Pubdate: Wed, 28 Aug 2002
Source: News Leader, The (VA)
Copyright: 2002 News Leader


Two movies -- one old, and a classic, one new, and destined for the DVD 
scrap heap -- give us a look into the minds of those who would stop crime 
before it starts. In the first, 1942's "Casablanca," actor Claude Rains, as 
Captain Louis Renault, intones, "Round up the usual suspects" near the 
conclusion of the film. In the second, 2002's "Minority Report," homicide 
has become nearly obsolete, thanks to "pre-crime units" that arrest 
potential murderers before they can kill.

Truth, as they say, can be stranger than fiction. Enter the Wilmington, 
Del., police department, which in a case of life imitating art, aims to get 
a head-start on crime by compiling a database of "bad guys" before they do 
anything wrong. Round up the suspects on the list, Renault. Send out the 
pre-crime unit.

What is happening in Wilmington is this: Information on potential crime 
suspects -- many of whom have clean slates -- is being gathered. Photos are 
being taken, names and addresses are being listed. A lot of the information 
is collected by special police units created to fight drug dealing in the 
city, units that have come to be known in some Wilmington neighborhoods as 
"jump-out squads," for their habit of jumping out of cars and making quick 

Our concern is not with Wilmington's desire to crack down on drug dealing 
or crime in general; that's commendable. What is disturbing is the 
concerted effort by police units to gather information on innocent 
bystanders who might have nothing to do with the criminal activity 
occurring in their vicinity. A statement made by Wilmington's mayor, James 
Baker, is illuminating: "I don't care what anyone but a court of law 
thinks," Baker said. "If I say it's constitutional, it's constitutional."

That's a frightening attitude for someone in a position of power to have, 
an attitude that states, at its core, that the constitutionality of actions 
taken against citizens has been placed in the hands of one individual 
unless a court of law should decide later that it was a mistake. As nearly 
as we can recall, constitutions, state or federal, are designed to head off 
these kinds of bad decisions before they reach critical mass, not after 
they've gone to court. Placing the power to decide whether or not someone 
might be a bad person in the hands of law enforcement isn't a bright idea; 
police should deal with things that have happened, not those that may.

Our position on this issue is simple: Unless an individual is known to have 
been involved in a crime or police have probable cause to believe they may 
be a suspect in the commission of a crime, there is no reason to hold them 
or gather any information on them. Reduced to its lowest common 
denominator, this translates to "arrest the bad guys, let everybody else go."
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