Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission by Barry Friedman
As inner city crime, police brutality, terrorism and invasive surveillance continue to permeate the news, potential roads toward societal harmony grow elusive. Is such a goal an idealistic holy grail, or could an honest examination of our past and present help move the needle forward? This domain of discourse is often portrayed as a cutthroat war of police vs. civilians, government vs. public. In Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, Professor Barry Friedman certainly holds those in power accountable for the ways they’ve abused their arsenal. But he equally admonishes the general voting public for not exercising their democratic power designed to hold these big guys in check. Though Friedman generally lends a trustworthy ethos—especially for such a polarizing subject matter—Unwarranted never really soars off the page and into the heart. While none of this book’s well-researched chapters are particularly misguided, the resulting sum isn’t impassioned or memorable.
To his credit, Friedman presents a comprehensive array of police and surveillance overreach that can only be described as startling. Highway troopers conduct anal and vaginal cavity searches on the thinnest of pretexts. Law enforcement organizations use cell phone tracking devices to keep tabs on the operations of peaceful protestors. A lot of it is frightening and all of it is real. We’re on track for a near future with omnipresent mosquito drones, swooping in to take DNA samples without you knowing.
Unwarranted’s most alarming sections serve as an obituary to the fourth amendment. By tracking its origins in English common law, and the revolution-era incidents that led to public demand for such a protection, readers will find an interesting portrait of how and why the amendment against unreasonable search and seizures arose. With this original intent in mind, you will be disgusted to learn the different ways judges have chipped away at this important protection throughout the generations. The late Antonin Scalia outlined 22 particular exceptions, resulting in a tattered amendment resembling Swiss cheese.
The underlying principles in the book are undoubtedly relevant. There are many effectively described patterns of police entitlement, surveillance overreach, and a culture of sweeping inconvenient incidents under the rug. Friedman hopes these incidents will invoke your ire and he often succeeds. Still, police officers are hardly portrayed as manipulative devils responsible for 100% of the problem. The author effectively demonstrates that the fault lies in part with the civilian population who could better use the power of civic engagement, especially at more local levels, to help enact beneficial law enforcement policies.
For such a hot button issue susceptible to impassioned bias, Unwarranted boasts a generally level-headed presentation. This makes it all the more inexcusable that specific moments are punctuated with informal eruptions, awkwardly out of place. More than once, the outburst “Really?” punctuates a point, sometimes getting its own paragraph. Are we reading a scholarly work of nonfiction or watching a Seth Meyers SNL segment? The majority of this book leans heavily toward the former, making the occasional moans and jabs convey a jarring lack of restraint. Airport security is described as a pain in the kiester, and the general public is mourned as taking it on the chin.
While certainly containing multiple relevant case studies and hyper-current concepts, Unwarranted somehow never emerges as a compelling book to read. Perhaps Friedman examines too wide a scope in his thesis; maybe the inconsistent voice never fully convinces the reader they’re in good hands. For grad students and researchers seeking a wide swath of contemporary law enforcement issues, this book is useful as a springboard for further in-depth research. For casual readers looking for an accessible, compelling work, there aren’t enough standalone merits to pass muster. The works of Naomi Klein and Glenn Greenwald better serve that demographic. Though Friedman’s intent is noble and warranted, this book can’t quite materialize a meaningful way forward.