Don’t let Washington shape policing on Main Street
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Policing is a broad profession that shares much commonality throughout each of the states.

Often referred to as the thin blue line, police officers share a subcultural bond with each other that knows no jurisdictional bounds. Still, policing is a wholly local concept and how it is done varies not only from state to state, but from town to town.

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Policing can be dramatically different even between neighboring cities and towns. Nationalizing the police is a bad idea, and even incremental attempts to do so takes away from what we want police to be. The role of a police officer is that of a community guardian. Policing is about protecting the rights of individuals while maintaining order in a free and civil society. With that comes the responsibility of citizens in a civil society to make rules enforcing their own quality of life. 

Exactly what order in a free society looks like varies from town to town and state to state. Some communities have very little tolerance for alcohol, prohibiting its sale or limiting the hours and places it can be sold and consumed, others do not. The culture in either of these different communities is reflective of the residents, who elect officials that will pass the laws and ordinances that shape those communities.

Those elected officials will shape the police department based on the will of the governmental unit in that jurisdiction. County sheriffs are elected directly by the people and are even more accountable to the voting public. The flavor of policing is at best a local phenomenon that draws from the community what is needed to serve and protect them, something impossible to achieve by delegating it to a distant bureaucrat in Washington, DC. 

The indirect participation of the community in shaping the police agency that will patrol their streets is what gives a community its particular policing culture. Nationalizing this local need cannot possibly reflect the community and would surely tear away the individuality of each individual sovereign state and the local governments within them. 

For example, a number of states have legalized marijuana in some form. These laws guide their local police agencies in a direction that the citizens of those states want to direct their culture. However, the federal laws governing marijuana could subject those citizens to federal enforcement by federal law enforcement agents, a showdown that could very well be in the making. The disconnect between the federal government and the states is apparent even in this relatively minor area of legal contentions, and provides sound reasoning for keeping policing a local issue.

Replacing local and state control over the police by forming one national police force would be a difficult proposition, and the reaction severe. Because of this, the federal government is unlikely to make this move in one swift action, so it becomes easy for the public to discount it and even ignore the threat as being nonexistent. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility, even if something far short of a total takeover is highly undesirable. Growing incremental influence can already be seen in federal grant programs that require the following of federal guidelines for funding and the federal and local task forces run and paid for with federal tax dollars. 

The 1033 program that shares military equipment with state and local law enforcement has drawn attention as the militarization of civilian police forces comes under scrutiny. Such programs make otherwise unaffordable military equipment of questionable appropriateness in a civilian setting easily obtained by local law enforcement and put a federal footprint on wherever the equipment arrives. While local interest and economic limitations do not play a role in the initial acquisition of this military equipment when the federal government supplies local law enforcement with the implements of war for free, the local community is stuck with the bills associated with maintaining the equipment they may not even have wanted. With full-time annual maintenance of an MRAP estimated between $48,000 and $131,000, costs for the “free” equipment are a far cry from an oil change and tires on a police cruiser.   

The Department of Justice’s use of consent decrees that give the federal government direct oversight of local police departments are another form of federal creep into local issues. 

While proponents of the system rightly point to the use of consent decrees in the protection of civil rights, recent investigations and potential development of consent decrees in Baltimore and Chicago can often appear to be a reaction to singular high profile incidents. The possibility of federal oversight for any city is deeply concerning for those who still value local control of their police.

Federal legislation placing mandates on policing can take away much of state and local influence that a profession like policing must have. Even outwardly supportive legislation such as the “Back the Blue” bills being talked about, which would make killing a police officer punishable in the federal court system, should be viewed with a healthy scrutiny. 

As a retired police officer, I am grateful that such a bill would be supported because it demonstrates an appreciation for those dedicated serve their communities and make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of that service. But there is an enormous caveat that comes with that. 

Many of our states do not have a death penalty, for any offense, as a result of the will of the people in thoseindividual sovereignstates. A federal death penalty overrides that state sovereignty, and is counterproductive to keeping the police a reflection of, representative of, and dedicated to their local communities.

The federal government should not feel the compulsion to fully engage an issue simply because there have been some protests. Protests are precisely the tool the First Amendment anticipated through the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances. Such protests should facilitate healthy debate, and reform if needed, at the state and local level. The federal government is not wanted or needed to fix it. 

Police practices in Anchorage are going to look different than those in Austin. It absolutely should remain that way, as citizens in both communities would not have it any other way.  

Randy Petersen is a senior researcher for Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.


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