OK, let police take back the streets, but be mighty careful

Gregory P. Kane

October 16, 1992|By Gregory P. Kane

CHARLES F. Milland, a lieutenant in the Baltimore Police Department and the legislative chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police, has written a provocative proposal to "Let Baltimore police take back the streets" (Other Voices, Sept. 9).

Lt. Milland would have us "Give [the] police the go-ahead on getting the thugs and their dope and their drugs off the streets. Have the mayor and City Council tell commissioner Edward V. Woods to inform his men and women that for a certain time, say 30 days, no complaints against police officers will be entertained by the Police Department for frisking suspicious people on the streets or for searching vehicles suspected of containing drugs or weapons. Tell [the] police that in the event someone sues an officer and wins a judgment against him or her for such a complaint, the city of Baltimore will cover the legal expenses and the judgment."

It sounds like the lieutenant is asking us to install a police state and suspend civil liberties for a period of 30 days.

I suppose I shouldn't object, since for years I've said the country has two distinctly distasteful alternatives in the drug war. The first is to curtail civil liberties until the drug problem is under control. The second is to legalize drugs. Our current drug crisis is the result of our collective gutlessness in choosing one of these two options and of our delusion that we can actually have a free society and a drug-free society at the same time.

But do we want a society with no guarantee of civil liberties and where police are answerable to no one and have a blank check to do what they want? That would give police powers no one else has -- not the president, Congress, the Supreme Court, governors, mayors or city and state legislatures. It's one thing, for example, for Congress to pass a law suspending habeas corpus for known drug dealers, for the president to sign the law and the Supreme Court to uphold it. It's quite another for police to have carte blanche to arrest virtually anyone they want, despite Lt. Milland's assurance that police "know who the criminals are."

In fact, Lt. Milland's assurance might be cause for some debate. Though I'm sure the lieutenant would object, for some officers "knowing who the criminals are" amounts to nothing more than using this equation: Expensive Car + Black Man Driving Expensive Car = Black Man Must Be Drug Dealer. Black actors Wesley Snipes and Blair Underwood have been stopped by Los Angeles cops who make use of this equation. Black athletes have been similarly victimized. Closer to home, there is anecdotal evidence that black reporters and even black police officers are not immune to the equation's effect.

But unfortunately, public safety may force us to bid adieu to civil liberties and implement Lt. Milland's plan. So I say adopt it, with the following modifications:

1. In addition to the city of Baltimore paying the legal expenses and judgment if a citizen successfully sues a police officer, let's have someone from the Police Department issue a public apology if it is determined that the plaintiff was guilty of no crime. Police work isn't an exact science. Some innocent people are bound to be caught in the maelstrom of police state action that Lt. Milland purposes. When the system screws up, someone should offer a public apology. Someone like, say, Lt. Charles F. Milland.

2. The Baltimore Police Department will make every effort to rid the streets of those officers with KKK mentalities who operate on the premise of the above equation. Give them desk jobs. Give them administrative duties. But get them out of circulation. This should be easy. To paraphrase Lt. Milland, the police "know who such cops are."

One final caveat. In Lt. Milland's zeal to plead his case, he made use of the specious cliche, "[The] legal system . . . seems more concerned with the rights of hoodlums than with the ability of honest folks to walk the streets in safety."

The rights to which Lt. Milland refers are not "the rights of hoodlums." They are the rights of defendants and the accused. "I hear much of people's calling out to punish the guilty, but very few are concerned to clear the innocent," the English journalist -- and novelist Daniel Defoe once observed. The rights Lt. Milland would assign exclusively to hoodlums are in place precisely to help clear the innocent. They belong to all of us.

The four officers who bludgeoned Rodney King into submission used those same rights to get themselves acquitted. Should we abolish these rights, we'd better understand that they will be abolished for all of us.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.

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