Rand Paul on Ferguson, police militarization, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system

August 14

In view of the ongoing debate about libertarian reactions to events in Ferguson, it is worth noting that libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul has just published an op ed about Ferguson in Time, where he describes the situation as an example of dangerous police militarization and relates it to racial disparities in the criminal justice system:

The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.

The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action….

There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement.

Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement….

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri….

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

The op ed should help put to rest the notion – never very plausible to begin with – that libertarians are ignoring these issues. Paul has not gone as far in opposing the War on Drugs and police militarization as I and many other libertarians would like. I would prefer to abolish the War on Drugs completely, not just cut it back and reduce sentences, as Paul has advocated. But he has gone much farther on both than the vast majority of other mainstream politicians, including most Democrats.

Much more importantly, the situation in Ferguson offers an opportunity for a variety of people concerned about the harmful effects of police militarization and the War on Drugs to work together to promote reforms. As Paul and many others have pointed out, much of the unjustified police violence that occurs in poor and minority communities is driven by the War on Drugs, which in turn both contributes to and is exacerbated by the adoption of aggressive military-style police tactics.

The events in Ferguson and the broader trends they exemplify have drawn condemnation not only from libertarians and many on the left, but also from less likely quarters such as conservative commentators at the National Review (e.g. here).

The assorted, conservative, libertarian, and liberal critics of police misconduct in Ferguson are far from reaching a complete consensus on what should be done about the problem. But they should at least be able to agree on some reforms, including eliminating federal programs that incentivize police militarization at the state and local level, holding police accountable for unjustified violence against civilians, and rolling back at least part of the War on Drugs. Doing any of these things will require an uphill battle. But we are more likely to succeed if adherents of different ideologies are willing to work together.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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