THE BLOG
12/18/2012 08:50 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

The Police State Comes To Arkansas

Unfortunately, not an exaggeration:

"[Police are] going to be in SWAT gear and have AR-15s around their neck," Stovall said. "If you're out walking, we're going to stop you, ask why you're out walking, check for your ID."

Stovall said while some people may be offended by the actions of his department, they should not be.

"We're going to do it to everybody," he said. "Criminals don't like being talked to."

Gaskill backed Stovall's proposed actions during Thursday's town hall.

"They may not be doing anything but walking their dog," he said. "But they're going to have to prove it." . . .

"This fear is what's given us the reason to do this. Once I have stats and people saying they're scared, we can do this," he said. "It allows us to do what we're fixing to do." . . .

"To ask you for your ID, I have to have a reason," he said. "Well, I've got statistical reasons that say I've got a lot of crime right now, which gives me probable cause to ask what you're doing out. Then when I add that people are scared...then that gives us even more [reason] to ask why are you here and what are you doing in this area." . . .

"Anyone that's out walking, because of the crime and the fear factor, [could be stopped]," he said . . .

Individuals who do not produce identification when asked could be charged with obstructing a governmental operation, according to Stovall.

Here's the least surprising line in the article:

Stovall said he did not consult an attorney before announcing his plans to combat crime.

Stovall added that he realized there was little difference between what he was proposing and martial law--and that he didn't much care.

The mayor and city attorney have apparently walked the idea back, at least a little. But the police chief isn't wavering. And of course it's his cops who will be enforcing the law.

Using SWAT teams for routine patrols isn't uncommon. Fresno did this for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The city sent its Violent Crimes Suppression Unit into poorer neighborhoods and stopped, confronted, questioned, and searched nearly everyone they encountered. "It's a war," one SWAT officer told Christian Parenti in a a report for The Naiton (not available online). Another said, "If you're 21, male, living in one of these neighborhoods, and you're not in our computer, then there's something definitely wrong."

A 1999 report in the Boston Globe found similar units patrolling the streets of Indianapolis and San Francisco, which the reporter noted gave the communities under siege "all the ambiance of the West Bank."

In a 1997 survey, the criminologist Peter Kraska found that about one in five cities in his survey used their SWAT teams for routine patrols. It seems likely that number has fallen since then as the crime rate has dropped (the Fresno VCSU was disbanded in 2002), but it's hard to say for sure. The total number of SWAT teams has only increased since then, as has the number of situations in which they're utilized.

But Stovall's comments show that it isn't so much a rise in crime that allows these sorts of police actions to happen, it's the fear of crime. (Though there has been an actual increase in crime in Paragould.) Back in the early 1970s when Nixon was preparing to impose his new crime bill on Washington, D.C., he ran into a problem. According to FBI data, crime was actually starting to fall in D.C. Nixon's strategy was to make D.C. the "model city" to show off his tough anti-crime policies. The fact that crime was already falling presented two problems: 1) It could make the city less fearful, resulting in less pressure on Congress to push through his bill, and 2) it would make it more difficult for Nixon to claim credit for any crime drop in the city later. So Nixon's Justice Department sat on the figures. They refused to release them until after they had won on Capitol Hill.

The fear of crime is ever-present, even when crime isn't. For example, despite the fact that the crime rate has been dropping dramatically for nearly 20 years*--to historic lows--70 percent of Americans still think crime is getting worse.

I'm sure the cable news obsession with sensational crime stories and the emergence of tragedy vultures like Nancy Grace have a lot to do with it. Long-developing trends like the crime drop by definition aren't daily news. Crime is, even when it's down. I've seen it stated over and over in the Newtown coverage that mass shootings are on the rise. As I pointed out in the morning links, there is no evidence for that, and in fact the numbers suggest they're on the wane. They happen so infrequently that there simply aren't enough data points to say for certain.

Unfortunately, empirical data aren't nearly as compelling as images of victims and mug shots of scary-looking criminals. And like Nixon, today's politicians and law enforcement officials know that you don't pass new laws and give the police new powers by assuaging public fear. You get these things by stoking it.

(*There was a slight uptick in the crime figures in 2011, driven mostly by an increase in minor assaults.)

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