David Eckert and the Reality of the American Police State

David Eckert failed to make a complete stop at a stop sign after shopping at a Wal-Mart in Deming, New Mexico. Police asked him to step out of his vehicle. They said he appeared to be clenching his buttocks, citing this as probable cause to search his anal cavity for drugs. While detaining him, the police got a warrant from a judge. They took him to a hospital, and over the initial protest of hospital staff that these tests were unethical, they forced Eckert to go through a litany of invasive procedures. They x-rayed his abdominal area. They used fingers to examine his anus more than once. They gave him an enema and forced defecation—three times. Then they sedated him and performed a colonoscopy, examining his anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. Then Eckert was given the medical bill for these expensive procedures.

Of course, the police found no drugs, which is part of why this story is getting so much attention. But even if they had, is this sort of indignity, this degree of invasive coerced treatment, ever justifiable to search for drugs? This case raises lots of questions, not about the abuse of power, but about the power that’s being abused.

The police acted according to the normal, accepted procedures of law enforcement conduct. Cops have nearly unlimited authority under the law to detain someone while they get a warrant, and judges will oblige the vast majority of the time. In this case, clenching his buttocks became probable cause to force the most intrusive procedures upon Eckert, and predictably that’s the type of idiocy the war on drugs necessarily breeds: Any time the government outlaws mere possession of an object, the regular standards of evidence simply can’t work if the goal is to enforce the law with any consistency. There are no victims, so evidence has to be obtained from the suspects on the most flimsy of pretexts.

But the problem goes beyond the drug war, or any particular set of laws and policies. There are abuses by police publicized every single day, and practically every week there are high-profile beatings, killings of unarmed people, killings of people obviously posing no threat to anyone, outrageous exercises of power to enforce the most trivial of laws. Between one and two hundred SWAT raids occur every day in the Land of the Free, and virtually none of them can be justified even if you accept the necessity of drug laws and powerful police departments.

The police in the United States represent government power at its most fundamental as well as its most excessive and intimately dangerous. For there to be a leviathan government, police are needed, for they enforce the monopoly on legal force that constitutes the state. Law enforcement is thus as intrinsic to state power as taxation or militaries. Thus anyone who cares about government overreach or freedom should never rest from scrutinizing the police.

In this country, police have also become the most conspicuous example that everyday folks see of government gone out of control. For years, the abuses were mostly limited to marginalized members of society. Black Americans, in particular, bore the brunt of police abuse in the mid-20th century, while white Americans and conservatives by and large looked upon police departments with trust. The young, social outliers, immigrants, the poor, and other minorities always had a very different story to tell that did not reflect the John Birch Society’s attitude: “Support your local police.”

Today, on the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for anyone not to see what has unfolded. Small towns have police helicopters and tanks. Big cities have armies that would have made kings of a century and a half ago envious. They have drones, sophisticated surveillance apparatuses, tight relationships with other jurisdictions and Washington, DC. We have a full-blown militarized police state in our midst, whose agents claim and effectively have the authority to do anything to anyone and get away with it. Sometimes, if they go after someone with enough media sympathy or enough money, there is some semblance of liability, but usually it comes in the form of financial restitution out of the pockets of taxpayers, rather than personal liability or even institutional liability for the police departments.

Personal liability would go a long way toward mitigating this problem, but of course anything resembling that would cause the whole thing to unravel. If police seriously risked personal liability for what they did, many of them would refuse to do anything at all. This is because the police, like the state itself, represents what Albert Nock called a “monopoly on crime.” The power to commit what would normally be considered illegal and get away with it is the defining characteristic of the state.

Consider what happened to Eckert. What if those officers had done that to someone without the color of law? Held someone down, forced multiple body cavity searches, enemas, and a colonoscopy on some poor innocent schmuck? We’d consider it the moral equivalent of kidnapping and rape. And that’s what it is. But in today’s police state, this is no bug, this is a feature. It gets a lot of attention because the police found no drugs. Yet if any non-police officer had done this to some random person and found drugs, they’d still be locked away for 30 years.

It is time for a revolutionary awakening for the American public. Liberals prefer to see the warm-and-cuddly side of government, and wish to somehow disassociate the everyday police brutality from the rest of the institution from which it intrinsically flows. Conservatives complain about big and intrusive government, but come off as rather disingenuous, even when discussing civil liberties issues like the TSA and surveillance, insofar as they refuse to see that entire communities have long lived in constant terror of the law enforcers who many people justly consider a much bigger threat to their freedom than taxation or EPA regulations. If America is ever going to have the least bit of a chance at making progress toward human freedom, the police state as we know it has to be abolished, and any law enforcement that does exist has to be reined in dramatically and quickly.

Two decades ago, Rodney King’s story was shocking, but no one flinches when such abuses are reported today. Today people are shocked to read about Eckert. If Americans don’t wake up to the reality of the American police state and soon, I shudder to think what will become the new normal in the next ten years.

Photo by Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

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