A GROWING number of critics say that federal police agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, pose an increasing danger to basic American freedoms.
Civil libertarians point to a series of violent events instigated by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and other federal police forces in recent years. Sometimes with only flimsy evidence, lawmen have stormed into private homes, shot innocent people, and then done nothing to rectify the damage.
The spotlight on police powers grew brighter this week as the murder trial of 11 Branch Davidian survivors got under way in San Antonio. Most of the Davidians, including leader David Koresh and 25 children, were killed last year during a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raid that went awry.
Critics, such as Paul Blackman of the National Rifle Association (NRA), say the Davidian disaster should have outraged the public. Instead, Attorney General Janet Reno won general applause for her handling of the case.
Now an unusual alliance of critics has asked President Clinton to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to investigate federal police practices in general.
The alliance, which includes the NRA and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a Jan. 10 letter to the White House that federal officers are guilty of ``numerous'' and ``widespread'' abuses of civil liberties, including in the Davidian case. The letter cites improper use of deadly force, physical abuse, entrapment, and unjustified paramilitary tactics.
Gene Guerrero, field director for the ACLU, says there is historical precedent for such a presidential commission. In 1929, troubled by corruption among federal police, President Herbert Hoover appointed an 11-member panel. The commission's study led to significant reforms.
Today, Washington commands a much larger police force of 79,000 officers who operate out of 53 federal agencies. They include the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, and the US Border Patrol, among others.
A number of attorneys, judges, congressmen, and other critics worry that the public's fear of crime is driving the country toward excessive police powers that could abrogate everyone's rights.
The ``drug war'' has prompted many of the government's extreme measures. Officials have seized billions of dollars worth of property without trial, conducted midnight raids on homes, and, with legislative backing, sharply expanded the nation's prison population.
Sometimes tough police action is aimed at unpopular religious groups, such as the Davidians, or unpopular political groups, such as white extremists.
``The Waco confrontation was not an isolated incident,'' says Laura Murphy Lee, director of the ACLU's Washington office.
One egregious case involved Randy Weaver, a former Green Beret who lived a law-abiding life with his family in a plywood cabin in a remote corner of Idaho.
ATF agents asked Mr. Weaver to infiltrate a local neo-Nazi group they were investigating. He refused, so they entrapped him. An ATF informer convinced Weaver to sell him two sawed-off shotguns, illegal under federal law. Weaver was then arrested, but still refused to spy.
Later, when Weaver failed to appear for his trial, federal agents staked out his cabin for 18 months, at a reputed cost of $1 million. As columnist Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinel says, ``this stupid federal farce'' then took a tragic turn.
One day, Weaver's dog discovered federal agents hiding near his cabin and began to bark. When Weaver's 14-year-old son and a friend investigated, an agent shot the dog. The son returned the fire, and an agent killed him with a bullet in the back. The friend then killed an agent. Soon after, a federal sharpshooter killed Weaver's wife as she stood holding an infant in her doorway.
Weaver surrendered and was charged with murder, assault, sale of the two shotguns, failure to appear at trial, and violating a court order. The jury threw out every charge but the last two.
Mr. Guerrero says federal police set an example for high standards for the nation for years. But no more, he says; many local police forces now exceed federal standards.
Other organizations signing the letter to the president were the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Drug Policy Foundation, Independence Institute, International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Second Amendment Foundation.