Talk to someone who has never dealt with the cops about police behaving badly, and they will inevitably say, “But they can’t do that! Can they?”
Well yes, they can. And truth be told, the police can do anything they want and you are powerless to stop them. Unless you want to get beaten, shot or killed.
The question of what the cops can or can’t do is natural enough for someone who never deals with cops, especially if their inexperience is due to class and/or race privilege. In short, the cops can do almost anything they want, and often the most outrageous tactics are completely legal.
There are many reasons for this, but three historical developments stand out: the war on drugs provided the template for social control based on race; 9/11 gave federal and local officials the opportunity to ensnare Muslims (and activists) in the ever-increasing surveillance and incarceration state; and a lack of concern from the public at large means these tactics can be applied, often controversy-free, to anyone who resists them.
What follows are 10 of the innumerable tactics the police can use against a population that often refuses to believe this can happen.
1. Infiltration, informants, and monitoring. The NYPD’s Demographics Unit has engaged in a massive surveillance program directed at Muslims throughout the entire Northeast region, ignoring jurisdictional limitations and acting as a secret police and intelligence gathering agency – a regional FBI of sorts. Muslims are not the only group that has been targeted. The AP reported that the NYPD has also infiltrated liberal groups and protest organizers. Other cases of entrapment of activists, such as the NATO 5 and the Cleveland 5, are also troubling. The AP quoted Donna Lieberman in November 2011, who said, “It’s really not clear that people can do anything if they’ve been subjected to unlawful surveillance anymore.”
2. Warrantless home surveillance. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that it is legal for a law enforcement agent to enter your house and videotape you without your consent. The case, United States v. Wahchumwah, revolved around a U.S. Fish and Wildlife undercover agent who recorded Wahchumwah without a warrant. The Ninth Circuit found the search to be “voluntary.” The Ninth Circuit isn’t the only one who thinks warrantless video surveillance is perfectly OK.
3. Preemptive visits and harassment. A favorite tactic of police departments is targeting activists a day before a large event. We saw this on May Day in New York City, as cops descended on several activists’ apartments before the day of action, and in Chicago before the massive No NATO protests. The Cleveland 5 were also arrested before May Day, and back in 2008 the RNC8 were also preemptively arrested.
4. Creating call logs from stolen phones. If you lose your phone in NYC and report it to the police, they’ll help you find it. So far, so good. Where the agreement turns pear-shaped, however, is what they do with your call logs. The NYPD subpoenas your call log from the day it was stolen onward, under the logic that the records could help find your phone. The call logs, all obtained without a court order and often without the victim’s permission or knowledge, could “conceivably be used for any investigative purpose,” according to the New York Times.
5. Consent searches. Sometimes a cop gives you a command, but phrases it as a question: “Would you open your bag so I can look inside?” You’re under no lawful obligation to answer in the affirmative. You can, legally speaking, ask if you are being detained, and if the answer is no, you are free to walk away. Or at the very least, not open your bag. Cops are aware that they can intimidate someone they decide to search, and once they obtain “consent”, any evidence of criminality they find can be used in court. A common tactic is for officers to say they’ll let someone off with a warning, then proceed to ask a bunch of questions, even though the person is technically free to go.
6. Stop and frisk. For years this odious tactic – and the close cousin to consent searches – went woefully underreported in establishment media. The NYCLU released staggering statistics for the year 2011 detailing the massive size of the program in New York City. One particularly memorable figure was that the NYPD stopped more young men of color than there are men of color in NYC. (More information at stopmassincarceration.org.)
7. Pretext stops (Operation Pipeline). The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that cops are free to use minor traffic violations as a pretext to pull over people they suspect of committing drug crimes. Once pulled over, the police obtain “consent” – “Would you get out of the car and empty your pockets?” – and can go on fishing expeditions. In the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ohio v. Robinette, “The Court made clear to all lower courts that, from now on, the Fourth Amendment should place no meaningful constraints on the police in the War on Drugs,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. The Court determined that cops don’t have to tell motorists they’re free to leave before getting “permission” to search their car.
8. Police dogs. Don’t consent to cops searching your bag? If you’re in a car or an airport, police can bring in the dogs to smell your stuff, and if the dog responds, they have probable cause to search you without your consent. “The Supreme Court has ruled that walking a drug-sniffing dog around someone’s vehicle (or someone’s luggage) does not constitute a ‘search,’ and therefore does not trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny,” Michelle Alexander writes. But if a dog barks or sits, shouldn’t we be comfortable with that triggering probable cause? Radley Balko has reported on the phenomenon of drug dogs giving false positives after reading cues from their handlers.
9. Surveillance drones. The drones are coming, and the few illusions of privacy we have will soon disappear. The domestic market for drones in the next decade is estimated in the billions, and police departments are chomping at the bit to implement this new technology. Drones already patrol the US-Mexico border, and cities such as Seattle are moving toward using surveillance drones. In August, a North Dakota court ruled that the first-ever drone-assisted arrest was perfectly legal. In our ever more authoritarian society, expect politicians and the lobbyists who fund their campaigns to justify increased incursions into privacy in the name of security. The short-term incentives to value privacy have been all but forgotten, as “if you’re not doing anything wrong you’ve got nothing to fear” has gone from self-evidently absurd cliché to national motto.
10. Enlist the private sector. In Arizona, police enlisted the help of the Corrections Corporation of America, a private, for-profit prison corporation, in a drug sweep of a public school. PRWatch reports:
“To invite for-profit prison guards to conduct law enforcement actions in a high school is perhaps the most direct expression of the ‘schools-to-prison pipeline’ I’ve ever seen,” said Caroline Isaacs, program director of the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social justice organization that advocates for criminal justice reform.
The privatization of nearly all aspects of public life, from education to law enforcement, is a trend we should all find disturbing, not least of all when a company that profits from locking humans in cages is directly involved in the arrest process.
The larger point here is obvious. In the last decade, the Bill of Rights has been shredded at the federal level and the local level. There are few constraints on police, FBI, NSA, and private intelligence companies when it comes to surveillance of the public. That many of these programs and tactics are discretionary exacerbates and magnifies conscious and subconscious racist and classist attitudes among those who carry them out.
There are many more outrageous tactics in their unethical bag of tricks but the problem is that most Americans refuse to believe it, until their civil rights are violated. And if you are sitting there thinking that it could never happen to you, just give them time, eventually they will get to you.
Read more from our sources:10 Outrageous Tactics Cops Get Away With