Saturday, August 30, 2008

Police Power in a Democracy

Limits of Law Enforcement Power

Schoharie County, located in central-Eastern New York state, is a sparely populated small rural community. Its citizens are given to profusely complementing the various public servants who live amongst them. Firemen, Rescue workers and police are their heroes and nary a harsh word is spoken of them.

This community is served by only one hometown weekly newspaper, The Times-Journal of Cobleskill. So perhaps it is not very surprising that the Times-Journal failed to print a letter to the editor critical of law enforcement and disagreeing with an editorial, two weeks in a row.

Not surprising yes, but very disappointing considering the state of our democracy and the need for citizens to be alerted to their responsibilities and the dangers of complacency.

I've posted the letter here for your consideration. Please pass it on to other county citizens, AmJam participants and law enforcement.

Note: AmJam refers to the American Motorcycle Jamboree, a gathering of Harley Davidson riders at the fairgrounds in Cobleskill each Memorial Day weekend.


13 August 2008

To the Editor
The Times Journal

Dear Editor,

Understanding Democracy and Executive Power:

State Police enforcement policy has been in the news lately. The July 2nd edition of the T-J reported that the Am-Jam organizers were threatening to leave Cobleskill because of the State Police harassment. The following week the paper included an editorial addressing the same issue.

The Am-Jam folks are justifiably angered by the State Police road blocks their participants are subjected to every year. There's little doubt some potential attendees are deterred, and the experience of those who do attend is significantly degraded, by the police harassment. In point of fact, the quality of life of all Schoharie County Citizens is negatively impacted by the State Police road blocks. Motorists of all descriptions are inconvenienced and annoyed.

When evaluating a public policy, such as law enforcement pressure, we would be well advised to consider all potential visitors as part of our community. We should not subject visitors to a level of law enforcement pressure we would not tolerate ourselves. I am in agreement with the T-J editorial which closed saying we should make visitors feel welcome, however, other editorial comments I find seriously misguided. The editorial stated: "We understand [the Am-Jam organizers] frustration, but she shouldn't expect State Police to back off." and "...Cobleskill Village officials aren't about to ask State Police to lay off, which amounts to asking Troopers to not do their job. This is unthinkable."

I disagree, it is entirely "thinkable," indeed it is our responsibility to comment on and influence law enforcement activities. And, our elected representatives, from the village level on up, are the proper conduit for citizens' input. We certainly can expect law enforcement to "back off" when an offensive policy is more than the citizens are willing to endure, or, if the policy is not supported in law.

State Police Major Spregue was quoted in the July 2nd story referring to "...the State Police...motorcycle safety check program." If the State Police have developed such a statewide motorcycle safety check program and applied it more stringently this year due to a sharp increase in motorcycle fatalities as reported in the news story, they should be able to provide documentation of the policy and statistics relevant to the reasons for and the effectiveness of the program. Major Sprague is also quoted as saying "Any event that draws Hell's Angels is going to be the focus of the State Police." This statement is all the justification needed for citizens to carefully examine the Trooper's behavior relevant to Am-Jam.

The State Police like to use the "Safety Check" rubric so as to allow them to throw the largest net possible, with the least manpower, while avoiding charges of unconstitutional intrusion upon citizen's movement and privacy. It is obvious that the application of this "safety check program" to Am-Jam attendees targets motorcyclists. Factor in the Major's comment about Hell's Angels and the law enforcement purpose of this "safety check" policy becomes very clear: That is the unconstitutional stop and search of certain motorists because of their assumed association with other citizens the police believe might be engaged in criminal activity.

If I am correct in my assessment, Major Sprague, Troop G, the State Police and the State of New York need to re-examine their motorcycle safety check policy, their Hell's Angels harassment policy, and revisit their relevant training efforts. Doing so might mitigate monetary awards resulting from litigation.

Citizens should not hesitate to question executive power and law enforcement policies. In a society ordered by the application of law it is sometimes the case that official enforcers become the law violators. It is every citizen's duty to be alert to that possibility and to speak out for correction of the problem.

To help your readers to more fully understand what is at play with this issue I must ask: How would the Agricultural Society and Schoharie County citizens respond if the State Police set up a vehicle safety check on S. Grand St. during the Sunshine Fair? How would the college, the students and their parents react if the Troopers decided to do their checkpoint in front of the college during student-parent visitation week?

Wayne Stinson
108 Southmeadow Dr.
Summit, NY 12175

Friday, August 29, 2008

Democracy In New York Election Administration

Is Citizen Oversight of Election Administration a Possibility?

In New York State two private, read restricted membership, organizations have been given exclusive responsibility for election administration. Both the state and local Boards of Elections are staffed with representatives of the two major partisan groups, the Republican and Democratic parties. These two organizations sometimes behave quite undemocratically and their continual combat to control ballot access is responsible for our extremely complex election law.

Perhaps the original drafters of New York’s Election Law were expecting the two major partisan organizations to represent all the citizens, however, the Boards of Elections, staffed only by loyal members of these two groups, do not, indeed can not, effectively represent the whole of their constituencies:

  • More than one quarter of eligible citizens are not registered to vote and therefore have no official partisan affiliation but they do have a stake in the effective administration of elections.

  • More than one-fifth of registered voters do not specify a party affiliation but they too have a stake in our elections.

  • A majority of registered voters who report a party affiliation do not strongly identify with that partisan group and are not active in partisan affairs but they do care how our elections are managed.

  • And, most significantly, voters reporting a minor party affiliation are not represented by the Democratic and Republican staff of the Boards of Elections but you can be sure they are intensely interested in how elections are administered.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that these two major partisan organizations do not exist to make democracy happen: they are more about power and control than sharing. We have often enough read or heard of ugly partisanship resulting in disenfranchisement of some voters or litigation to block ballot access. We must acknowledge that our quasi-governmental election administration system actually delivers control of the election administration chicken coop to the partisan foxes.

New York’s Election Law assigns authority to administer elections to the state and local Boards of Elections. Consequently, the partisan Election Commissioners believe they are autonomous and they generally are not responsive to legislative bodies or the public. Boards of Elections, while theoretically under the fiscal oversight of a legislative body, are actually far beyond effective control because of the lawmakers’ political dependence upon or deference to the partisan leaders. So it seems quite unreasonable to expect lawmakers to provide true oversight or to effectively represent citizens with respect to election administration.

I believe we can agree that oversight of our elections is properly a function of government, however, the existing Board of Elections system fails to serve government or our democracy. New York must reform its election administration system and that reform would best be accomplished by comprehensive study followed by the necessary legislation.

For those of us not comfortable waiting for a complete revamp of the Election Law there are democracy enhancing initiatives which could be put in place now. Legislative bodies could choose to exercise control over election administration by asserting their budgetary prerogatives. And, lawmakers might even flex their oversight muscles some while attempting to fulfill their fiscal responsibilities.

One possible initiative which could serve to enhance legislators’ oversight efforts while at the same time helping to fulfill democracy’s need for transparency is the creation of Citizen Advisory Boards for Election Administration. A cursory search (Google) turns up 28,000 Citizen Advisory Boards in .56 seconds. The examples I perused were government agencies or community-government cooperative projects. Obviously, a Citizen Advisory Board is not some wild way-out-there idea, it‘s been done again and again.

Such a board, composed of volunteers appointed by the legislative body, could serve the lawmakers by complementing their oversight duties. A Citizen Advisory Board could also somewhat insulate lawmakers from partisan pressure while at the same time assisting the Board of Elections with a variety of outreach services or training.

Citizen Advisory Boards could probably be implemented under the existing system without amending election law as long as care is taken to avoid usurping Board of Elections or legislative authority. It is important for enabling resolutions to clearly state to all affected that the service and findings of the Citizen Advisory Board should be respected and adhered to whenever possible.

Citizen Advisory Boards have the potential to bring elections back under the control of citizens. If care is taken to appoint only individuals who are truly representative of the community, and the board works diligently to maintain communication with the community, a Citizen Advisory Board will enjoy the respect of lawmakers, election officials and citizens alike.

The long term goal needs to be the complete reform of election administration but Citizen Advisory Boards would be a good start in our reform efforts.

Partisan organizations serve an important organizational purpose for citizens who want to be involved in supporting candidates, however, partisan groups and their operatives should not be administering our elections. With respect to our elections these groups and their individual operatives need to be restricted to candidate or observer status and nothing more.