A year ago, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, a bill that expands law enforcement’s power to carry out searches without warrants, conduct surveillance on citizens, and obtain sensitive records without judicial oversight. Civil libertarians responded furiously, and campaigns began sprouting around the country to resist the feds’ growing powers.
Berkeley, Calif., Denver, Colo., several municipalities in Massachusetts, and some 30 other cities have drafted resolutions in opposition to the act. Portland Police Chief Andrew Kirkland refused to cooperate with the FBI in its efforts to interview Middle Eastern men on the basis that such questioning would violate Oregon state law. Detroit Police Chief Charles Wilson declared that his officers would not “go out and treat people like criminals,” and that his officers would stand for “the fundamental rights of individuals under the Constitution.”
Now some Missoula City Council members want to pass their own opposition resolution, but Missoula Police Chief Bob Weaver isn’t the civil disobedient his peers in Portland and Detroit have proven to be. He’s more concerned with steering his department’s duties clear of political posturing.
Locally spearheaded by Ward Three Councilman John Torma, “A resolution to protect our Bill of Rights” has bubbled to the surface at the Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee meetings. The current draft of the resolution calls on local law enforcement to continue preserving Missoulians’ rights “even if requested or authorized to infringe upon these rights by federal law enforcement” emboldened by the Patriot Act.
But Council has made it clear that it doesn’t want the resolution to cause problems for Missoula police, and the city wants Weaver’s stamp of approval before bringing it to a vote. After meeting with Torma and Ward Three Councilwoman Lou Ann Crowley, Chief Weaver examined the revised document.
“It probably serves as a good political document, but it certainly isn’t a law enforcement document,” he says. “A law enforcement document just isn’t political.”
For Weaver, much of the resolution’s rhetoric is obvious. “Like with other police departments across the country, we don’t need the City Council or anyone else to tell us we need to uphold the state Constitution and local law,” he says.
No official action is planned to take place until the Public Safety and Health Committee has met with Weaver. Council members want to be satisfied they aren’t insulting or sabotaging local law enforcement, and want to better understand the relationship between local and federal law enforcement.
“Both John [Torma] and I worried that it might undermine the trust that I need to rely on,” says Weaver. “But I think that’s been addressed [in the latest draft].”
But even if the chief blesses the resolution, its passage isn’t a sure thing. Several members of council didn’t show support for the resolution when it first surfaced this summer, and show no indication of supporting it now.
“If you have a problem with the USA Patriot Act you need to take it up on the federal level,” says Ward Six Councilmen Clayton Floyd. “I don’t want to impugn the integrity of our chief or the department until there’s a reason to make it an issue.”