Ethics Dunce: Columbia, South Carolina Police Chief Ruben Santiago

The face of police power abuse in Columbia, S.C.

The face of police power abuse in Columbia, S.C.

If our culture did a minimally competent job communicating the essential right of free speech in the United States, people like Ruben Santiago wouldn’t think as the do—as they do being best described as ignorantly, censoriously, arrogantly and stupidly. Both the Left and the Right are to blame for the message not getting out to the public, and, consequently, members of the public who acquire governmental authority: the government can’t threaten you or harm you for mere speech…the Left through its attempts at political correctness, mind control and indoctrination in the schools, the Right in its efforts to use laws to curb expression involving sex and violence in the arts and entertainment.

In Columbia,Police Chief Ruben Santiago took to the Columbia Police Department Facebook page to announce that his officers had seized  $40,000 in marijuana from an apartment after a successful drug investigation. Citizen Brandon Whitmer, on his own page, took note of the arrest and opined, “maybe (police) should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points instead of worrying about a stoner that’s not bothering anyone. It’ll be legal here one day anyway.” Santiago replied ominously to Whitmer, saying, “(W)e have arrested all of the violent offenders in Five points. Thank you for sharing your views and giving us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal, we will work on finding you.”

Somebody  in the department with a working knowledge of the Constitution quickly got that post deleted, but Santiago defended it in a double-down post, writing,

“I put everyone on notice that if you advocate for the use of illegal substances in the City of Columbia then it’s reasonable to believe that you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity, threat? Why would someone feel threaten if you are not doing anything wrong? Apply the same concept to gang activity or gang members. You can have gang tattoos and advocate that life style, but that only makes me suspicious of them, I can’t do anything until they commit a crime. So feel free to express yourself, and I will continue to express myself and what we stand for. I am always open to hearing how our citizens feel like we can be effective in fighting crime.”

He also said that his original response should not have been deleted, as he stood by it.

Wowzers! Santiago is an interim chief, and if that interim isn’t over by now, it better be soon. He is an ethics dunce with a badge and gun, and that is always a dangerous situation:

  • It is not reasonable to believe that someone who advocates the legality of something that is currently illegal might be engaged in that illegal activity, any more than it is reasonable to believe that someone who vocally supports the law is trying to throw law enforcement off the track. Believing that a law should be changed is always a valid part of social discourse, whatever the law may be. Encouraging others to defy that law isn’t (though it is also protected speech), but Whitmer didn’t do that.
  • Nor did Whitmer really advocate the legality of pot. He merely  expressed the opinion that…

1) there were better uses of police resources than arresting drug dealers. That statement doesn’t constitute, by itself, a defense of drug dealers. If I read that a police department is cracking down on public urination, I can feel that this is a poor choice of priorities without thinking that it should be legal to take a wizz in the middle of Main Street; and

2) pot was going to be legal pretty soon. I hope not, but he may well be right. If I agree with him, does this mean in Chief Santiago’s fevered brain that I am also likely to be a pot head? Because it would be difficult for him to be more glaringly wrong…

  • “Why would someone feel threatened if you are not doing anything wrong?” This is the rationalization of the police state fascist. “Why not let us search you, if you have nothing to hide? Why not allow us to search your home without a warrant, if you are innocent?” Someone please tell Santiago, ideally without using the term “officious, power-abusing, jack-booted bully” as I would be tempted to, that in the United States of America, citizens don’t have to prove themselves innocent. They are presumed innocent, and are required to be treated as such by law enforcement and the courts until there is tangible and sufficient proof to the contrary. An expressed opinion is not evidence.
  • If the Chief knows he can’t do anything until a crime is committed,then he should know that he can’t “work on finding” Whitmer based on his Facebook post, which is not a crime, nor threaten him for posting an opinion, which in fact the Chief did.

What Chief Santiago also did is to threaten to use his power, which is government power, in an effort to curtail protected speech that he didn’t like. He may not do this. He is obligated to know he may not do this, as it is 6th grade civics. Since he either doesn’t know this, or did it anyway, he is unqualified to be a law enforcement official, at least in the U.S.

Maybe Damascus, Syria has an opening.

For the record, I hate Whitmer’s original comment. The first part is the rationalization “it’s not the worst thing” applied to law enforcement, an especially bad area for it, though any area is bad for this worst of all rationalizations. So as long as there are murders, police shouldn’t enforce any other laws? The idea is illogical and asinine. The second part–why worry about people who are breaking the law if the law is going to be changed?–is equally wrong-headed. It is the duty of the police to enforce a law as long as it is on the books, not to prognosticate when the law might be repealed.

I recently gave a legal ethics CLE seminar for a Cleveland law firm ,and had to include 30 minutes of anti-substance abuse instruction. The lawyers have to fulfill that credit along with the rest of their 2013 ethics requirements in continuing legal education. Next year, the substance abuse requirement will be eliminated, but an Ohio lawyer in 2013 who doesn’t take that 30 minutes will still be suspended. Is a thus suspended lawyer going to prevail if he argues, “Hey, what’s the big deal? This requirement will be eliminated next year, anyway!” Of course not. The required reply to that is, “And after it’s eliminated, then you won’t be punished for not meeting it. But as of now, you are in violation of the rule, and will be treated accordingly.” (Bonus reply: “And how did a doofus like you ever graduate from law school?”)

So yes, Whitmer’s post was annoying and dumb, but the First Amendment protects annoying and dumb as well as trenchant and inspiring. He may be a dunce, and even an ethics dunce, but he doesn’t have that badge and gun. Santiago does. Let’s hope that he doesn’t have them for long.

(Yes, I know: he apologized to Whitmer. This means that his superiors told him that he had made an ass of himself and his department and brought unwelcome publicity to Columbia, and he had better start backtracking, or else. Does that mean that he suddenly understands the limits of police power and the supremacy of free speech? Of course not. He’s still an Ethics Dunce; now he’s just an Ethics Dunce on a short leash….with a badge and a gun.)

ADDENDUM: As I was wrapping up this post, I learned that Ken White at Popehat has blogged about this episode, and intentionally didn’t read it, since Ken’s insightful analysis in this area is hard to match, and my fragile ego might be so bruised that I would be unable to complete my own essay. Now I’ll read it…

Okay, done.

Excellent job as usual, marred a bit by an obligatory  anti-war on drugs section, but Ken’s a libertarian and supports drug legalization, along with mots Popehat readers, and that does not diminish my respect for his abundant skills and accomplishments elsewhere.

I recommend his post—heck, I recommend all of Ken’s posts— which you can read here.


Facts: The Examiner

Sources : Raw Story, Popehat

Graphic: Raw Story

9 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Columbia, South Carolina Police Chief Ruben Santiago

  1. As the interim chief, the man doesn’t have “superiors”… What I suspect happened was the department’s lawyers walked into his office and beat him with a framed copy of the bill of rights.

  2. It’s not just “not the worst thing” rationalizing, though- it’s argument against the police dedicating massive resources to busting nonviolent drug criminals so they can seize assets for free cash, rather than the thankless and dangerous task of trying to rein in violence. You can see Santiago’s arrogance steaming off the statment that they have already “arrested all of the violent criminals in Five Points.”

    It’s not “This isn’t the worst thing, so ignore it,” it’s “This, right here, is one of the worst things, and you’re ignoring it because this other thing is more profitable.”

    • Yes, he had a point, but not a very good one. If the bust really was for $40,000 of pot, that is a significant amount and people that deal in that amount of drug money are causing problems in society, not minding their own business (I feel this is what undermined his point). Now, if the police bragged about citing 25 high school students for possession of small amounts of marijuana and someone complained that very little had been done to solve the rash of robberies and home invasions in their neighborhood, that would be a better point.

      • However, a lot of the “trouble to society” stems directly from the clandestine nature of drugs.

        This is very much the same reason that gay culture for so long was involved in the seedier element of society – when you force something underground, it will always gravitate towards riskier and less desirable behavior. Gay culture was largely a “hookup” culture because long-term relationships were virtually impossible due to society acting very negatively (and often violently) to such.

        The more a think is brought out into the open and into the light, it will shed such things, just like gay culture has been doing for the last several decades.

        • The key distinction is that gay relationships do no harm whatsoever, cost society nothing, lead to no accidents, cause no addiction, destroy no marriages, wreck no business, add nothing to the tax bill…etc. (well, not often) Substance abuse does. I agree that being driven underground causes problems. I doubt that eliminating those problems approach compensating for what widespread substance abuse will do. Alcohol abuse still has a stigma, and is often done in the shadows. Should we encourage open alcohol abuse too?

      • I don’t mean that this specific arrest wasn’t worth it- my feelings about whether pot should be legal aside, it IS illegal, and this is a huge violation. I just mean that you don’t have to say pot laws shouldn’t be enforced at all, to think the police spend way too much effort and rhetoric promoting themselves as drug warriors.

  3. The argument that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear is fundamentally the most chilling utterance a person can make. It is intended to elevate the maker of the statement to a morally superior position and shut down any opposing points of view. It is most often used when the maker has no rational basis for the argument it proffers.

    If the user of the tactic would be required to undergo a complete invasion of his/her own privacy prior to any subsequent investigation of the unwilling participant, I doubt that they would agree to that invasion of personal privacy. These tactics are designed to intimidate individuals into compliance.

    As the digital world becomes a greater presence in our daily lives the implied right of privacy that undergirds most if not all of our Constitutional liberties is fast becoming extinct. The fear that I have is that government could exploit a Constitutional loophole in that they can demand personal information from third party corporations, who willingly oblige to avoid retaliatory regulation or litigation.

    To fully participate in our society efficiently we must also participate in private activities that require us to provide personal data that can be tracked, monitored, aggregated, disaggregated, and correlated for marketing purposes. We grant this information without thought so we can use the service offered. When we do, we grant a property right to our personal data that at present cannot be rescinded. We do not have the right to be advised of a government inquiry into our online activities nor do we have the ability to demand a warrant prior to the inquiry. Because corporations bear little consequence of compliance with a government’s subpoena duce tecum – with no risk of prosecution relating to the data retrieved, and can incur high costs to prevent governmental intrusion into our activities, there is little economic reason for the corporation to protect us from such an intrusion.

    Thus the questions become, is it ethical for government officials to employ strategies to obtain non-public information from others who would not otherwise freely share such information to anyone, that the government could not Constitutionally obtain in any other manner? Should there also be a requirement on corporations, such that individuals who give private information to use a provided service should be afforded the opportunity to check a box on the privacy statement to deny government access to the information without the government first presenting a statement of probable cause to an impartial magistrate who grants the warrant prior to any search of data?

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