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Congress Needs to Rein in the Security State the Way We Have in Maine

When it comes to weighing the importance of civil liberties against fear of a terrorist attack (or everyday criminal activity), the Beltway is trapped in 2005.
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When I became executive director of the ACLU of Maine in 2005, national security hawks controlled Washington, D.C., and the 9/11 attacks were still a very fresh memory around the country. The Patriot Act and the recently created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defined the public safety conversation. Pushing stricter oversight of law enforcement agencies was, in many circles, a non-starter.

Today, just nine years later, public opinion is further from that point than the most dedicated civil libertarian could have predicted. The Edward Snowden revelations and growing public opposition to law enforcement overreach - fueled by incidents like the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Mo. - have created an important moment for Congress to reconsider its hands-off, no-questions-asked approach to policing and security strategies around the country.

Some communities have already started taking their own measures to rein in excessive law enforcement practices. Maine is ahead of the country thanks to effective coalition-building between progressives, conservatives and libertarians - a model other states should follow. Because of the hard work of the ACLU and its allies, law enforcement officers in our state need a warrant to access individual cell phone records, monitor emails or track a cell phone. Police need a homeowner's permission before placing cameras on his or her property.

Unfortunately, you couldn't even get those common sense limits through today's Congress. Despite some chatter in Washington about the rise of libertarian politics, too many lawmakers in both parties still resist scrutinizing police or security agency conduct. When it comes to weighing the importance of civil liberties against fear of a terrorist attack (or everyday criminal activity), the Beltway is trapped in 2005.

Staying in that trap has had very costly and disturbing consequences, and they're playing out right now in Ferguson. We're not used to seeing police in military uniforms point rifles at pedestrians and non-violent protesters. To put it bluntly, Congress made that scenario possible, and it's asleep at the switch when oversight is most needed. No amount of state-level advocacy will end that. The Washington consensus is overdue for a shakeup, and change needs to come from within.

Any senator or representative looking for solutions doesn't need to search far. The Pentagon directly transfers armored vehicles to small towns and puts heavy weapons in the hands of neighborhood beat cops, but it's not alone. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, DHS has handed out more than $34 billion since 2001 in grants that local police have used to buy, among other items, surveillance drones and an Army tank.

Those purchases don't just speak to a lack of respect for taxpayer money. They speak to how profoundly the War on Terror and the Bush years changed the culture and mentality of law enforcement, and how drastically we need to reverse course. When the Pentagon hands a free Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected tank to the police department in Sanford, Maine, on the theory that it's better to have one than not, we've gone past protecting the public into militarizing small-town America.

Fixing this won't be easy. Even some of our reasonable restrictions in Maine only became law because the Legislature overrode Republican Gov. Paul LePage's vetoes. The campaign for better policing guidelines took a long time to build and depended on a lot of strong-willed people putting aside partisan differences that, in many cases, could have been fatal to the coalition. The important lesson to learn is that voters backed us up. None of our improvements have been repealed. There is no public clamor to return to the bad old days.

The same is true around the country. Voters don't want tanks on their streets or camouflage on their police officers. It's time for Congress to put the stale consensus aside, take a page from the Maine playbook and work together on an issue that doesn't present the political dangers it did in the 2000s.

The bottom line is that reasonable limits on police behavior are popular and make us all safer. If you disagree, ask a resident of Ferguson how safe he or she feels today.

Shenna Bellows is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine. She was the executive director of the ACLU of Maine from 2005 to 2013.

CORRECTION: This post previously stated that "every police department in the state has a mandatory policy against racial profiling." While this is a statewide recommendation for law enforcement agencies in Maine, it is not a legally enforceable mandate.

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