“I DON’T HAVE a gun. Stop shooting!” were the last words of Michael Brown, 18 years old, before he was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The events of Ferguson are surreal, dream-like for me. I cannot imagine how much more serious the situation is on the ground. What I see is a hundred pieces at play, coming to fruition, culminating in disaster. Ferguson is not the result of a linear, easy-to-follow, recent chain of events. No. It is the apex of independently moving parts with perverted incentives.
The War on Drugs is one of them. In its expansive influence, the drug war has exacerbated the racism found in our democratic institutions and deeply wounded our civil liberties, from incarcerating almost 100,000 people for non-violent drug offenses — African-Americans the majority — to Fourth-Amendment-violating wiretappings, no-knock raids, checkpoints, and asset seizures for mere suspicion of a crime.
And then there’s the military equipment acquisition. Mostly funded by federal grants, not local taxpayer dollars, mind you, civilian police departments have amassed a conglomeration of military-grade equipment, including Lenco BearCats received by Keene and Concord. Use it or lose it — that’s a clause in the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program 3. Google it.
Of course, the Ferguson insanity hasn’t happened in New Hampshire, not even remotely. We’d all be shocked that it ever could. The same statistics that show the unfortunate condition of the rest of the country, in regards to incarceration rates and police abuses, show nothing in the same order of magnitude here. And we have one of the lowest crime rates in the country. That’s the New Hampshire advantage.
We have both the freedom this state offers and the public service of our police officers to thank for that. The officer’s job is one of the most important jobs in our community. The officer, having the full force of the law behind him, must use his power judiciously. Not only does he have to encounter, regularly, in his daily grind, possibly dangerous, unknown conditions, protecting our livelihoods and property, he must also protect himself. The officer must react quickly, accurately, and with little prejudice to real-time, potentially violent, situations. I cannot imagine the mental gymnastics required to ensure that one does not fall on the wrong side of justice.
But as Ferguson shows us, accountability is necessary. It means trust. It means a community can feel safe and flourish. What happens when it is the police officer who violates the law. What happens if the officer gets something seriously wrong and morally out-of-whack? How is this handled? What is the culpability of those responsible?
Oh sure, there’s the Internal Affairs investigation, readily available, and “right on cue.” But rarely is an officer reprimanded in accordance with the crime committed. He usually gets taxpayer-paid leave. We have seen this in New Hampshire.
We must recognize that while we may have a system that effectively executes the law, we have an abysmal feedback mechanism determining its effectiveness and proof of quality. Is justice really working as we expect it? If Ferguson shows us anything (and in continuing with New Hampshire’s tradition of protecting civil liberties), practical measures that protect both the police officer and the citizen need to be considered.
In 2012, the town of Rialto, Calif., passed a law requiring police officers to wear a body-mounted camera the size of a pager, recording everything that transpires between them and the citizens. In the law’s first year, “the use of force by officers declined 60 percent, and citizen complaints against police fell 88%,” The Wall Street Journal reported. My God. A political solution with results? That’s something rare these days, and one New Hampshire should seriously consider.
A law like Rialto’s significantly changes the psychology and relationship between law enforcement and the citizens. And it provides full-video accountability. It offers a complete record of events, from the police officer’s point of view, outfitted as standard equipment, without any unnecessary, inappropriate interference while he performs his duties to protect and serve.
Ferguson didn’t happen overnight. This is something systemic; it’s been brewing for decades.
A discussion is needed, and not any “we’ll get to it later” baloney. Let’s nip this one in the bud. It is important to me that New Hampshire offers the right balance between helping law enforcement better protect us, and the responsibility that comes with such power.
I’m running for the state House and, this matters to me.
Andre Rosa of Manchester is a Republican candidate for state House in Hillsborough District 8.