Upholding the Law Together

The following are excerpts from ACLU President Nadine Strossen's interview with The Law Enforcement Magazine. Reprinted with permission. By Sergeant Dean Scoville, Los Angeles CountySheriff's Department.

POLICE: Historically, the relationship between the police and the ACLU has been considered one of natural enemies. Why do you think that is?

STROSSEN: I don't have that atti- tude at all, and I'm sorry to hear that you think that certain police officers might have it. To me, the law en- forcement community and the ACLU support the same goal, which is up- holding the law.

The particular aspects of the law that we in the ACLU are most con- cerned about are constitutional rights and other legal sources that support individual freedom. But I do see law enforcement officers as taking an oath to do the same thing. By protecting our basic safety, that is, our freedom from assaults and our ability to walk the streets in peace and tranquility, they contribute towards the same goals that I think we do.

POLICE: Still, there are concerns that these liberties are perhaps elusive; recent polls have indicated that people would be willing to forego certain liberties to feel safer.

STROSSEN: I think that people's perceptions are extremely important. Basically, what people want is the ability to move freely and to have their peace and tranquility respected. If a criminal intrudes on our bodily integrity or safety or the privacy of our homes or our freedom of movement, then we are, in fact, captives.

On the other hand, if we have the occasional rogue law enforcement officer engaging in brutality or other forms of misconduct or unjustifiably intruding into our privacy through conducting unjustified searches, it is the same kind of problem.

To have effective law enforcement that protects our liberties, but respects these same liberties in the process, are two sides of the very same coin.

POLICE: This "occasional rogue law enforcement officer" has left a costly legacy for the rest of us. But the ACLU has historically supported various police watchdog groups-.

STROSSEN: We have defended fundamental rights for everybody, including law enforcement officers and including those whose rights are violated by law enforcement officers, often within the very same case. Take the Rodney King case. The ACLU, of course, was opposed to what we and others saw as excessive force in that situation.

But we also-and I think here we were in a very rarefied crowd; I don't know if anybody else supported this position-felt that the double-jeopardy rights of the convicted law enforcement officers had been violated by re-prosecution in federal court.

Our view was that once acquitted, that was the end of it. They shouldn't have been subject to a re-prosecution, let alone to a conviction and imprisonment. That's typical of what we do. We don't make a judgement about who you are, or what your political or religious beliefs are.

Our view is that no matter who you are, you are entitled to certain fundamental rights, and nobody may violate those rights, be it a law enforcement officer, the President of the United States, or a politically popular jury trial.

POLICE: The ACLU has not only supported these various watchdog groups and organizations, including Amnesty International, but has also called for the federal establishment of a new one.

STROSSEN: The call for a watch- dog organization to monitor all governmental officials is not neces- sarily to be critical. It is to see that these individuals abide by their oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution. Are you saying that there is something wrong with our monitoring Congress, and keeping a watch on how they cast their votes, or monitoring and criticizing the president? I think the same thing has to be done at every level of law enforcement, including individual officers.

POLICE: I might agree with you in theory. But if the only answer to "who watches the watchmen" is an outside entity, then what safeguards should likewise be implemented to protect these same watchmen from political witch hunts as well?

STROSSEN: Absolutely, I think we have to constantly have monitoring of monitors. One of the most important functions of the press in our society is to do that. In my view, nobody is above reproach. Just the fact that something comes out in a report from Amnesty International, doesn't mean that I'm automatically going to believe it. I'm going to look at it skeptically and scrutinize it, just the way I would with respect to an internal police document or anything else that I read.

But, you and I would have to agree, I would assume, that if some- thing comes from an internal source, one assumes that it is likely to be less critical. Let me turn the tables around. Suppose Amnesty International said, we're going to monitor ourselves, so we have this internal unit that reports on the accuracy of our reports that criticize the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

Aren't you going to look at that a lot more skeptically than you would if it came from an outside entity that didn't have a political or self- justificatory axe to grind?

POLICE: Perhaps, but we in law enforcement have a vested interest in remaining objective, if only because of possible civil and criminal repercussions that might accrue later, should some kind of cover-up come to light. History has borne that out again and again.

STROSSEN: But history has borne out again and again that internal investigations do lead to whitewashes . . . I think there is just something in human nature that tends to try to cover up and not air one's dirty laundry in public.

POLICE: Are there any particular thoughts that you'd like to share with law enforcement officers?

STROSSEN: Yes. I have debated former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates a number of times. We get along very well, and I think it's fair to say there's mutual respect there.

Of course, we disagree on certain policy issues, although ironically, some of them are not predictable.

For me, the ACLU has always supported increased police presence. For example, a while ago one of the mayors of New York City wanted to cut back on the number of police officers. The New York Civil Liber- ties Union objected to that. In my debates with Daryl, he opposed increasing the number of officers on patrol and instead advocated harsher penalties for convicted criminals.

Yet, I say that if you're going to increase people's sense of safety and actually protect them-which is something that I believe is very important, being an urban dweller myself-I think it's more helpful to increase the number of police officers who can deter and detect crimes. I think that is more useful in protecting the public and promoting a sense of safety then an increase in the punishment for the relatively few offenders who are now apprehended.

While the ACLU has, and I'm proud of it, strongly criticized bru- tality and excessive force, I always made the point that I know that it is a small minority who engage in those practices within any force, including the LAPD. I'm not just paying lip service to that point. I really do believe that the vast majority who are doing this work are conscientious and upright and have integrity.

I think it's really important to keep in perspective that even when there is a terrible instance of brutality, we shouldn't generalize negatively about all police officers.

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