Who’s in charge, anyway?

The news media reported recently the federal government had passed out $30 million to various law enforcement agencies throughout Texas. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson proudly announced she had seen to it the checks went out promptly and were distributed throughout Texas. This $30 million represents proceeds gleaned by seizing contraband while prosecuting the war on drugs. While I appreciate as a taxpaying citizen of Texas the fact that $30 million will be infused into Texas, I have serious misgivings about making our law enforcement personnel bounty hunters.

Part of the genius of our democratic society, which has served America well for generation after generation, is that we and our system have assured civilian control of not only our military but also our constabulary. Third-world countries are famous for having military juntas whereby the military has its own wherewithal and can take over control of the country. This has not happened in the United States, nor will it, so long as we maintain the careful control of our military and our quasi-military organizations such as police forces.

The principal way our elected government keeps control on the military and our policy is through controlling the purse strings. The current system of awarding police entities huge sums of money that have been confiscated as a result of drug busts or other police activity is that it short-circuits that system of control. Secondly, it sends the wrong message and wrong motivation to our policemen. If our local police force had the opportunity to respond quickly to a citizen call over an auto theft or respond to a drug bust on the interstate, which might net them thousands of dollars in grants later on, which do you think would take precedence? Allowing a police force to accumulate a slush fund of thousands if not millions of dollars to spend as they choose, free from the restraint of elected officials, can be a dangerous and counterproductive thing. The people we elect to local offices or to the Legislature should be the ones making the decision about which priorities in our spending system to honor. Elected officials should make the choice of buying more radios for more police cars or buying books for our public school system.

Past examples clearly demonstrate that allowing law enforcement a free hand in confiscated funds is not necessarily a good thing. The Department of Public Safety in the past has purchased more hand-held radios than there are hands to hold them employed by the DPS. Another poor example was the district attorney in Williamson County, Texas, who, several years ago, used his slush fund to purchase an antique automobile. When questioned about it, the district attorney allowed as how the use of this antique automobile was critical to his crime prevention program because he was able to use it to attract people to his speeches concerning how to keep young people from being engaged in the use of drugs.

Another cogent example of misuse or misplaced priorities was the district attorney at one time (not the current one) used several thousand dollars of seized funds in his discretionary fund to re-carpet and re-decorate his offices. Although the offices were handsomely appointed, it did little to lower the crime rate in Southeast Texas.While I appreciate policemen and police forces that serve and protect, I fervently believe money seized from crime-fighting operations belongs to the public, and it should be people elected by the public who set the priorities for the expenditures of these funds, not simply the whim or desire of a police official whom none of us gets to vote on.

Carl Parker has practiced law in Port Arthur since 1958. He is a 1958 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law. Elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and the Senate in 1976, Parker continued to practice law while writing and sponsoring hundreds of bills that became laws relating to every aspect of life in Texas, including many regarding consumer safety.