I was distressed to read that, by a large margin, most Americans are not worried by reports that the federal government has been listening in on private telephone conversations. The mood on the nation’s streets is apparently, “ I’m not doing anything wrong so I don’t care if the G-men eavesdrop on my conversations—and neither should you … unless you have something to hide.”That, of course, sets off alarms in my little civil libertarian brain. It is so much like the 1984 George Orwell cautioned us about and the Brave New World Aldous Huxley described that it gives me the willies. It was, remember, pretty much what the “good” Germans told themselves when the gypsies, intellectuals, homosexuals and Jews were successively hauled off to extermination camps … legally … by government agents.The worst aspect of this lack of alarm is just how amazingly easy it has proven to be to get us to surrender our freedom. We’ve rolled over fast and without even much of a squawk.Extending the Patriot Act (now there’s a real misnomer!); giving the White House free reign to detain even American citizens in a military prison at Guantanamo, holding them without charges indefinitely; snooping into every American’s privacy: library records, e-mail accounts, telephone calls …All can be done through the simple expedient of recalling the “9/11” mantra. Like preschool urchins at a Halloween parade, with the least provocation we drop our most basic rights and run away screaming to the safety of Big Brother’s embrace. Patriots? Naw , not by a long shot. More like scaredy cats.But if our countrymen across the United States have, in the “War on Terror,” only the weakest of excuses for selling out, I can’t really think of anything at all that the people of Albuquerque might use as justification for our own abandonment of hard-earned constitutional rights locally. Yet all around us we can observe the officers of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) getting more out of control, seemingly every day, with impunity.Instances of policemen overreaching their authority ought to elicit determined reining in of our law enforcement officers by the elected officials responsible for controlling them. These days, however, it seems more likely that those blowing the whistle on bad cops will themselves catch flak. Their motives will be questioned by elected officials. They will be marginalized by the press. The system will form tightly around the accused policeman to protect him from anything resembling objective public scrutiny.And each time that happens we all lose a little more of our freedom.The most recent ghastly example (out of way, way too many in the past year) was the way family members were treated when an APD police car unaccountably smashed through a concrete block wall in a residential neighborhood on 58 th Street and killed a 74- year-old grandmother sitting outside at midnight on a hot summer night, pinning her to the picnic table on the patio.Relatives were threatened by the first police on the scene; video cameras were confiscated; the victim’s family said they were treated like they were in the wrong. It was not APD’s finest moment. It should have been handled much more openly and the family apologized to much more convincingly.Next Monday night, on June 5, the City Council will be given a report on how our city’s Police Oversight Commission’s (POC’s) operations might be improved. It is a report that has been prepared by a private, outside consultant. The findings haven’t been made public at this writing. And they are only recommendations, remember, not Revealed Truth carved in stone tablets.I don’t know what the findings will cover; don’t have special insights into the consultants’ thinking. But I do know that as it has evolved over the last five years, the POC has not made APD more responsive to citizen rights and to citizen complaints. It has become a black hole into which complaints disappear, a whirling cyclotron devoted to converting community outrage into occasional wrist slaps or tongue clicks.On those rare occasions when the POC has found against the police, the chief has usually taken the position that he has final discretion on discipline … and handled it internally. APD officers are not private entrepreneurs who need protection from the public; they are hired, trained and paid by the public to protect the public’s person, property—and freedoms. So if the consultants have done a professional job, I assume they will be suggesting ways to tighten, not loosen, the oversight function.Unless, however, the Council and mayor who receive those findings have the stomach for the task, the likely result will be yet another dust-gathering report on City Hall shelves. It is an abdication of responsibility for elected officials to fail to protect the citizens from boundary-crossing police officers. There are many ways they can get the message across. An effective and well-supported POC is probably a good one. But if our politicians prove not to have the gumption to stand up to their law enforcement employees; if instead they pander to the Policeman’s Union and the mindless calls for “law and order at all costs,” then we will never be able to build a truly accountable police force in this city. That would neither protect our rights nor make us safer.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.