Demilitarization of the police is now a watchword, which is all to the good. But we can do better. Before I elaborate, I’d like to note that thus far the most substantive statement on this affair comes from no less than Senator Rand Paul, in no less than TIME Magazine. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill took a creditable stand on demilitarization. Nancy Pelosi had an adequate statement, short and sweet. Somewhat surprisingly, Elizabeth Warren offered pablum. And lastly, President Obama was as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.
There has been some chatter about conservatives who routinely rail against an over-bearing government being missing in action, including from yours truly. In fact it is possible to find statements from the Right (or from libertarians, who often reject descriptions like ‘right-wing’ or conservative) that have been critical of police misconduct (see S.E. Cupp’s Twitter feed). Rarely, however, have these been from Republican office-holders. I look forward to a spirited competition between the parties to see who can get religion on this issue first.
An incident like this can be a point of departure for a discussion of related policy issues. Justice needs to be done in the Michael Brown case, but we should go beyond talk of healing and a narrow focus on the shooting. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
On demilitarization, there should be an immediate moratorium on Federal transfer of military gear and equipment to state and local police agencies. Armored vehicles should be returned to the Department of Defense. They can be melted down and made into cute trolley cars or converted into awesome giant ice cream trucks.
The abuse of SWAT teams should be the subject of an independent study, comparable in scale to the Kerner Commission. The national SWAT scandal was well-explored by Radley Balko, who transitioned from blogging to a column at the Washington Post.
The Federal government should repeal all mandatory minimum sentencing laws that needlessly expand the U.S. prison population, one of the largest in the world.
The Department of Justice should compile a log of all Federal prisoners who have been imprisoned for minor drug offenses and President Obama should grant them all pardons. They did this with about 80 people. There have to be several thousand more who could qualify. Federal criminal law pertaining to low-level offenses needs to be slimmed-down.
Criminal offenses for possession of marijuana should be totally eliminated and left to state governments. We could imagine a parallel agenda here for state governments.
The use of private corporations to run prisons bears review, not necessarily because private prisons are guilty of more brutal treatment of inmates, but because their political advocacy has a malign influence on the determination of criminal penalties and the administration of justice.
These are things the Federal government can do. In some cases there has been some movement at DoJ to these ends. There is now an opportunity for that movement to be accelerated.
P.S. Two late additions, from commenters:
Eliminate, or at least radically scale back disenfranchisement of felons. This is a state government thing at present.
Fully fund public defenders, another state government assignment, and Neighborhood Legal Services, a Federal agency that represents the poor in civil cases.