer: more than 18,000. This includes three dozen or so at the federal level plus a staggering 17,985 at the state and local level – everything from state troopers and city patrolmen to campus cops, hospital and housing police, park rangers, and even a special department of zoo police in the town the Brookfield just outside of Chicago.
Where Britain’s police forces are firmly under the control of the Home Office while France’s are under the Ministry of the Interior, moreover, America’s are virtually autonomous. When the Justice Department sent out a survey on the use of force in 2013, the answers that came back were so jumbled as to be well nigh useless. Some departments sent back information on the use of guns, while others included reports about punches thrown and the use of non-lethal devices such as beanbag guns. Others, including such big-city departments as New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either did not know or refused to say.
A country that doesn’t even know how many times police fire their weapons or under what circumstances is one in which every local department is a law unto itself, a self-contained barony with its own special rules and customs.
“It’s a national embarrassment,” Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor, told The New York Times. “Right now, all you know is what gets on YouTube.”
What does a lack of knowledge have to do with ultra-high levels of brutality? The answer is simple: absence of knowledge means an absence of control, which means that local departments behave with relative impunity. If local cops seem out of control, it’s because the only controls come from local politicians who are often corrupt and racist and therefore tolerant of such behavior on the part of the officers they employ.
The Sandra Bland Case
Just what this means became clear on July 10 when a 28-year-old Chicagoan named Sandra Bland found herself pulled over by a traffic cop in Waller County, Texas, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. As a graduate of nearby Prairie View A&M, a historically black university, Bland knew how small-town police in rural Texas operate. So she was angry, upset and prepared for the worst.
“You seem very irritated,” Police Officer Brian Encinia told her. To which Bland replied:
“I am, I really am.… I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket.”
Bland had a point. When Encinia pulled up close behind her, she did the natural thing by moving over to let him pass. Yet now she found herself pulled over for a technical infraction, i.e. changing lanes without signaling. Encinia’s aggressive driving triggered the incident in the first place, and now his aggressive behavior was upping the ante.
As the argument escalated, Bland found herself thrown to the ground, cuffed and then tossed in jail when she failed to make bail. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell.
This is how a feudal knight behaves, not, supposedly, a modern cop in a democratic society. Encinia was suspended, the FBI stepped in, while the local DA launched an investigation to determine if Bland was the victim of a homicide. But this was only after dash cam footage showing Encinia’s confrontational behavior went viral on the Internet and protesters rallied to her cause. Otherwise, the incident would have been gone unnoticed.
The killing of Samuel DuBose six days later showed another side of the problem. DuBose was not the victim of an over-aggressive small-town policeman, but of a campus cop from the University of Cincinnati. Normally, the biggest problems campus police face are rowdy frat-house parties and overflowing parking lots on graduation day.
But in this case, the university, concerned about mounting crime, had entered into an agreement with the city to allow its police to patrol nearby neighborhoods. For a hapless local motorist like DuBose, the upshot was that instead of dealing with a police department accountable in some fashion to the voters of Cincinnati, he now found himself face to face with an officer answerable only to a university board of trustees, all appointees.
Control wound up scrambled, accountability was slashed, while an ill-prepared cop was thrust into a situation for which he was not properly trained. As a consequence, a minor traffic stop ended with DuBose’s death.
Once again, the local DA went into overdrive. County prosecutor Joe Deters slammed Officer Ray Tensing for making a “chicken crap stop,” dismissing his account as “nonsense” and describing DuBose’s shooting as “the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make.” “This is without question a murder,” he added.
Loss of Accountability
But not only was this also after the fact, but the effect was to sidestep the issue of why the city had had shunted off policing to a body far removed from voters’ control. Responsibility rested not only with Tensing, but with the city officials who entered into such an undemocratic arrangement.
So, once again, it was a case of ineffective controls and a lack of accountability allowing police brutality to flourish. If the Black Lives Matter movement had not been in high gear by that point, DuBose’s death would almost certainly have been overlooked as well. But while emotions ran high, awareness of the basic structural issues at hand was nil.
This strange contradiction – outrage on one hand and utter passivity with regard to the larger political issues on the other – begs two questions: why has fragmentation become so massive, and why is it all but invisible?
The first is easy. The problem goes back to the deal that America’s so-called Framers struck in Philadelphia in 1787 in which they not only divided power among three branches of government, but also between the federal government and the states. While the former wound up with the ability to tax, borrow, regulate commerce, and coin money, the latter gained an all but unchallengeable monopoly on local governance.
Things have gotten a bit more complicated since then thanks to the civil liberties movement, the New Deal, the civil rights revolution, and other such events. But to a remarkable degree, the original division of responsibility still holds. While the feds intervene from time to time in urban policy, they do so obliquely while local prerogatives remain sacrosanct.
Much as Congress carved states out of the western territories, the states gained carte blanche not only to create as many police departments as they wish, but to carve out an endless number of municipalities and school districts as well, not to mention water and sewer boards, mosquito control commissions, and other exotic flora and fauna.
The upshot is not only 18,000 police departments but more than 90,000 local governments in all, all autonomous, self-governing, and endlessly jealous of their rights and prerogatives.
“[I]f there was a dominant ‘originalist’ notion of how the nation’s governance should work,” notes a prominent investigative reporter, “it was pragmatism; it was pulling together to get done what needed to be done” (Robert Parry, America’s Stolen Narrative, pp. 32-33).
But leaving aside the fact that pragmatism is far from a simple concept – the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the subject runs to more than 10,000 words – it is difficult to see how such an ornate arrangement can be described as pragmatic when there is no way to determine whether it is still working – or what “working” in this context even means.
Does San Diego County (population 3.1 million), to cite just one example, really need 65 separate fire departments? Does New Jersey (population 8.7 million) really need 565 municipalities and 591 school districts? Couldn’t the same tasks be accomplished more cheaply and efficiently if local government was consolidated?
The same goes for the police. Does America really need 18,000 police departments? Couldn’t the same tasks be conducted more efficiently and fairly if the departments were consolidated and placed firmly under federal control?
Fear of Centralism
Conservatives will reply that any such nationalization would be tyrannical and that local prerogatives like these are the essence of American liberty. But just as liberty for the pike means death for the minnow, liberty for local pols in Waller County meant the opposite for Sandra Bland.
Americans went to war in 1776 because the British were “erect[ing] a multitude of New Offices, and sen[ding] hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” But with their 90,000 local governments, Americans have wound up saddling themselves with more local officials than George III could ever have imagined.
It’s a system crying for rationalization and reform. But this leads to the second question: how is it that no one notices? Where other countries fiddle with municipal governance as a matter of routine, abolishing some jurisdictions, creating others, and constantly re-adjusting powers and responsibilities, the very idea remains unthinkable in the U.S.
So what is the reason? The answer has to do with what one might call the dark side of pragmatism. If American governance rests on the dual principles of practicality and workability, then it follows that there is no point discussing a reform if it is not remotely in the cards. Indeed, there’s no point thinking about the problem in the first place or even noticing that it exists.
The absurdity of 18,000 autonomous police departments should be apparent to all, yet, for even the most ardent civil-rights campaigner, it disappears from view.
So do other strange aspects of the U.S. constitutional system – a Senate that gives the same number of votes to Wyoming (population 576,000) that it does to a multi-racial giant like California (population 38 million); an electoral college that triples the weight of certain lily-white “rotten boroughs” (as under-populated electoral districts were known in Eighteenth-Century England), or a two-thirds/three-fourths amending clause that, thanks to growing population discrepancies, allows 13 largely rural states representing as little as 4.1 percent of the population to veto any constitutional change sought by the remaining 95.9.
Rather than the elephants in the sitting room that no one wishes to discuss, these are elephants that no one even notices.
Which brings us back to race. Although civil libertarians celebrate America’s 228-year-old constitutional system on the grounds that it locks in the Bill of Rights, the consequences are not remotely democratic. To the contrary, the effect is not only to fragment power from above, but, more importantly, to muffle and disperse democratic political power from below by placing countless obstacles in its path.
As a result, racism is allowed to fester in countless nooks and crannies in America’s over-complicated political structure. The disease thus spreads, infecting one organ after another.
For protesters, the consequence is a curious mix of anger and complacency. Young people take to the streets in response to the latest outrage. They march and chant as they challenge the powers-that-be. But then the fury wanes, and everyone goes back home. With gyroscopic efficiency, the system rights itself and fragmentation continues unabated.
If you want a picture of the future, to paraphrase Orwell, imagine an endless succession of Sandra Blands hanging in their cell – forever.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).
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