Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Back on Jump Street

After undercover police officers made some high-profile busts of youths and adults selling drugs and guns in and around high schools in Federal Way, Washington, the Seattle Times did a follow-up article on a similar undercover operation in Redmond. I would be unsurprised to learn that part of the reason was to remind people that drugs aren't only present in schools where the "lower classes" send their children, but also in more upscale places, as well.

Anyway, the article pointed out that the rare practice of placing undercover police officers in schools to pose as students has its critics. Among them, the ACLU.

"It's scary. You have non-students, non-teachers sneaking around talking to kids," said Jennifer Shaw, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state. "Our kids should be sent to school to learn. To bring somebody in to do undercover investigation is frightening."
While I agree with the ACLU's stated goal of a free and open society through the preservation and protection of civil liberties, there is no escaping the fact that they have a political agenda, and sometimes they come across as being critical for the sake of being critical. On the other hand, this IS a sound bite. It's the sort of thing that they'd play during a radio or television interveiw, without any of the external context that you'd need to really be able to evaluate what was being said. I have to admit, however, that I have a hard time imagining a context in which this particular criticism makes any real sense.

The idea that undercover officers trying to root out people selling drugs and guns in school is somehow a cause for alarm seems an overreaction. The opening sentence of the quote seems calculated to draw a parallel between undercover police officers and child molesters, implying that the reason for secrecy is that what's going on is somehow improper. News Flash: people who are doing things that they understand are illegal don't usually do so out in the open, if they're concerned with being caught. Hence, undercover operations. And while deception can lead to some scary or awkward circumstances, simply not being who you present yourself as is not illegal on its face. The fact that an officer of the law is undercover does not, in and of itself, violate anyone's rights. Yes, our society is based on trust, and that trust is predicated on a certain amount of truthfulness, but if it demands absolute honesty in all dealings, we're in serious trouble.

And yes, the point behind sending children to school is for them to learn things. But I fail to see how the occasional undercover operation can be said to seriously compromise a school's ability to teach. While the point can be made that the schools have no business being an arm of law enforcement, that's a very different thing than cooperating with law enforcement. Now, if schools were taking it upon themselves to decide guilt or innocence, even after a jury has already had its say, then I think that its appropriate to be critical, on the grounds that the educational and legal systems are separate for a reason. But even in this case, criticism of the police would be misplaced.

It's a sad truth that simply wearing a badge doesn't make you into one of the Good Guys. But while Power Corrupts, Responsibility can keep that Corruption in check. And without some evidence of irresponsibility, the assumption of corruption may be premature.

1 comment:

ben said...

It's sad that anyone still thinks drugs are a crime worth fighting. Just what we need - more people in jail. I did a shit load of drugs in high-school and turned out fine as did all my druggy friends. Punishing the 99% of the people who can responsibly use drugs because 1% of the population gets strung out is stupid. And - targeting high school kids is just wrong - they're not manufacturing - if society truly needs to waste time/money on this crap then go for the king pins, not the bottom of the pyramid. I just can't believe anyone in the DEA thinks their job makes any difference. And it's sad that the local cops think this is the best use of their time.