“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
— Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
Regardless of whether you think the federal law enforcement push into cities nationwide is political theater in an election year or a necessary effort to quell violence and social upheaval, one element of these recent interventions should concern us all.
Some law enforcers have been operating in tactical gear with no insignia and no identification. It happened with federal forces in Washington, D.C., and in Portland, Oregon. In some communities around the country, local police also have taken to covering or removing their name tags, badges and patches.
There has been talk about sending more federal officers to other cities, including some in Missouri, which raises a host of questions. A primary one for us is the extent to which those officers will either display identifying insignia and badges or present a badge and identify themselves when making arrests, especially if using force.
This anonymity tactic is one Missouri lawmakers should prohibit. It also is one city leaders should prevent, too.
The justification for doing this varies but boils down to the assertion that the public knowing who officers are would present an unacceptable risk to those officers. Particularly cited is the threat of doxing — an abbreviation for “documents” that refers to compiling and releasing personal information online with the intent to embarrass, harass or intimidate.
What is ignored is the risk to the public. Putting officers on the street without ID or insignia is dangerous.
When police aren’t identifying themselves, armed militias we see showing up at protests could usurp police authority. Conversely, civilians could refuse to follow lawful orders or resist unidentified law enforcers as a result of unnecessary confusion stemming from the practice. Most importantly, the power to identify is inherent to accountability, a fundamental issue involved in the wave of protests roiling our nation.
Five of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights pertain to matters of justice. Clearly, these were vital issues to the founders and are just as important today.
Accountability for law enforcers who might abuse their power is much more likely in the era of cellphone video and body cameras. Certainly, that has been the situation in the George Floyd case. But without identification, whom do we call to account?
Federal power is limited by the Constitution, and intervention in local matters without a cooperation of forces agreement is constrained to the protection of federal property, enforcement of federal laws and matters related to terrorism. In any case, federal or local, the requirement of a warrant or the need to establish probable cause in arrests also requires that officers be identified in order to make the required “oath or affirmation.”
If these practices continue, states and communities will be required to take measures to preserve public safety and police accountability.