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Perspective: Out-Of-Control Border Patrol?

Author: John Christopher Fine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-09-21
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How do democratic nations deal with terrorism, perceived and real? Actually, the same way a dictatorship does. Freedoms are suspended and civil rights diminished. Martial law can be imposed, free press suspended and false propaganda issued. There is money in war. History has proved that greed instigated more than one world conflict. There is prosperity in peace as the economic boom in Northern Ireland proved once settlement of the troubles occurred.

On the street there is only one arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. It is the heavily armed guardian of justice. If that one person is good, honest and well trained what occurs in the performance of the duties assigned will be correct. If that person is bad, then the virtually unlimited power wielded will cause harm.

To protect themselves government officials rely on secrecy and deny wrongdoing. Rarely has a politician come out and said: ‘I am wrong. I did the wrong thing and made a mistake.’ The Watergate tapes proved that lies, deception, and deniability are key elements in political self-defense. A president lied about his trysting folly in the Oval Office. Another deliberately misled the American people about weapons of mass destruction in order to plunge the nation into war. With the big shots doing it, what about the lowest level of enforcers?

Under U.S. law, anyone who crosses a border is subject to search and detention. We no longer live in an index card world. The computer age enables government to target specific people and follow their movements, travel plans and reservations. Information provided to airlines goes into government computers. The computers are programmed to flag individuals for searches.

When the flagging involves drug traffickers, no American would object. We must protect our nation from the scourge of drug smuggling. A recent case reported the flagging of a person who collected money for a legal defense fund. He was not a defendant but rather a person who raised funds for the defendant’s legal defense in court. The defendant had been accused of leaking information that embarrassed the government and showed duplicity. Most would agree that flagging this legal defense person was an abuse of power. (New York Times)

We respect the individual in the U.S. and have built our society around Constitutional and civil rights. These ideals set our nation apart from many repressive societies. The American citizen, the legal defense fund collector described above, was held at the border on his return from a trip to Mexico. His computer was seized and its files examined for months. The person, detained improperly, filed a lawsuit against the government. That suit was settled in the plaintiff’s favor. (ALCU

What became of the abusive agents responsible for the decision to flag him, search him, and over a long period of time examine his computer files? These federal employees are the ones who should have been held responsible for their actions and disciplined. Where warranted they should have been prosecuted and removed from service.

Abuse of power is rampant. Most events never make the news since ‘nobodies don’t count.’ In one example a local sheriff’s marine patrol intercepted a boat containing alleged illegal immigrants. They notified various agencies in what is now lumped into a wad called Homeland Security. The detainees were brought to a public boat-launching ramp while federal agents of Customs-Border Patrol milled about. This activity took place in a public marina where hundreds of people fish and enjoy water sports, launch their boats and pay for that privilege through taxes.

One U.S. citizen walked past a federal agent en route to her car. In a fashion befitting secret service of dictatorships, she was accosted by a rude and disrespectful agent. If it was because the woman was Hispanic that agent’s conduct is both a criminal and violation of U.S. Civil Rights laws. The agent pursued the person to her car and illegally searched it. Nothing to do with the work they had been called on to perform, no reason for the conduct, rather an intrusion into civil rights of a citizen walking past.

When one agent was asked his name, he pointed to a federal badge embroidered on his shirt and said ‘This is my name.’ Failure to identify one’s self is a serious infraction in most police agencies.

Federal agents swear an oath to support the U.S. Constitution. Some violate it at their whim with absolute power. The connivance of other agents that cover up for them or ‘team’ them when they are wrong is also a major abuse.

It is a minority of abusive law enforcement agents, but they are the ones setting the bad example and giving the public the negative impressions we see on TV and read about in the newspaper. In 1999, a New York City police officer who shoved a toilet plunger into the rectum of a Haitian immigrant (New York Times) . A whole precinct let it happen. People all over the world saw televised results of this torture. Congress must enact severe laws to punish abuse by police and federal agents.  Fellow officers must hold offenders accountable.

Bystanders including civil rights lawyers and activists have filmed police brutality. Some police have tried to arrest them, steal their cameras, and destroy the evidence of misconduct. Little or nothing happens to these abusive officers and agents vested with authority. They have the highest trust a nation can bestow then desecrate the Constitution they swore to serve. Elected government officials must insist that federal and state prosecutors arrest and prosecute rogue police and federal agents. No one is above the law, no one is below the law.

Related story: 

Procedural Justice & Police Legitimacy Training in Chicago: Reaping the Benefits of The Golden Rule


John Christopher Fine served as Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County. He was the Assistant Attorney General In Charge, Organized Crime Task Force and served various state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies. He is the author of 24 books and remains a consultant to law enforcement on national security issues and organized crime, and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.



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