Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Officers' safety comes first, and not infringing on people's rights comes second."

I'm pretty much on record that I find gun ownership the most ambiguous of all the civil rights. It's not that I dispute the meaning of the Second Amendment -- that debate, I think, is for all intents and purposes over -- but, let's be frank: Guns are instruments of violence. Period. I'm not at all certain that the Second Amendment is always and everywhere a good thing.

But I like civil rights a whole bunch, and it seems to me that if I call on folks to defend them when they don't like it, I should do the same thing. That's why I find this story in the Philadelphia Daily News so disturbing:

In the last two years, Philadelphia police have confiscated guns from at least nine men - including four security guards - who were carrying them legally, and only one of the guns has been returned, according to interviews with the men.

Eight of the men said that they were detained by police - two for 18 hours each. Two were hospitalized for diabetic issues while in custody, one of whom was handcuffed to a bed. Charges were filed against three of the men, only to be withdrawn by the District Attorney's Office.

Read further into the story, and you'll hear tales of men arrested after they offered their legal permits to carry the weapons to officers -- who either didn't know the law well enough to accept the documentation, or, because of other issues, couldn't independently verify those permits in a quick and reasonable manner.

In such cases, it seems to me, the call goes to the person who is exercising their rights. If police can't prove you're violating the law, they shouldn't be able to arrest you or confiscate your property. But that's not really the case in Philadelphia, at least. Enter Lt. Fran Healy, a "special adviser to the police commissioner," and this somewhat chilling statement of values:

"Officers' safety comes first, and not infringing on people's rights comes second," Healy said.

That sounds reasonable enough on the surface -- and certainly, nobody wants to see any cop dead -- but: Spend any time in a courtroom, like I have, and you'll realize that "officer safety" is the loophole to end all loopholes. As a general rule, police have to have "reasonable suspicion" -- evidence derived from their observations or witnesses -- to stop you, to frisk you, to arrest you. Under the guise of "officer safety," though, officers can frisk you to (wink) make sure you don't happen to have a weapon. And if they happen to dig criminal evidence out of your pockets -- evidence they wouldn't have had the right to collect otherwise -- well, that's just what happens in the course of things.

Sometimes, you end up with innocent men in state custody for 18 hours because the police can't or won't get their act together.

Like I said: I do want Philly cops to be safe. And guns make the city scary, at times. But I want the police to operate on the presumption that they honor the rights of the citizens they serve. Stories like today's don't offer me comfort.

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