Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Opening the Door in the Name of Saving Money

Yesterday I attended my very first Washington County Commissioner’s Court meeting. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, but I work and am not usually available at the hours when they are held.  Yesterday, however, I made an exception because I was drawn to the meeting by a single item that was up for discussion – item 6: “Discuss and act upon granting the Washington County Sheriff’s office authorization to participate in the Texas 1033 Surplus Property Program and granting the County Judge authorization to sign necessary documents.”
The program is one that is authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – you know, the thing that Forbes Magazine called “the greatest threat to civil liberties that Americans face” – to allow local and state law enforcement agencies and municipalities to purchase surplus and used military property and hardware, including (as listed by the Texas 1033 website) weapons, aircraft and armored response vehicles.
I listened as Sheriff Hanak explained that the program had “been around 25 or 30 years” and that the items that might be considered were rifles and pistols and office equipment, such as desks and chairs. He said that none of these items would be new and that there was a risk that “the maintenance would eat us up” if the item was in rough shape and so that they would have to be very careful.
Sheriff Otto Hanak then spoke about the availability under the program of vehicles such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored personnel carriers. But he admitted that they don’t have any plans to buy items such as that, partly due to the cost of maintenance on items such as tires. But I gathered from his tone that if the money were there…
Then there was a very brief discussion and the motion carried unanimously.
There was no opportunity for comments from the public. I didn’t honestly expect there to be because I learned a long time ago that although a meeting might be “open to the public,” there is rarely opportunity given for unscheduled public comments.
I’m disappointed that there wasn’t more discussion and questions on the part of the Commissioner’s Court. The issue sailed through relatively unchecked. There was even uncertainty as to whether the authorization would allow the sheriff’s office to make future purchases or whether those would have to be approved by the court, and I don’t recall a definitive answer being given. And by contrast, the court seemed much more concerned about discussion of a complaint procedure regarding a sewer line. It seems as though the issue had already been decided prior to the meeting and that this was just a formality.

But the cause for my concern is this: I see on the news with increasing regularity that some local law enforcement agency somewhere – often a sheriff’s department – has acquired a piece of heavy military equipment such as an armored personnel carrier. I see police officers increasingly clad in tactical armor that was once commonplace only on a battlefield. It’s quite alarming enough in high crime urban areas such as Chicago or Detroit, but the thought of such a thing in Washington County, Texas seems appalling.
I just don’t think it’s the kind of message that Washington County wants to send, either to people visiting our community or to its residents. It’s just not who we are. We’re a rural county that thrives on our wholesome image – on Blue Bell and bluebonnets and rolling hills and historical landmarks. Do we really want people to infer from this that there’s a rampant crime problem that would necessitate military hardware? Is it really that dangerous to be in Washington County? If so, why would anyone want to come here?
I also have a problem with the overly-vague nature of the sheriff’s request. There were a lot of possible items thrown around in the meeting that could be purchased, ranging from the MRAP to desk chairs. That’s quite a disparity! And yet it was said that the authorization needed to be given to participate in the Texas 1033 program so that the sheriff’s department could find out what kind of equipment could be acquired (I say “acquired” because there was also some question as to whether these items would be purchased at a discount or whether they would be free. Both terms were used in the meeting.) That justification reminds me a little too much of Nancy Pelosi saying that we had to pass the Affordable Care Act so that we would all find out what’s in it. I refuse to believe that the items available to the sheriff’s department would be hidden from view until after joining the program.
There’s also this: why now? Sheriff Hanak himself said that the Texas 1033 program (or a predecessor program) had been around 25 or 30 years. So why the sudden push to join it? Why not ten or twenty years ago? What’s so important now? What are we preparing for? Or are the government office chairs and desk just so delicious and irresistible that we simply can’t hold out anymore? Is our sheriff department’s budget so strapped that office items can’t be purchased, even at a discount, from an office supply vendor? Should we be taking up a collection? Are we in danger???
As increasing police militarization and government overreach and overspending (on a national and state level, anyway) are an increasing concern, is now the proper time to be making this move? We, as citizens, are forced to wrestle increasingly with distrust of our government entities. Everything form the NSA spying on everyone (and then lying about it) to the erosion of our rights through “free speech zones,” imminent domain property seizures, random highway checkpoints, firearm confiscation, the forcing of compact fluorescent light bulb use and even over-zealous homeowners associations have eroded our confidence in even the most local governmental entities. And that’s sad.
I’m quite sure that Sheriff Hanak and the Commissioner’s Court are honorable people and that they don’t have any intent on causing mistrust in local government or law enforcement. But that said, it is very important that we guard against opening ANY door, no matter how slightly, for government abuse or overreach. And I believe that approving the participation in this program does just that. It offers military tools to local law enforcement, and call me na├»ve, but I believe that the function of local law enforcement is to protect its citizens from crime and to enforce local laws. I don’t believe that it should function as a paramilitary organization that further turns our country into a police state. The local police are not at war. And what happens when we have a new sheriff someday?  What happens if that person doesn’t have the apparent self-control of Sheriff Hanak?
It’s important to remember that we’re talking about a county sheriff’s office, not the National Guard here. If it’s drugs we’re worried about, there’s a federal agency for that: the DEA. If it’s guns we’re worried about, there’s a federal agency for that, too: the ATF. And if it’s terrorism we’re worried about, there are federal agencies to handle that, as well.  If there were riots in the streets, well that’s where the National Guard comes in.
I’m not anti-police – far from it, in fact.  I know several police officers and deputies and they’re all great people. My objections are not personal – they’re purely philosophical. It’s just that I’m aware that police are just people, too, and governments are made up of just people. And I know that it’s human nature when one has a tool or a toy to want to find a use for it. It’s not the tool that misuses authority. It’s people – even the most well-meaning or otherwise honorable people just doing their jobs. The officers who confiscated guns in New Orleans after Katrina were people, just doing their job and following orders. Cops who break down doors to the wrong house or use excessive force are just people doing their job and following orders. Bureaucrats that close National Parks and open-air memorials are just doing their jobs, following orders. Agents who spy on Americans on American soil without warrants are just people, following orders.
“You’re paranoid. That won’t ever happen here!”  I can hear it now. But who would’ve believed a few short years ago that the sheriff’s department in Montgomery County, not too far from here, would have its own drones?  Who would’ve believed that the federal government would record every single one of our phone conversations and track all of our internet traffic without a warrant? Who would’ve believed that despite protection specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution that people would try to disarm Americans? It CAN happen here, and it always happens incrementally and usually in the name of security. Here, though, we’re opening the door in the name of the potential of saving a few dollars.
Finally, it’s also important to realize that this isn’t a conservative or liberal issue. Do a quick web search for “police militarization” and you’ll find articles expressing concern from the entire political spectrum, from the Huffington Post to the ACLU to the Washington Post to the Cato Institute. A whole lot of people are concerned about this issue.

So there it is: the argument by the nutjob who thinks that the sheriff buying some used office chairs could lead to a police state. Who knows – maybe this really is all just about office equipment. Maybe the questions I raised are just me being a little too sensitive to the news of the world. But can we really ignore the possibility that this decision has opened the door, even ever so slightly, to police militarization in our community? And at the very least, can we all agree that without vigilance that it might be possible someday, and that that would be bad for everyone? I’d like to think that our local government officials would be willing to take the time to deliberate such ramifications.