Militarization of Police in Oklahoma
Jacqui Ford: Welcome to Your Best Defense Podcast. My name is Jacqui Ford, and I’m here in the office today with my friend, Dax Ewbank. Dax, how are you doing today?
Dax Ewbank: Just great. Glad to be here.
JF: Thank you for coming. I think we’re going to talk about, overall, what’s going on in the world today and kind of a broad overviewing topic of the militarization of police and how it’s changing the world that we live in.
JF: And not just within our communities, but within the judicial system and what is oftentimes referred to as the “justice system”. How it’s maybe lacking and doing more harm rather than good.
DE: And it’s happened in recent history, I think, because I’m not that old. I was a high-schooler in the 90s, and I can remember, in our small town, our relationship with our small-town police department was much different than anything that I see today with people—how they relate to the police. Back then, we were the typical teenagers. We’d run around, cause problems, party, and all those kinds of things, and the cops were there, but we knew them by name, they knew us by name, and the biggest threat they would have that would really keep us in line was that they’d go tell our parents what we were up to.
DE: And it worked. And that was the kind of relationship that we had with them. Now, if they needed to arrest somebody, they could. But that rarely happened, and most of the time, the way they kept the community safe was by knowing people. I can still remember one of those guys that literally walked the main street and checked the doors, kind of that old school policing that you read about now but don’t really see anymore. And just in the last 20-25 years, we’ve seen a radical change in the personality of the police and especially that relationship between the police and the public. I think they still try to maintain that “we’re here to help” PR. But when we start to look at—“How do I really feel around a cop? How does the general public really feel around a cop?”—it doesn’t have that same “I’m going to run to you when I’m in trouble” kind of attitude. It’s become more of a “If all else fails, this is the nuclear option”. And it seems like an unfortunate thing, because these are civil servants, and the ideal situation is that these are heroes that will step into a violent situation and put themselves at harm in order to bring peace to whatever the situation is in their community. Yet, because of the way law has changed, because of the way policy has changed, they’ve become more and more of an aggressive force where they’re stepping in before anything violent has happened, before anybody’s been harmed, before any fraud has taken place, before any crime is even known about. We’re seeing this thing where law enforcement is stepping in and kind of initiating an aggressive interaction with the public.
JF: That makes it kind of scary now to interact with law enforcement, and I have this kind of conversation with clients often, and with friends. What do we do moving forward? My law enforcement friends say they feel it’s a war on the police and that the whole world is coming against them. So they’re feeling threatened, and the communities are feeling threatened, and we’re all walking around in fear. This can’t be good for society, and I don’t know where the answer is. I don’t know if we have more police brutality now or if we have more awareness of it because of social media and everybody having a video camera in their purse and pocket. And does it really matter? I don’t know if it does. I don’t know if it makes me feel better that it’s increasing or that it’s always been like this, and now everybody just knows about it, so now we’re offended. I’m not comfortable with either one of those responses, and I don’t know how, as a society, we move forward. And being on the other side of the “us against them”, I’m generally perceived as being very anti-law enforcement. People generally believe that I just hate them. And I think that people that know me well enough know that clearly that’s not true and I have lots of law enforcement in my family. But I do hold them to a level of standard greater than I would hold a regular civilian. I think that you have to.
DE: You have to, especially in our environment because law enforcement is a position created by government. So the policy defines what they are. Whatever government policy is created, that’s what defines what a cop is and what a cop can do. And ultimately, that is what defines the relationship between that created entity and the public. I tend to think that the abuse has gotten worse, especially from the violent, where the police are being more aggressive—anecdotally and from studies that I’ve read (some Radley Balko and other research that I’ve looked at). Let’s look at what used to consist of a felony warrant, or serving up a warrant, or a search warrant. I read a story not too long ago, where it was basically one or two cops would show up—one, if they didn’t think it was going to be a problem, and two if they did. Now look at what it looks like. That was in the ‘70s, and it was a cop telling a story about how he used to roll up, and if the guy answered the door, they’d arrest him, and if he didn’t come to the door, they’d call for backup and go on in and get him and have one or two cops come with him.
JF: Now they’re showing up 20 deep with a squad team.
DE: And that’s on the first call, so they’re doing that as the go-to instead of the last resort, so they’ve been equipped for that. They’ve been trained to do that, so that’s what they do. And they’ve been authorized to that.
JF: That, I think, is really the core problem, and if they are granted this ability to enforce the laws, and that power comes from the government, and the government is training them, and the government is blessing their actions, then we really do have a government problem and not just a cop problem.
DE: So when people say, “Oh, you just think all cops are bad,” I say, “No, actually I think the job of cop has become bad,” and what I mean by that is that the statutorily created job of cop has become a bad thing in our society—not that the guy who has the job of cop is necessarily a bad person. I think there are a lot of cops out there who want to do that right thing and have that idealistic notion of what it means to be an officer of the peace or a person that provides that service that we want in our communities. But because of how the job has been defined, it’s almost impossible for them to fulfill that ideal.
JF: Well, and today’s law enforcement officers testify regularly that that, in fact, isn’t their job. That they’re not here and designed to serve the communities. I was kind of challenged by one to “Find me a law enforcement officer who thinks that’s his job,” and I started watching and looking at police cars and state trooper cars in our communities and other communities, and what you see here is not “Oklahoma City Police, here to protect and serve”. You see “Oklahoma City Police, criminal law enforcement”.
DE: And it says on their cars, “We serve with pride”, which is a whole different statement than “To protect and serve”.
JF: Absolutely. And their training now is so different. It saddens me to listen to law enforcement officers talk to me about their attitudes and the way they are trained to approach cars. In just a basic traffic stop, our law enforcement officers are trained to believe their lives are in danger and this person is likely going to kill them. The regular, average Joe that they’re pulling over for a traffic violation is being greeted by a law enforcement officer ready, willing, and prepared in that moment to shoot and kill them. That’s terrifying for someone who maybe gets pulled over more than the average person.
DE: That right there, you talk about how many interactions law enforcement officers have with the public a year, every day. And when every one of those interactions is approached with that mentality, what do you expect to be the approach to that? Is that going to foster a good relationship? Is that going to foster understanding? Is that going to foster anything other than contempt? I mean, that’s what it’s going to do. If I approached everybody with that, I wouldn’t make a lot of friends. So this idea that there’s a war on cops and this idea that the public has that cops are at war against us is all driven by policy. It’s all driven by this idea that government can grant cops this authority to do things other people don’t have the authority to do, which in and of itself is a philosophical mistake. If we believe that we live in a government that gets its authority from the people, then that government can only have the authority that the people had in the first place to give. So a lot of people say, “When we see these police brutality videos and things,” inevitably there’s someone who says, “The kid shouldn’t have done this” or “The kid shouldn’t have done that” or “The kid shouldn’t have talked back to the cop”—and so they end up justifying this behavior, and they throw in the whole “Well that cop doesn’t know if this guy wants to kill him or not” and you’ve seen all of those conversations pop up. But the bottom line is that it’s a very simple standard that needs to be applied. And the standard is, if I as not a cop were in the same situation, would I be morally justified to do what the cop did? If the answer is no, then the cop is just as wrong as I would have been in the same situation, but somehow because of our kind of warped view of what a police officer is and what they’re allowed to do, when we look at that, we look at it differently. We say, “Because he has a badge and gun, it means he gets to do things that I wouldn’t get to do.” All of the sudden, you’ve now created another class of citizen. A class of citizen that’s protected with different rights than the rest of us, and it shows. Look at how they park their cars and how they drive their cars. They get to wear their guns on the outside of their pants; the rest of us don’t get to do that. All of these things define this cop as a different kind of citizen than a regular person. The thing we really need to start thinking about: Is that really the kind of world we want to live in? Because that is, by definition, a police state.
JF: I think a lot of the justifications for this, as I’ve seen it in my career, is… People come in—a higher class of clientele, if you will, generally white, middle class, privileged—and their rights have been violated by a police officer. They or their child has been arrested and experienced some of the most horrifying things a person can experience at the hands of local law enforcement and being taken to our fine Oklahoma County Jail, which is not equipped to house animals, let alone live human beings. And they come out, just outraged, with righteous indignation at “How this could happen to me?” I often find myself telling them, “Because you were okay with it happening to these other people because of who they were, and they were a smaller citizen in your mind, and they maybe deserved it.” And we talk about criminal defense lawyers and why it is we do what we do, and I’ve always shared if I don’t protect the fringes, the weakest of our class, then how can I protect those of us who are not living in the fringes? I think what’s happened is, we’ve all been okay with the poor, and the minorities, and the poverty-stricken to have their communities run like a warzone. And when their communities are run by military-style law enforcement that is set up every day to arrest, charge, and imprison its citizen, that eventually those citizens will be locked up, and where do they go? Now all of the sudden, it’s beating on the back door of middle-class America, and now they want to care. So my struggle is, what do we do? How do we move forward? I’m not sure that we get to take steps back. It’s 2015, and we’ve given this power. How do we take it back? And with any government bureaucracy—any committee that’s designed to never solve its problem—
DE: The solution is always to make the bureaucracy bigger.
DE: If we just had more power, then we’d be able to solve the problems that we have.
JF: Because if we solve the problem, then we’re out of the job. So there’s really no incentive to solve the problem, and I think that’s how we end up with a million agencies beginning with “D” and ending in “S”, and everybody’s got their acronym, yet none of our problems are being solved. And I don’t know how we step back in our relationship with government law enforcement and say “Stop. No war” without almost a revolution, right? That’s what’s required to affect serious change sometimes, and that’s a scary concept to me. I think it’s a scary concept to a lot of us to think that the bubble’s going to explode. How do we bring it down to something that’s manageable?
DW: I’m a little more optimistic, actually, about what we can do. The idea that we can make change without pitchforks and riots on the street. The fact of the matter is, people have to be educated, first of all, to understand the appropriate role of government, the appropriate role of a police officer, and to be able to see it appropriately. The other part of it is, none of these agencies can operate without money. Fortunately in the law enforcement world, a lot of that money comes from the drug war. What we’re seeing nationwide is a change in the ideology and the way people look at marijuana, for one thing, and if we see those laws begin to change is that law enforcement policies are going to change along with it. That money, the cartel money, the cash, the forfeiture money they get—people are starting to see that it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work. And see? That’s why I believe that when law enforcement is violent in the fringes, people just kind of let it go. But what we’re seeing is that they’ve used up the money—all the poor people are kind of broke. I used to be a pastor, and I dealt with lots of poor people, you know, people that didn’t have a lot, and their interactions with law enforcement—you could see that they were being milked for everything they had.
JF: It’s the war on the poor.
DW: Yeah, if they got pulled over because their tag was out on their car, their car got taken away from them. Now, if I got pulled over and my tag was out, the cop would tell me to go home and get a new tag. Right? He’d write me a ticket and say, “Get this taken care of.” But my poor friend who’s living in Section A housing, if he gets pulled over, his car’s impounded, and before you know it, it costs more to get it out than the car’s worth, and now it’s just not his car anymore.
JF: And he’s gone to jail, lost his job, and probably lost his apartment…
DW: I remember a story of a gal who got in trouble right after a divorce for writing some hot checks on a joint account with her husband, and she got pinned with it—about $800 worth of hot checks, which turned into about $5,000 worth of court fees and everything else that she ended up owing back. She’s getting arrested every week for a warrant, and a lot of the times, these things weren’t legitimate. Like, she had paid the bill, but the computer record in the cop’s car wasn’t up to date, so they arrested her anyway. She’d spend the night in jail, she’s have to go home, and then the next morning they’d say, “Oh yeah, you’re right. See you later.” It’s because, in that situation alone, the DA gets the money off of those hot checks. So he’s using that law, which everybody thought was a great idea to help fund the DA offices by letting them keep the money from these hot checks. Well what they did was render them monetizing poor people who wrote hot checks and turning it into this cycle where they’re continuously in the system and continuously owing money. And then guess who are the last people to get made right in that situation?
JF: The actual person the check was written to.
JF: The victim is the last person the government cares about.
DE: And so, all of policy—and it goes down to the policing, because ultimately the cop was getting the girl in for the warrant, or whatever—so that policy ends up creating this literal war on the poor, just taking everything they can get to fund their departments, fund their offices, do everything they can. The drug war—you add that on top of it—the civil asset forfeiture, which is a derivative of the drug war.
JF: Which is clearly policing for profit. Nobody can say it’s not. Law enforcement’s not even saying it’s not. They want that money, they want it to stay with them, and they want to use it to continue the war on drugs, to continue to arrest more people.
DE: Right. And they’ll blatantly say it. “We have to have the ability to take people’s property when no crime was committed. Otherwise, we won’t be able to fund our addiction.” I just read a quote the other day from a law enforcement person, where that was their defense of that policy. “If we can’t literally steal things from people who have committed no crime, then we’re not going to be able to do our jobs.” And I’m like, “What really is your job then?”
JF: And that’s definitely the problem, right? What is the job of law enforcement, and it’s a full-circle argument where they do this dance all day.
DE: Right. And the policy again has created an adversarial relationship, and it’s born of bad philosophy in the minds of people that we expect that government has the right to authorize law enforcement to steal your stuff, which was never, ever in the minds of anybody who created this country. It wasn’t this idea that, arbitrarily, just based on a hunch, that I could just take your stuff. The constitution specifically forbids the government from being able to do that, and yet here we are.
JF: It’s happening every day.
DE: Every day. Billions of dollars.
JF: And it’s not really drug money—it’s drug money from fellow citizens.
DE: Well, don’t get me started. I don’t even care if it is drug money. Who’s the victim? That’s the question. There isn’t one. The victim is the person who is being victimized by law enforcement. That’s the victim. So we’ve created, literally, a situation where the government is preying on the people. And when I say I’m optimistic, I mean, I’m not thrilled with where we’re at now, but then I see things from people like Kyle Loveless with the civil asset forfeiture reform. Kyle and I don’t really agree on a lot of stuff—he probably didn’t even vote for me.
JF: Fair enough. I’m not sure that Kyle and I agree on a lot of things, either, but we do agree on civil asset forfeiture reform.
DE: Right, and because when he looks at it, he’s like, “Man, something doesn’t look right here,” and it appeals to his natural sense of justice. No, this is not justice.
JF: Doesn’t even pass the sniff test.
DE: Right. It’s just like, “No, really. This can’t be what we do.” But the more you dig into it, not only is it what we do, but what we do is a lot worse than this.
DE: When I see people like that, what it tells me is that he has support. People are beginning to support him. You see, laws don’t change what happens out on the street. Laws don’t change the people; people change the law. So the laws will reflect what the public is ready to expect. And I think we’re starting to see, with marijuana decriminalization, is that the people are starting to see—the country, Colorado and Oregon and all of these places—are seeing positive effects from a freer market and taking that market away from the drug cartel. Doing so is creating a lot of good in their communities. I think if you do that—the civil asset forfeiture reform—we’ll start to see some reeling back of this police state. You know, at some point when they become so aggressive, people start to feel the pain. And at that point is when they’ll say they don’t like this.
JF: So you’ve still got hope?
JF: We can hold on to your hope, then.