Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 16, 2013

We must take a serious look at our laws and how they are enforced

Most people are for law and order, and most obey the laws that keep society functioning. And most have great respect for the men and women who have the sometimes-dangerous job of enforcing those laws.

That said, some laws are just plain dumb and should be done away with, and what is more important, there are so many laws, rules and regulations today that no one can know all the decrees from the federal, state and local governments that affect him or her, and therefore it is impossible to obey them all. This over-regulated environment puts each of us in the position of likely being in violation of one or more of them at any given moment.

What’s worse than so many decrees from so many sources, however, is what seems to be a growing tendency of law enforcement agencies at all levels to imagine that even tiny infractions warrant the most dramatic responses.

Case in point: After making a purchase at a Charlottesville, Va., grocery store one night, a 20-year-old University of Virginia student and two roommates were approached in their car by a group of six men and one woman in street clothes. “They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” she recalled in a written account of the incident.

Police say one of the group jumped on the hood of her car. The girl said one drew a gun, and they tried to break out car windows. Unsure who they were, the girl tried to flee the dark parking lot and called 911. Given the circumstances and stories of people being assaulted by phony police officers, who could blame her?

It turned out to be a squad of plainclothes state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers who suspected the girl had purchased beer in the store — she hadn’t — and was underage. She spent the night in jail as a result.

Question: Who at the ABC thought this procedure actually made sense? Is it reasonable for a squad of plainclothes agents to approach three female college students in a dark parking lot, fail to adequately identify themselves, point a gun at them, jump on their car and try to break out the windows because they think one of them had bought beer that she might not be old enough to purchase?

Prosecutors dropped charges against the young woman, describing her as having panicked at the sight of plainclothes agents who approached her and her roommates.

Case 2: When the Leander, Texas, police wanted to serve a warrant on Bradly Simpson, they sent officers to his home. When no one responded to the knock on the front door, a couple of officers walked around the side of the house toward the back yard whereupon they saw two German shepherds coming toward them. One officer pulled his gun and fired three shots. The police said the dog was growling and aggressively coming at them. Fortunately, the officer’s aim was not good and only one of the dogs was hit, but only wounded.

After that spectacle, the police were unable to serve the warrant because they were at the wrong address, and in the wrong neighborhood. Worse than that, not far from where the dog was shot the home owners’ terminally-ill 6 year-old grandchild was playing.

Worse, yet, the homeowners said neither dog was aggressive, that they were merely curious about who was visiting their home, and had never behaved the way the police claimed. And, as it turns out, the lady of the house is a professional dog trainer, and therefore knows about dog behavior, and furthermore noted that there are routinely customers visiting her home, so strangers don’t spook her dogs.

And what heinous crime prompted the police to go to Mr. Simpson’s home to serve the warrant? He had an expired vehicle registration.

Leander police officials say what happened was “an unfortunate accident.” Wrong: What happened is that the police screwed up.

The number of rogue law enforcement personnel that intentionally abuse their authority and position is surely very small. Nevertheless, instances of over-aggressive law enforcement action and plain dumb mistakes like these are indefensible and intolerable, and there appears to be a growing attitude toward over-aggressive behavior.  

To maintain the public trust and respect government and law enforcement are going to have to stop doing stupid and dangerous things like these examples, and even worse incidents that have caused serious injury and even death for innocent citizens.

Solutions? Do we really need so many law enforcement officers that seven of them can spend nights sitting around in one store parking lot waiting to catch an underage person buying beer? Does an expired registration really justify armed police visiting the vehicle owner’s home?

What about accountability? Officials that exercise bad judgment or act rashly must be disciplined, encouraging them to carefully consider how to properly and safely do their jobs, and also demonstrating that public officials really take seriously their duty to adequately serve the people they work for.

Something must be done, and the sooner, the better.

James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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