CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is calling on members of the Charlottesville City Council to push back against the growing menace of militarized police forces which have in recent years become increasingly aggressive towards non-violent criminal suspects and innocent people going about their daily business. Citing recent incidents in the Charlottesville area where law enforcement officials have used an unwarranted amount of force to subdue non-violent criminal suspects, including an April 2013 incident in which a University of Virginia student was approached by gun wielding plainclothes law enforcement officials working for Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control because she was suspected of purchasing alcohol underage, when in fact she had merely purchased sparkling water, Whitehead warns against the increasingly aggressive and violent tactics of local, state, and federal police investigating routine incidents. In a letter to the City Council, he has called on the members of the Council to condemn these tactics and exercise oversight and discretion in protecting Charlottesville citizens from these misguided policies.
“The hyper-militarization of local and city police forces is becoming a problem that needs to be addressed,” said Whitehead, who addresses these very issues in his new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (SelectBooks, 2013). “Along with this hyper-militarization of police forces has come a host of excuses for bothering people going about their daily business. If it stands for anything, the Fourth Amendment stands for the idea that the burden is on law enforcement officers to provide us, the law abiding public, with a justification for their encroachment on our daily lives – not the other way around.”
In calling on the Charlottesville City Council to exercise oversight over police forces operating within the city limits, Whitehead cites an April 2013 incident in which Elizabeth Daly, a young college student at the University of Virginia, was leaving the Harris Teeter grocery store at the Barracks Road Shopping Center carrying a variety of foodstuffs for a sorority charity benefit that evening. When Elizabeth approached her vehicle in the darkened parking lot, she was met by more than half a dozen screaming and gun-wielding men in dark clothing. Justifiably petrified, Elizabeth and her two roommates attempted to flee the parking lot to safety in her SUV, immediately calling 9-1-1 once clear of the danger. As a result of this incident, Elizabeth was charged with three felonies carrying a potential of five years in jail each. It turned out that the plainclothes individuals were Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Enforcement Officers. Yet Elizabeth had not done anything wrong, for she was simply purchasing cans of sparkling water. Citing this and other incidents, Whitehead makes the case to City Council that incidents like Elizabeth Daly’s are becoming all too familiar in cities and towns across the country. Calling on City Council and other city leaders to address these issues before a tragic incident occurs, Whitehead writes, “It is only a matter of time before an incident like this ends in tragedy. If Elizabeth had been armed and attempted to defend herself against what she justifiably believed to be a group of unknown attackers, she or one of the officers very well could have ended up killed or seriously injured, over nothing more than cans of sparkling water.”