In the wake of the Baltimore riots, Al Sharpton is calling for the federal takeover of local police. Like most ideas from the loathsome Rev. Sharpton, this is a lousy one. But since federalizing local police is actually an Obama administration idea, it’s worth paying a bit more attention.
The idea behind federal supervision of local police forces is that it will make them more accountable. Instead of a bunch of presumptively racist, violent hicks running things on a local level, we’ll see the cool professionalism of the national government in charge.
There are (at least) two problems with this approach. The first is that federal law enforcement, especially in recent years, hasn’t exactly been a haven of cool professionalism. The second is that no law enforcement agency is very good at policing itself, meaning that a national police force is likely to be less accountable, not more. And there’s a third problem, too, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
To believe that a federalized approach to policing would be an improvement over the current system, you’d have to ignore an awful lot of misbehavior by federal law enforcement lately. There’s the scandal with the Secret Service and hookers just before Obama’s trip to Colombia. There’s the entirely separate scandal with the Drug Enforcement Agency and hookers (hookers paid for by Colombia drug lords, no less). There’s the fact that the Secret Service’s hooker-scandal investigator had to resign amid a scandal of his own. There’s the Secret Service’s alleged attempt to use a fraudulent warrant in an effort to search a house illegally. There are the federal agents charged with stealing Bitcoins during a criminal investigation, and, of course, the laughable inability of the entire Homeland Security apparatus to keep a postal worker’s gyrocopter away from the Capitol despite advance notice.
The FBI, meanwhile, used bogus forensic evidence to convict thousands based on the questionable, if not outright dishonest, say-so of its forensic lab, and, most significantly, didn’t admit the problem for years, letting many potentially innocent people rot in jail. In one case, a man, Santae Tribble, spent 28 years in prison after FBI analysts said that a single hair found at a crime scene was one of his, when in fact it came from a dog.
They’re not very good at keeping up with guns, either. An FBI agent’s sniper rifle was stolen from his car days before an Obama visit, and — right under the eyes of Congress — Capitol Police keep leaving their guns in bathrooms — three times this year, including once in House Speaker John Boehner’s private bathroom, where the gun was found by a visiting child. Then there’s the Capitol Police’s questionable shooting of Miriam Carey after she made a U-turn at a checkpoint in D.C.
Which brings us to the second problem: These police agencies aren’t very good at policing themselves. But at least there’s the possibility that other police agencies might investigate them more thoroughly. The Secret Service agents in Nashville who requested their phony warrant were busted by the local police chief; the Baltimore police will be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. But unify all these police agencies under one umbrella and they’ll do what guilty bureaucrats tend to do — hide the evidence, then investigate themselves and proclaim themselves blameless.
The third problem with unifying police authority under a national umbrella is that it’s much more prone to political abuse by the party in power. As we’ve seen with the IRS — which, interestingly, shows little interest in frequent White House visitor Al Sharpton’s unpaid taxes — federal bureaucrats are all too willing to serve the interests of their political masters even when doing so violates the law. Putting most law enforcement in the hands of diverse state and local authorities helps limit the potential for abuse. Putting everything under federal control, on the other hand, magnifies it.
Instead, if we’re really serious about increasing law enforcement accountability, we should end civil service protections for federal employees, while outlawing public employee unions. We should also abolish governmental immunity for federal, state, and local employees, forcing them to face civil lawsuits for illegal behavior, just as the rest of us must do.
Instead of centralizing law enforcement, we should promote decentralization, and accountability. Accountability is a good thing. Sharpton should try it some time.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself.