One of the basic foundations of a free republic is that the police don’t act as political henchmen for whoever happens to be in power. But a quick scan of this month's headlines suggests this basic principle of civil society is under threat.
The president of the United States has taken to Twitter to urge the FBI to investigate his political opponents. Closer to home, a teacher was arrested at a Vermilion Parish School Board meeting after she dared to ask a critical question about a big pay increase for the local superintendent. And in Jefferson Parish, three deputies who work for Sheriff Joe Lopinto have been caught spying on a candidate to replace him in the next election. Does this sound like America or a Third World dictatorship?
Reportedly, the three deputies, who have not yet been publicly named, went to a Jefferson Parish coffee house on their lunch break last fall and obtained surveillance footage of John Fortunato, Lopinto’s chief rival in the March 24 primary, as Fortunato met with a couple of other men who once helped lead the sheriff’s department.
Lopinto said the deputies acted on their own, without his direction, and that they’ll be “counseled” about their actions. “I expect more from my deputies,” the sheriff said. “I expect them to know better.”
If the deputies did, indeed, act alone, it’s troubling that they would assume such shenanigans would get a thumbs-up from their boss.
Lopinto’s assurance that the deputies didn’t use their police authority to secure the footage isn’t much of a comfort, either. Whether or not they flashed their badges, the deputies’ employment as officers of the law shouldn’t include moonlighting as political snoops. That can only serve to confuse the difference between police power and the public good.
Lopinto said he opened the internal affairs investigation of the deputies after “rumors” going around the Sheriff’s Office and a public records request the office received about the video. Lopinto’s assertion that he couldn’t recall any of the names of the deputies involved begs belief.
Lopinto should release the results of his investigation quickly and outline exactly what steps he plans to take to prevent such abuses in the future.
“Counseling” sounds like a vague solution for law enforcement officers caught eavesdropping on political candidates.
The best counsel here is history, which includes a lot of sad chapters about what happens when the police serve politicians rather than the public.