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‘Lawful but awful’ policing is problem here too

‘Lawful but awful’ policing is problem here too

‘Lawful but awful’ policing is problem here too

A new book by an American expert in the field of policing holds widespread lessons for Australia.

“Barry Friedman, Professor of Law and Director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, delivers a powerful treatise on 21st century American policing with ‘Unwarranted: Policing without permission’, is how book reviewer, Robert Costello of the State University of NY Nassau Community College, describes it.

‘Unwarranted’ outlines the problems of policing in America in the early 21st century, and suggests cures for the ills. There are more similarities than differences in police problems in Australia, compared with the USA, even though Oz police do not have a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach.

But Australian police suffer from the same un-transparent, closed brotherhood attitudes that hides errors, places workplace acquaintance above reporting of unlawful police behaviour, and exists in continual denial of lack of integrity and competence issues affecting a too-large proportion of police.

The result is petty bullying and harassment on a regular basis by some police officers, and gross misbehaviour and conceptual errors leading to wrongful convictions, as proven over decades in wrongful conviction after wrongful conviction in WA, for example.

Costello writes that the book covers issues of the past two decades, from terrorist attacks, through major international leaks to individual police shooting of unarmed civilians.

“Friedman explains all books are born out of specific times and places – this grew from a series of events: from 9/11 (in 2001) to Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about US government surveillance to the shooting of unarmed black adolescent Michael Brown by police in Missouri a year later,” Costello writes.

“These seemingly disparate events came to symbolize American policing for Friedman with his book providing a detailed diagnosis – identifying illnesses and prescribing cures.

Shrouded in secrecy

“Whether it is the vast surveillance network of citizens by federal authorities or the street-level enforcement by a local police department, Friedman posits that policing in America is shrouded in secrecy that surrounds no other function of government. Moreover, the little information law enforcement must provide by law paints a very disturbing picture.

“One startling example involves searches of people and cars. Despite the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee that ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized,’ Friedman highlights that 8 million searches of only people and cars (not counting homes or offices) are conducted annually

“Other examples include the use of deadly force (in 2015 police killed 1000 citizens with 10% being unarmed), the expanded use of SWAT raids (potentially 50,000 to 80,000 per year), and roadside digital anal and vaginal exams on the thinnest of pre-texts.

“The American public has given the police wide latitude to how it operates surrendering a fundamental role in a democracy – to oversee those who act in their name. The cure for policing without permission is democratic policing – a form of policing that requires front-end accountability meaning that rules are enacted before police act, the public may provide input prior to their enactment and once enacted the rules are available for all to view,” Costello writes.

The need for greater police supervision by citizens, for more transparency of police and their systems, and for greater accountability, has strong resonance in Australia across all police forces, CLA believes.

‘Lawful but awful’ policing

“Friedman advocates all government actors within the justice system need to recalibrate their work away from the notion that if the courts rule something is constitutional it is permissible to do it. This mentality has led to the ‘lawful, but awful’ policing that plagues too many jurisdictions,” Costello writes.

“Policing has drastically changed over the past several decades due to technology and the ongoing threat of terrorism. Part III covers 21st century policing with discussions of timely issues such as surveillance technology, government databases, third-party informants, and national security.

“Once again Friedman does a masterful job at offering an in-depth analysis of these problems with concrete measures to address them. The fight against terrorism has blurred the jurisdictional distinction between Federal law enforcement such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations and state/local law enforcement as most local departments, especially in large cities like New York City and Los Angeles, now operate counter terrorism units – an area of sole concern of the federal agencies prior to 9/11, Costello writes.

These problems are exactly mirrored in Australia, CLA believes.

American policing in the 21st Century is much like American life in the 21st Century—while technological advancements may make our living conditions easier, life itself remains marred by injustice, inequality, and instability.

Costello writes that an interview of Friedman by Jeffrey Rosen at the National Constitution Center where he discusses this book and the Policing Project, which can be found at

‘Unwarranted: Policing without permission’ Friedman, Barry: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2017; 327 pp. ISBN 978-0-374-28045-1 $28 USD (hbk) Reviewed by: Robert Costello, State University of New York Nassau Community College, New York, USA

This book review was found on the Australian Institute of Criminology website:

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