Public Safety & Constitutional Rights

Apr 23, 2013

Credit Charles Krupa/AP via NPR

In the wake of the Boston bombings, many people have praised the work of police, who killed one suspect and arrested a second after conducting a door-to-door search in one part of the city, but here in Virginia a civil liberties watchdog is raising questions. 

The head of the Rutherford Institute says Boston became a police state, and Americans abandoned their constitution.  

Lawyer John Whitehead, who founded an institute committed to constitutional protections, believes police in Boston reacted as they did, in part because the federal government has equipped them and many other cities with military gear.

“I mean there are small towns with in American with 50 police officers, and they have $30 million worth of equipment – assault vehicles, rifles, this kind of thing.  The problem as we’ve seen, and a number of sociologists have said this, is that if you give people military equipment, eventually they are going to use it.”

Today, he says, there are 80,000 SWAT team raids a year.

“When they go through the door, they shoot the dogs, kids are faced down on the floor, and as I’ve written about, some people are getting killed, innocent people.”

In Boston, he says, we were lucky that didn’t happen.  Of course, this is 20/20 hindsight, and police had reason for concern about public safety, but Whitehead thinks it was foolish to forget our fourth amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The constitution was basically put in abeyance, and that’s a serious thing.  I understand we want to catch terrorists, but in the end it was actually a citizen who found the so-called terrorist quivering in the back of a boat, not the police.”

Whitehead says people were stopped and searched on the streets, without probable cause – even those who bore no resemblance to the suspects, and 24-hour news coverage fed public fears.  Many Americans consider the first amendment our most important constitutional protection, but for Whitehead, the fourth comes first.

“In the back of a police car, handcuffed, you can say all you want to say, but all that’s going to be listening is those two policemen in the front seat.”

Whitehead says it doesn’t take much for the American people to march in lockstep with government’s dictates, even if it means submitting to martial law and losing constitutional rights at a moment’s notice.  

“Not everybody in government is always doing it for the best interests of the people.  I know we want to believe that, but as James Madison said – the fellow who lived up the road here -- we ought to mistrust all people in power to a certain degree. If the police are going to touch you, surveil you, enter your home, they have to have reasonable evidence that you’re doing something illegal, and they have to get a warrant.  All that was bypassed in Boston.”

He hopes schools and parents will do a better job of teaching future citizens about our bill of rights and why we need to defend it.