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Nothing to Fear

In 1933 — for the younguns here, that’s a really long time ago — President Franklin D. Roosevelt said,

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, as published in Samuel Rosenman, ed.,The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11–16.)

Yeah, so?

Today’s Fresno Bee carried a story about the Fresno mayor meeting with police officers, bypassing their union, apparently to discuss how the city might deal with upcoming budgetary shortfalls. Fresno “is facing a $28 million general fund budget deficit over the next 18 months.” (George Hostetter, “Fresno mayor meets with police on budget” (January 28, 2010) A3, col. 4.) The Bee notes that “[a]bout 70% of the general fund goes to police and fire protection, and most of that goes to police.” (Ibid.)

I’m not at all surprised. Last night, leaving my office after dark, I had no problem seeing where I was going. Red and blue lights lit up Van Ness Avenue near my office as the police pulled someone over in front of Club One. Perhaps a mile away, as I prepared to enter the freeway, two more police vehicles lit up the freeway. I was no close enough to see what poor citizen had screwed up so badly as to require two vehicles.

Now I don’t know what the number of law enforcement officers in the Fresno area is at any given time. I do know that I can’t drive from my office to my home without spotting at least two or three law-enforcement-owned vehicles. (One Sheriff’s vehicle is inexplicably parked less than a mile from my house as some kind of monument. At least I think it’s a monument; seems that no matter when I pass, it’s always sitting out front of one of the houses in my neighborhood — the same house.) I also know that on more than one occasion, I’ve been at a restaurant, or walking down the street, and I see the police stop a pedestrian (or a bicyclist) for what appears to be no reason in particular. (For some reason, I see quite a few stopped bicyclists — and they’re usually African-American — I suspect Fresno and Clovis have laws against BWB (Bicycling While Black).) If I’m on foot (as I often am downtown), or in the restaurant, I will move to where I can watch and try to listen. Such heinous criminals are being apprehended that not infrequently one of the officers — there are often between 3 and 5 or more present — will leave the scene, cross the street and ask if there’s a reason I’m standing there.

But I can’t blame the Fresno Police Department for being nervous about people watching (Update 9/26/2016: link broken) them.

All this tells me at least two things, but primarily it tells me we have too many law enforcement officers. These guys are armed to the teeth and, apparently, they’re definitely not afraid to use their weapons.

Despite this, however, we are of late barraged with Fresno Bee stories telling us of the horrors to come because of cuts within the law enforcement ranks due to budgetary issues. The story mentioned above was more of the same, complete with the moaning and whining of the president of the Fresno Police Officers Association, who doesn’t like the mayor talking to police officers, presumably because she might ask them to help us deal with the budgetary shortfall in some way that requires them to sacrifice like the rest of us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are bad people out there. And I’m not just talking about police officers. So it’s not that we don’t need a police force of some kind. But power is a corrupting influence. Of late, we seem to have a surfeit of officers — both corrupt and not-yet-corrupt — patrolling our city like it was some kind of open-air prison, stopping citizens for no good reason other than that the officers apparently don’t have enough to do. Except when they’re off arresting their wives for scratching their jointly-owned cars.

We don’t need to fear the loss of a few officers. We probably don’t even need to fear the loss of another hundred officers. In fact, if the Fresno Bee wasn’t repeatedly beating the drum of fear, we’d probably have nothing to fear at all.

In the end, I think that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert a state that has nearly gone bankrupt because of law enforcement, excessively-restrictive laws and overpaid correctional officers (2015 update: As routine, Fresno Bee story vanished) into a nice state in which to live, which can provide real services to its citizens, like education. Retreating from over-criminalization and the conversion of our state into the giant open-air prison law enforcement wishes it to be is the only real way for this state to advance the quality of life for all citizens.

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