by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director (updated on 6/12/15)
Imagine your local police department wants to obtain a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle (MRAP). Leaving aside the obvious question of why a local police department would need this vehicle, in a system where the people make the rules, one would think that the department would need approval from the peoples’ representatives, right? Wrong. Throughout the Commonwealth, law enforcement agencies have obtained and deployed military grade weapons and vehicles and intrusive surveillance technologies without approval from state or local governing bodies. Move along, move along – nothing to see here, folks.
The problem is much deeper than the specific weapons or surveillance technologies involved. The issue is who gets to decide how a community will be policed and what weapons, equipment, and procedures will be used to do the policing. It shouldn’t be the prerogative of a local law enforcement official to acquire an MRAP, automated license plate reader, or even body cameras. The acquisition of materials and the procedures and policies governing their deployment should be guided by elected officials who represent us – the people being policed.  As we’ve said before, in a democracy the people make the rules.
The increased militarization of our state and local police has distanced them from the communities they serve, and fear is the additive that has been used to catalyze the division. Ignored is the question whether it’s appropriate for law enforcement agencies to decide without civilian oversight to obtain and deploy combat tested equipment. Instead we hear the argument that we must choose between our safety and our freedom. Spokespeople for law enforcement justify policies that enable law enforcement to collect and store personal information about law-abiding Virginians on the grounds that “hey, you never know when we might need that to protect you.” They hope a little fear will make us forget our original question – what happened to the serve part of “protect and serve.”
Fortunately, the fear card has a limit. As we wrote last month, recent changes to the way the federal government transfers military equipment to state and local police departments now require that state or local governing bodies approve any law enforcement request for transfers of federal military equipment. We’ve also seen positive action at the local level. For example, last year the Ashland Police Department wanted to retain all data collected from its ALPRs for 24 hours. The Chief did the right thing – he brought this proposal to the Town Council for their approval, which they rejected.
But, while we’ve achieved some successes, we’re fighting a mindset, not policies. Under this mindset, law enforcement actions are not subject to review. This makes progress much more difficult. As we saw three years ago when Virginia became the first state to pass a moratorium on the use of drones, a provision that would have required law enforcement to obtain approval from a state or local government body before they could acquire a drone was stripped from the final bill. This is a pattern that has become frustratingly familiar as we’ve worked to rein in the surveillance state.
What should be non-negotiable is that, like our own national military and our Virginia national guard, state and local police should be responsible to civilian authority when it comes to the policies, procedures, and tools used in policing our communities. Fear should not be allowed to deter us from demanding that elected officials exert their authority to require law enforcement to obtain their consent for use of force policies and other policies that define police/community interactions. Fear should not be allowed to deter us from demanding that elected officials take seriously their oversight and budget responsibilities and use them to authorize or constrain deployment of surveillance technologies and military style equipment. Fear should not drive us to accept wholesale compromise of our privacy in the name of increased security. As we’ve said before, without privacy from government we have no liberty, and in a democracy the people make the rules.
Want to stay informed about our work to ensure a transparent and accountable government?  Continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook and Twitter for breaking news!  And, sign up to be a grassroots advocate.