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Commentary: When Libertarians go bad

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2009 - I am commonly branded a fascist, a socialist, a war-mongering right-wing authoritarian, a dangerously deluded left-wing pacifist, an intolerant Calvinist, an amoral relativist, and -- most painfully -- a liberal. I guess it all depends on your point of view: Sharing my thoughts with people seems to make them eager to associate me with their adversaries.

In reality, I am probably one of the least ideological souls roaming the planet. Ideology is the secular equivalent of religious faith, and I believe that faith belongs in church. Proper analysis of public policy, on the other hand, requires pragmatic skepticism. If abstinence-only sex education for kids worked, I'd be all for it. Because every reliable study on the subject indicates that it does not, I'm opposed.

Does that mean that I don't care if my daughters become promiscuous? Of course not. But private morality is just what its name implies: private.

If I must be labeled, the one that comes closest to fitting is probably "libertarian," although I do not agree that people necessarily know what's best for them. I oppose forced smoking bans, helmet laws for motorcyclists and mandatory seat belt ordinances even though it is clear that smoking is lethal, that anybody nutty enough to get on a motorcycle ought to wear a helmet and that seat belt use saves lives.

The problem with trying to enforce desirable private behavior by legislative fiat is that such well-intentioned efforts tend to reduce citizens to the role of children before their government. Children often need to be protected from themselves -- "No, Johnny, you can't play Frisbee on the roof" -- but adult choices that imperil no one but the actor are none of a democratic government's business.

The aspect of my country I love best is its reputation for being the "Land of the Free."

I mention all of this to explain why, despite a lifetime spent in law enforcement, I harbor no particular animosity toward the American Civil Liberties Union. I enjoy civil liberties and generally support those who advocate on their behalf. Said support, however, does not constitute a blanket endorsement of the organization.

In June 2007, the ACLU launched "Project Vigilant" in the predominantly African-American Fairgrounds Park neighborhood in north St. Louis. This initiative, which involved issuing video cameras to private citizens to record police misconduct, garnered widespread local press coverage and was eventually picked up by wire services, making it a national story for a day or two.

At the time, I appeared on KMOV-TV to debate the project with Redditt Hudson of the ACLU. Hudson, who had served briefly on the St. Louis Police Department, is described in his online bio as a "Racial Justice Manager."

He seemed like a decent sort and our respective commentaries, although adversarial, were certainly civil. I predicted then that the effort would yield meager results.

A year later, I wrote a column for the Beacon to report that 365 days of video vigilance had failed to document a single police transgression. To the best of my knowledge, no other media outlet bothered to follow up on the story.

Now 22 months into the effort, we still haven't seen an instance of the supposedly ubiquitous police oppression that spurred the initiative in the first place. Born with a bang, Project Vigilant appears to have died without so much as a whimper.

Undeterred by underwhelming results, ACLU rep Hudson has returned to the local news circuit. According to a March 24 Beacon story, he's authored a 74-page report that tells of places where "human dignity is contemptuously disregarded, and civil liberties violations and physical abuse of residents are covered up regularly by officials at both facilities.

Among the more sensational accusations made by the initially unnamed guards who supplied all of the material for Hudson's expose (one came forward after the city belittled anonymous complaints), are allegations of "overcrowding ... so severe that inmates were sleeping under beds and toilets, sometimes in vomit and feces," "cover-ups of beatings," prisoners who "commonly had clothes taken" and were forced "to sleep naked on cold, bare floors" and a female inmate beaten "repeatedly" and "ordered ... to sleep nude for 15 days."

While stipulating that jail life provides the same venue for bleak pictures that the circus does for cotton candy, I'm pragmatically skeptical of these allegations. To understand why, it is necessary to distinguish between jails and prisons and to understand how the city correctional system is structured.

The St. Louis sheriff's office, where I currently work, has nothing to do with the administration of either of the detention facilities in the city. That responsibility falls to the Department of Corrections, under the director of public safety at City Hall.

The sheriff houses his prisoners at both the downtown Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution on Hall Street, commonly called "The Workhouse." Speaking metaphorically, the sheriff operates the "limo service" for the city's "hotels" -- he transports "guests" to and from the facilities but oversees neither.

Both the Justice Center and Workhouse are jails -- institutions designed for the temporary detention of a highly transient population -- as opposed to prisons, which are intended for the long-term incarceration of convicted offenders. Due to the high-volume criminal docket in the city, almost all jail inmates are either fugitives from other jurisdictions or defendants awaiting trial here.

Prisoners are typically transported to either a hospital for medical treatment or to the courts for proceedings on their case. At these locations, they meet with doctors, nurses, social workers, defense attorneys and judges. Additionally, they are provided access to phones while incarcerated.

Of the literally thousands of prisoners who process through these institutions each month, don't you think one of them might mention to somebody in the outside world that he's being routinely beaten and forced to sleep naked in feces beneath a toilet?

Then again, I freely admit that I've made staying out of jail a life-long habit. Maybe the city really is operating a subterranean gulag.

Perhaps the ACLU should issue camcorders to inmates to document their abuse. I hear Project Vigilant has some that have never been used ...

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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