I’m going to write something fresh about Ferguson, Missouri, and the once-extraordinary notion that law enforcement officers — uniquely authorized, trained and armed as they are to use lethal force against American civilians in peacetime as is necessary to serve the commonweal — need not be identified when they have in fact taken a human life. The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian. The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing. And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy. After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?
It would be nice to think that this new notion of frightened and vulnerable police officers, taking life anonymously and then hiding behind claims of imminent and actual threat, is some fresh hell of sudden origin, and that this Missouri police department is alone in having lost its moral compass. Not so.
As Orson Welles famously pointed out, police work is only easy in a police state. And there is a temptation — in these days of shrinking institutional journalism — on the part of much larger law enforcement agencies to make their jobs very easy indeed. Before we get to Ferguson and the present tragedy, indulge me by reviewing a twelve-year-old opinion piece, written for the Baltimore Sun in the wake of a shooting by a special agent that the FBI field office declined to identify: From the March 12, 2002 edition of that paper:
Here’s A fundamental truth about police work in America:
In this country, only a law enforcement officer has the authority to use deadly force against fellow citizens in time of peace. As a well-armed society, we find it necessary to arm our law officers as a consequence and to accept that they will have to use those weapons as an act of personal deliberation.
This is an extraordinary right. But on foot patrol, in a radio car, on drug raids or during car stops, there can be no body politic to deliberate such matters. It comes down to a solitary civil servant reaching for the right decision in a terrifying instant. We train people for that instant. We pray that they act correctly.
One other fundamental truth about police work was absolutely clear to nearly everyone, save for the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office and, perhaps, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland: If American citizens grant law officers the right to carry and use firearms with deadly force, it comes with an equal measure of responsibility.
When a firearm is used in the line of duty, an individual and an agency are both responsible for that action.
If a law officer exercises his right to lethal force, his actions are accounted and declared to the public he serves. He does not hide behind an arbitrary grant of anonymity; he is publicly identified as an acknowledgment that when he accepted the extraordinary rights granted to a law officer, he also accepted the responsibilities.
The recent shooting of an unarmed suspect by Special Agent Christopher Braga, 35, of the Baltimore field office of the FBI during a traffic stop in Anne Arundel County seems, at first glance, to be a tragic failure on the part of that agency and of one agent in particular.
Yet initially, the FBI resisted all efforts by the public to identify Special Agent Braga. The U.S. attorney for Maryland remained mute. They held to this policy for a week. And when the FBI released the agent’s name, officials said they did so only because local newspapers, having obtained the information from other sources, were forcing their hand.
Yet every other police agency in this country understands that when one of its officers uses deadly force, it is an action that demands accountability to the public. Moreover, many of those agencies — if asked — would also provide information indicating whether a specific officer had been involved in past shootings and, further, whether any citizen complaints against an officer for excessive use of force had been sustained by administrative review. How else for the public to know whether a problem might exist with a particular officer?
Local FBI officials said they were following a bureau-wide policy in refusing to identify the responsible agent. Perhaps, but the policy is both wrong and contemptuous of the citizenry the FBI seeks to serve. Beyond that, the agent in charge of the Baltimore office suggested that the anonymity of agents needs to be maintained to protect them from possible retribution.
Maryland troopers, federal ATF agents and Baltimore police officers who every day police some of the toughest terrain in America are routinely identified by their agencies when they exercise deadly force. Are all of those law officers at lesser risk than FBI agents? And what about ordinary citizens asked by law enforcement to assist their efforts by testifying openly in criminal courts, knowing that they can be identified publicly for doing so.
Even as the agent was finally identified, FBI officials couldn’t help but reveal just how self-serving and ethically bankrupt their policy actually is. Lynne A. Hunt, the head of the Baltimore FBI office, noted that Special Agent Braga is a former Marine officer, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran and a trained member of an FBI tactical team. Adding that Special Agent Braga is a husband and father of three young children, Special Agent Hunt said she did not want him to be perceived as a “faceless agent.”
She thereby made it clear that when the FBI believes that information about an agent involved in the shooting of a citizen might be perceived in a positive light, she and the bureau stand ready to provide it. Presumably, if the agent involved had no military service, a spotty record with the bureau and a divorce from a childless marriage, then faceless he might remain.
Given that the FBI’s actions in this matter have suddenly gone from a blanket declaration of policy to a belated attempt at spin, how is the public to believe that the bureau’s review of this matter will lead to a full airing of facts? Can this same Special Agent Hunt be relied upon to reveal the full facts of the probe, or will we hear from her only when certain facts serve her agency’s interest?
If FBI officials here wish to retain the right to exercise deadly force against Maryland citizens — as well as the respect of that citizenry — they, and the U.S. attorney who oversees them, will take a hard look at their performance in this matter. And they will find a way to achieve the kind of public accountability required of all other law enforcement officers.
* * *
When that op-ed ran a dozen years ago, the FBI’s effort to cloak its agents in anonymity was a unique affront to accountability and the public’s right to know in my state. But not for long. In part two, we’ll revisit the Baltimore Police Department less than a decade later, following the U.S. Justice Department down the same ugly road. And if you think such criticism as offered above gave the FBI the slightest pause, think again. Justin Fenton, currently of The Sun, tells me that he is still waiting for the local field office of the bureau to properly identify the agents who killed a citizen in Owings Mills, Maryland back in April. The citizens of Maryland are still not allowed to know the identities of the federal agents who kill them, to evaluate the service histories or past behavior of those agents, to know whether this is the first time an agent has used lethal force or the tenth. For the FBI, police work in these United States has been made very easy indeed. On to Part II, seven years down this bad road, where the same virus infects local law enforcement: