Eric Holder — Two for two!

Attorney General Eric Holder made the news twice in recent days. Last week, Holder recommended that all police-intervention deaths (like Michael Brown/Eric Garner) be reported to a national data base on police use of force.  Currently not all police departments are required to report such deaths.

Let’s give Holder  credit for a common sense recommendation.  Police officers are given the right and the responsibility, within tightly drawn circumstances, to take an American citizen’s life.  This responsibility comes, as it should, with a high level of scrutiny.  That is sometimes uncomfortable for police officers and their departments, but that scrutiny is key to police-community relations. “Transparency” is one of the hot promises of modern government but in no other area is real transparency as important.

That said, no one, including Holder, should delude themselves that there is a large number of undocumented people being killed by police and that a new reporting requirement will bring this to light. The overwhelming majority of police force-related deaths occur in large cities and are subject already to intense scrutiny.  Most of the police departments in the country not already reporting these deaths are in rural areas, and are very small departments where police shootings are extremely rare.  Mandatory reporting will perhaps bring to light a very small number number of force incidents not already documented.

The second Holder decision was to terminate a popular Civil Asset Forfeiture program. (Story)  Holder’s action bars local and state police from using federal law to seize money and other assets from alleged drug dealers with no court finding that a crime has occurred.  This program has provided millions of dollars to police departments across the country. Civil asset forfeiture has been a staple in the law enforcement War on Drugs dating back 30 years.  The premise of the program is the property and cash of drug dealers, proceeds of a crime, should be confiscated and then used to fund efforts against drug dealers. The controversy over these programs is that the property is seized without any finding of criminal guilt. Those people whose property is confiscated do have a court appeal, but under rules of the program and unlike a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the individual, not the state. The provision allowing police departments to keep the money for their own use has led to some documented abuses of the program over the years.

Holder is absolutely right to end this program. The whole concept of the program is an assault on basic civil liberties and due process. In my public appearances around the country, I consistently hear from folks complaining about their police department’s use of asset forfeiture. This criticism is somewhat misplaced. From the police point of view, asset forfeiture provided a useful tool for the effort against drug trafficking and provided some financial support for their department. Why would anyone be surprised when police make effective use of such a tool?

The police use the tools provided to them by lawmakers. The fault here lies with legislators, who in their zeal to be tough on drugs and with the support of the public, decided to bend the rules against drug dealers. The problem is, when the civil rights of any American are trampled on, the freedom of all American citizens are jeopardized.

Holder’s action is a good step. Legislators at all levels should examine their asset forfeiture programs and realign or end these programs to ensure the civil rights of all citizens are protected.