Bethlehem City Council’s decision to remove a resolution to protect civil rights and civil liberties from Tuesday’s agenda — a decision that was supported by an editorial in The June 17 Express-Times — reflects either a surprising lack of understanding about the proposed resolution or a real disregard for people’s safety and security.
According to Council President J. Michael Schweder, “a majority of the Council thinks that it does not pertain to city business”. Instead of passing a resolution to protect people, he said, Council will act only after they hear of people’s rights being violated. Not only is this “head in the sand” approach irresponsible, it won’t work — the USA PATRIOT Act makes it a federal crime to reveal to anyone that an action has even taken place under several sections of the act.
We who live in the United States are indeed fortunate that civil rights and civil liberties are guaranteed in the constitution, but that does not mean we can take them for granted. Without the right to free speech, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to disagree with the government we would not have a free society. And without due process — including a warrant based on probable cause, the right to counsel, the right to confront the evidence against them, and the right to judicial review of every step — no one is free from the threat that they will be detained based on unfounded suspicion, rumors, profiling, incompetence, or just for daring to disagree with the government. Perhaps that’s why the founders created the Bill of Rights and why the framers of the Pennsylvania constitution were so careful to protect civil rights and civil liberties.
As for the notion that protecting people’s rights is “not city business”, we need look only as far as the oath of office taken by local officials in Pennsylvania, in which they swear “to support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania”.
Aside from the oath of office, is it reasonable to ask local government to be concerned with protecting people’s civil rights? The Express-Times editorial says, “Local government leaders’ time is best spent focused on local problems over which they have direct control. Taxes. Zoning. Law enforcement. Redevelopment. Municipal services.”
Zoning and taxes are indeed very important matters for local government, but if Council members — and the editors of the Express-Times — would take time to study the proposed resolution, they would see that it actually is directed at local issues; only incidentally does it ask federal lawmakers to re-examine the USA PATRIOT Act.
It hard to understand how any local government would claim that this is not city business, because most people probably agree that one of the most important responsibilities of local government is public safety: protecting people from threats to their personal freedom, property, or quality of life. And we certainly want our local governments to make sure that our local employees don’t assist the criminals!
This is true whether the threat comes from a common criminal, from someone who disturbs the peace, from a terrorist, or from a business that has no regard for neighbors — or from a federal agency that is willing to act in ways that violate the constitution. Yes, federal agents sometimes think some current goal is more important than the principles on which this country was founded, and then they become a threat to the safety and security of innocent people. Look at the recent case of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was detained for weeks in Spain because FBI agents insisted that they had conclusive evidence that he was involved; only later did the FBI admit what the Spanish police had insisted all along: the fingerprint was not Mayfield’s at all. We don’t know whether the agents were careless, overzealous, or just plain incompetent, but we do know that they were wrong, and an innocent person paid for their error.
So what should police officers and other city employees do if agents from the FBI or the bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE — successor to the INS) ask them to assist with searches or supply information without a warrant?
What if they are asked to investigate or detain people based on ethnic profiling?
What if they are asked to spy on religious, environmental, or political groups?
What if they are asked to interfere with peaceful protest or arrest the participants?
Let’s be clear: all these actions are permitted under the USA PATRIOT Act and related measures rushed through in the name of “homeland security”. And the fact that they are prohibited by the both the federal and state constitutions has not been sufficient, because they have all taken place in various cities throughout the country in the last year or so. Residents should insist that local employees do their best to protect them and that they do not violate — or help others to violate — anyone’s rights. (Officers who participate in such activities are actually breaking the law — the Supreme Law of the Land.)
Bethlehem Police Commissioner Francis Donchez — who has a law degree from Temple in addition to his many years of law enforcement experience — researched the Patriot Act and told Council that it presents many opportunities for abuse. A local resolution would not interfere with any legitimate law enforcement activity, he said, but would help the city avoid being drawn into violating people’s rights under pressure from federal agents. Commissioner Donchez told Council that a local resolution — or an ordinance — would reassure people that Bethlehem police will not violate their rights.
The success of local law enforcement depends on the professionalism of the officers — and on trust between residents and law enforcement. This is one of the reasons why the City of Bethlehem recently established a task force to make community policing in the city even stronger. When federal agents recruit local police to investigate or detain people unjustly, it destroys this trust and undermines the effectiveness of the police force.
In addition to possibly violating people’s rights, federal requests for services amount to “unfunded mandates” that increase local costs or divert city employees from what they are paid to do.
These are all important local issues. The idea that they should not be matters for local action is a dangerous one, because it trivializes people’s concerns for safety and ignores the ways that local decisions and the actions of city employees affect people’s civil rights and civil liberties.
With all due respect to the Bethlehem City Council and to the editors of the Express-Times, the notion that protecting civil rights and civil liberties does not pertain to city business ignores the facts and encourages elected officials to ignore their oath of office.
June 15, 2004 – Key Elements of the proposed resolution
Bill of Rights Defense Committee of the Lehigh Valley
313 W. Fourth Street • Bethlehem, PA 18015