Vigilance needed against creeping authoritarianism in 2015

For some 70 years, we’ve been warned about “creeping socialism,” most frequently in the form of expanding access to health care. This past year has brought reminders that creeping authoritarianism may be the bigger threat in America.

In the summer and fall, fear of the Ebola virus rocketed past all reason, leading to calls for needlessly broad quarantines. In December, former Vice President Dick Cheney and others condemned the release of a U.S. Senate report on the use of torture by the CIA, arguing that brutalities committed against innocent men were of no concern to the American public.

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And we end 2014 still in a months-long debate over whether it is proper, in a democracy, to criticize law-enforcement officials. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani linked “four months of propaganda—starting with the president—that everybody should hate the police” to the murders of two police officers by an individual who then committed suicide, and a Twitter comment in the name of New York Gov. George Pataki described the murders as “a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric.”

Ismaaiyl Brinsley reportedly boasted on social media of his plans to assassinate police officers, leading some to link him to the protestors against police tactics who have been blocking streets and staging “die-ins” in several American cities. But news reports about the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other unarmed black men by police may have caused Brinsley to act on his hatred even in the absence of organized protests. It would be troubling to suggest that, as a form of domestic security, the actions of the police should not be reported by the media.

We are still trying to figure out the role of a newly militarized police department in a free society. In “The 10 Worst Civil Rights Violations of 2014,” Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern write, “Our constitutional rights to speak and assemble don’t seem so inviolable when the police can break up rallies with armored cars and assault weapons.”

Our military is expected to stay out of politics.* But our police departments are granted substantial political power, to the point that even a celebrated union buster like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is hesitant about limiting their collective-bargaining rights, as he did with teachers’ unions.

*In fact, as James Fallows writes in the current cover story of the Atlantic magazine, our politicians’ bland, ask-no-questions admiration for the troops isn’t necessarily good for a democracy: “what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military.”

In New York City, the most prominent police union has condemned Mayor Bill de Blasio for appearing sympathetic to anti-police protestors and for telling his biracial son to be careful in any interaction with police officers. “Blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor,” said union chief Patrick Lynch of the ambush killings of the two officers in Brooklyn on December 20.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly came close to arguing that the NYPD should have veto power over who serves as mayor of New York, saying of de Blasio, “He’s lost the control of the police department and their respect…. They will never come back, no matter what he says, because he sided with the protesters…. He should resign.” O’Reilly also told his viewers to shun protesters: “If you know them, never speak to them again.” It’s unknown how many Americans withdrew Christmas invitations to neighbors and family members on O’Reilly’s advice.

The protests against aggressive policing have inevitably included some unfortunate rhetoric, but they are about transparency and accountability for public employees. One reasonable demand is the collection of data on how many people are killed each year by law-enforcement personnel and in what circumstances—not as a vendetta against police but as way to determine how to fight crime with fewer deadly results. There has been some pushback against the “broken windows” strategy of targeting low-level crimes, but few would welcome a return to graffiti-covered subway cars or “squeegee men” demanding money from motorists stuck at intersections. An often-overlooked component of broken-windows policing is the use of data to quickly determine where more police attention is needed; data on the actions of the police themselves should be part of this “smart” law-enforcement strategy.

A defensive attitude on the part of the police, including the stonewalling of information, is not compatible with an open society. This principle extends to the entire law-enforcement community, including the implementation of the death penalty. So it’s alarming that some states are treating executions as something akin to covert operations. The Ohio legislature recently passed a “secret executions” bill that would shield the identities of the manufacturers of lethal-injection drugs, as well as the identities of those involved in carrying out executions (other than top officials). Similarly, Arizona this year administered a secret drug protocol to kill a man, and state officials have challenged eyewitness accounts that the execution dragged on for two hours, with the condemned struggling for air.

Even in an era of historically low crime rates, there is a temptation to grant near-unlimited power to police and prosecutors, and to look the other way when misconduct is revealed. That was not the proper response to the Senate’s report on torture, and it’s not the way we should look at our police departments. Peaceful protests are part of our civic culture and should be respected as such.

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