SACRAMENTO – During a July speech to police in Long Island, Donald Trump joked that when officers “put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head” that “you can take the hand away, OK?”
Many of the cops laughed approvingly, but civil liberties groups – and even some law-enforcement officials – were upset that the president made light of police brutality, especially given some troubling nationally publicized incidents.
Trump’s defenders argued that he was only joking about the treatment of killers, and that the rest of us need to lighten up. Didn’t Ronald Reagan joke about bombing Russia as he prepared for a radio address? Well, yes. But those arguments aren’t persuasive given that the administration’s actual policing policies seem likely to encourage abusive police behavior in a variety of ways.
Even the Republican-controlled House of Representatives seems to understand that point. On Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly approved amendments to a spending bill that try to limit the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to let police officers expand the use of a policy known as “civil asset forfeiture.” Some forms of forfeiture have been around for centuries, but it really ramped up in the early days of the drug war, with policies designed to let police grab property and proceeds from major drug enterprises.
Like most government programs, it expanded beyond recognition. It’s turned into an astoundingly abusive process by which police seize the property of people who have never been convicted – or even accused – of a crime. In 2012 in Anaheim, federal authorities tried to seize a $1.5 million commercial building from its owner after one of his tenants, a medical-marijuana clinic, was accused of selling $37 in marijuana to an undercover cop. The feds eventually dropped the case amid blistering media coverage, but it shows how seriously this power can be abused.
Many states, including California, have passed laws requiring police agencies to gain a conviction (in most cases) before taking a person’s property. To get around those laws, local cops would “partner” with federal agencies and then operate under looser federal standards. After the property was taken, the local and federal folks would divvy up the proceeds – and then use the money to bolster their departmental budgets.
Two Justice Department officials who helped start the program in the 1980s later argued that the process “has turned into an evil…