NOT MY PROBLEM: At first, I was alarmed to hear the Supreme Court just upheld the constitutionality of jail strip searches, even for people incarcerated on minor offenses like riding a bike with an unlawfully muffled bell. The same Supreme Court justices who last week suggested President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms empowered the federal government to force Americans to buy broccoli against their will argued this week in favor of indiscriminate strip searches. It’s better, they opined, to be safe than sorry. And serious bad-asses, they noted, are often brought to heel for minor infractions. Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out how mass murderer Timothy McVeigh — the Oklahoma City truck bomber — was once picked up for driving without a license plate. This detail might have proved relevant, I suppose, had authorities actually strip-searched McVeigh and discovered he’d hidden a few thousand pounds of agricultural fertilizer — that being McVeigh’s explosive of choice — under his scrotum. The aggrieved strippee in the most recent case, Albert Florence, was a high-ranking BMW management type from New Jersey who’d failed to pay off some traffic fines. This I found troubling. I, too, have been known to get behind on traffic fines. What happened to Florence, presumably, could happen to me, too. That, I was relieved to discover, is not the case. First, Florence had actually paid the fines in question (where I never would have), and was incarcerated based on bad info. Secondly — and of more legal significance — Florence is black. And I am not.
In a similar vein, I was disturbed when Congress — with support from President Obama — passed the Defense Authorization Bill last December that enabled federal authorities — for the first time — to indefinitely detain American citizens on American soil without even or ever filing charges, so long as the detainee in question be suspected of supporting terrorist activities. I worried the language might be loose enough to apply to the small donations my father used to make to certain Hibernian societies that the FBI later charged were front groups for the Irish Republican Army, well known for blowing up Protestants. I needn’t have been concerned. My father, who died years ago, was a devout Catholic. And all terrorists, as we all know, are Muslim.
Lastly, in the great continuum of coercion, there’s the gang injunction the City of Santa Barbara is now trying to squeeze through the courts. I know the injunction won’t affect me — gang members are typically not middle-aged guys with pasty white skin. But much about the proposed injunction is just plain stupid, and I can no longer feign my usual pseudo-neutral indifference. My objection is not that gang injunctions contribute to the pre-existing paranoia that any Latino male under the age of 21 might pull out a screwdriver at any time and stab you multiple times without provocation. It’s that the injunction is not needed and can’t be justified based on present gang activity. During the first two months of 2012, the Santa Barbara Police Department reported six gang-related Type I Crime incidents. (Type I is how the FBI categorizes serious crimes.) In the first two months of last year, there were 12. When you look at the drop in what police categorize as actual gang incidents, the change is far more dramatic. For the first two months of 2011, the police report there were 13. During the first two months of this year, there was one. That’s right, one. (The precise distinction between actual and related I do not know.) Some cops suggest the weather might be responsible. Some people hint gang members themselves might be conspiring to keep a lid on things. Both could be. But I’d suggest the fact that the department’s gang-suppression unit now operates seven days a week — as opposed to merely four — might have something to do with it. Or that the gang patrol now rolls out much earlier in the day than it used to. This allows it to intervene at noon in conflicts that might otherwise escalate into serious violence by nightfall.
Gang injunctions are also expensive. To date, the City of Santa Barbara (the police and the city attorney’s office combined) has spent $467,000 getting the gang injunction just to this point. (Yes, that is a scoop. And yes, that is an exclusive. And no, you won’t read it anywhere else first.) And that doesn’t count the hundreds of thousands more the city will have to spend to bring the matter to trial, presumably later this year. Of the nearly half-a-million bucks, the police department itself spent $432,000 on studies and crime reports needed to legally justify the injunction. The bean counters at City Hall are correct when they say this was money already in the department budget. But it’s hard to imagine that the $432,000 could not have been better spent hiring new cops or paying for additional gang-prevention efforts. Lastly, if a gang injunction is such a well-thought-out idea, why is it that the mayor and City Council never held a single public hearing to discuss the matter? Why was the injunction never subject to a vote? People like to sermonize about “accountability” and “transparency.” In this case, there was none. And that, I can assure you, happened by calculation and design rather than accident.
It turns out that our city police do not conduct strip searches for minor offenses unless drugs, weapons, or violence are involved. Even then, such intrusions must first be approved by a supervising officer. Body-cavity probes are a whole other matter, requiring not just a search warrant, but also the presence of a certified medical professional to conduct the examination. The good news, should the Supreme Court strike down Obama’s health-care reform package as many predict, is that the 40 million Americans without health insurance can check themselves into the county jail for a strip search, cavity probe, and checkup. That will still be constitutional. Just don’t eat the broccoli.