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Archive for Sunday, July 27, 2003

Everyone is a watchdog for local police

July 27, 2003

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We have to be our own watchdogs. Recently, the ACLU publicly suggested the formation of a citizens group in Lawrence to watch the police. My initial reaction was that it wouldn't do any harm. Then, on Sunday, July 13, the J-W proposed that if such a group were formed it should include broad, citywide representation. That's when it struck me that the whole thing is a bad idea.

Two reasons: First, no one can be relied upon to protect our freedoms for us -- all of us, no, each of us, is responsible for doing that job; second, there already is a fully representative "watch" group responsible to oversee the police, we don't need another.

I'm guessing this proposal has something to do with the recent case involving a Lawrence undercover narcotics cop who signed an affidavit that was used to obtain a search warrant that one of our judges later found was not completely truthful. The judge dismissed the case and the cop was eventually fired. All of that is good. It's good because even slight dishonesty by the police is a serious problem and harms our system of justice. Quick and public punishment of police misconduct is important. Apparently the judge did his job. That's why we have judges, to protect us from each other, but most importantly, to stand between us and government and, very specifically, overzealous or dishonest police.

But that event doesn't mean all cops are bad, or that because a judge dismissed a case and a cop was fired that the problem has been solved. Ideals and absolutes never seem to occur in this world. The job will never be finished. Good police have to work hard every day to be good police, and citizens and judges have to work hard every day to do their jobs.

So back to the two reasons I think a broadly representative citizens' group is a bad idea. Each of us is responsible for paying attention to what government and, specifically, the police do. Each of us must watch carefully whenever the power of government is used to restrict the freedom of any fellow citizen. Simply -- be careful, I'm going poetic here -- it's because a little bit of light comes from each of our eyes when we are watchful.

If no one is watching, what happens, happens in the dark. When only a few are watching, the light is correspondingly dim. But when we are all watchful, all of us vigilant and paying attention, the collective light we cast upon any scene brightens such that what occurs (and again, I'm waxing poetic) occurs under a sunny sky, in broad daylight. Things we know: All of us act better, more honorably, more honestly, out in the open, in broad daylight. Most of the things each of us has done, of which we are embarrassed or ashamed, we did when we thought no one was looking.

If we form a citizens watch group, and then formalize it, we will necessarily come to rely upon it to do what we are all supposed to be doing: watch. Complacency is so comfortable, so easy. But the ultimate tragedy and catastrophe which results from it is too well known to ignore.

How many eyes illuminated events when German police gathered Jewish citizens and took them away? How many American eyes illuminated the detention of Japanese Americans in 1942? Not enough. It's not good enough to protest, after the fact, that you "didn't know" when your business is to know. To paraphrase Jacob Marley's ghost, "My business? Mankind was my business."

As to a fully representative "watch" group, we already have one; we don't need two. The district attorney and her office is the first member of that group. Her job, first and foremost, is to protect private citizens from oppression by government. When we go to the ballot box our first question should be whether the DA's office is doing that job.

But there are other members of the elected "watch" group. We have city commissioners who hire and pay our police. They're also on the elected "watch" group. When they learn of police misconduct they need to take action, and if they don't, we need to be watchful and "unelect" them.

Finally, the last member of the elected "watch" group is the judge. The judge stands as the final guard against police misconduct. We need judges who consider themselves to be independent from the police and prosecution. We need judges who feel responsible for enforcing the laws of our government, even on the government itself, including the police. Recent experience in Lawrence tells us the judges and commissioners are doing their jobs. We just need to keep doing ours.

-- Bill Skepnek is a Lawrence attorney.

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