Skip to main content

“There's just no accountability today,” complains Sheriff Michael Lewis of Maryland's Wicomico County. Sheriff Lewis was not expressing concerns over the institutionalized impunity of law enforcement officers, but rather disgust over public criticism of police by “defiant” people who “hate law enforcement,” and the fact that some school-age kids are allowed to watch TV and play video games late on school nights.

“I think there's a complete lack of accountability with this generation that's coming up today,” Sheriff Lewis groused to Fox News host Leland Vittert in a recent interview. “You can go into a home at 2:30, 3:00 in the morning, on a weeknight and there are kids awake and watching TV, playing video games, eating snacks out of bags on a sofa, knowing they have to be in school in a few hours,” the sheriff elaborated, his face contorted in disgust.

" width="790" height="444" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen">

(Video courtesy of Radley Balko.)

Bad habits of that kind on the part of teenagers may be deplorable, but the kind of police behavior to which Lewis alludes is typical of totalitarian states and much more troublesome than school-age kids wasting their time in front of game consoles.

Despite the fortunate fact that there have been fewer on-duty violent deaths of police officers so far this year than there had been at this time in 2014, Lewis retailed the idea that law enforcement officers face unprecedented deadly dangers on the job – and off-duty, as well. He informed Vittert that he had sent an e-mail to all employees of the Wicomico Sheriff's Office instructing them to avoid wearing badges or other identifiers while off duty “to protect themselves, to protect their families.”

“I've never seen it like this, Leland,” Lewis intoned. “It's a scary, scary time for law enforcement in this country.”

In addition to teenage delinquents who play videogames at scandalous hours of the early morning, Lewis added the “violent” rhetoric of police critics such as the Black Lives Matter movement to the list.

While most of the public reflexively supports the police, Lewis observed, there is “a certain segment of society that are defiant – they hate law enforcement.”

If law enforcement were a service industry, rather than an enterprise in unaccountable state coercion, the situation Lewis describes would be treated as an indictment of those who provide the service, and significant institutional changes would result. Like others in what we could call the “Only Blue Lives Really Matter” movement, however, Lewis treats expressions of “customer” dissatisfaction as evidence of criminal intent and a threat to that most important of all things, “officer safety.”

Like sheriffs Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County and David Clarke of Wisconsin's Milwaukee County, Sheriff Lewis (who is also a sergeant in the Maryland State Police) has become a national media celebrity by exploiting every opportunity to defend police against criticism and denounce critics of police abuse for supposedly endangering the lives of officers. While there is no evidence of a coordinated “war” on American law enforcement officers, Lewis – who never misses an opportunity to promote that dangerously misleading view – has been waging war against property rights and individual liberties for decades as part of an “imperial mission” to suppress narcotics commerce – or rather, to profit from the pretense that it can be suppressed.

Lewis vaulted into the national spotlight last Spring during the urban unrest that convulsed Baltimore following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray. A suspected low-level drug dealer who was arrested without obvious cause, Gray suffered a fatal spine injury during what may have been a “nickel ride” – a form of unofficial “street justice” in which police handcuff a suspect in a van without securing him, then subject him to a series of abrupt turns and stops. This practice has led to serious and often permanent injuries of the sort displayed by the late Mr. Gray.

As looters in Baltimore began to exploit the protests over Gray's death, Lewis – without orders or an official invitation – decided to intervene.

Lewis “rallied up the troops,” the sheriff later told two Baltimore-area talk radio personalities. “We made sure our MRAP was prepared and ready.” When the convoy arrived in Baltimore a few hours later, city police “thanked us profusely for being there, apologized to us for having to be there,” Lewis claimed. “They said we could have handled this, we were very capable of handling this, but we were told to stand down, repeatedly told to stand down” as rioters laid siege to the city.

If not for the fecklessness of the Baltimore municipal government, Lewis insisted, the police could have prevented widespread property damage. But the police “were essentially neutered from the start…. They were told to `stand down, you will not take any action, let them destroy property.’”

“This was urban warfare, no question about it,” asserted Michael Lewis, describing his experiences during the recent Baltimore upheaval – and the Baltimore municipal government, he asserted, was collaborating with the enemy. The sheriff insists that he heard those orders himself “over the Baltimore police radio that I had tethered to my body-armor vest. I heard it repeatedly: `Stand down, stand down, stand down! Back up, back up, retreat, retreat!’”

This claim was eagerly received and giddily circulated by Fox News and other media outlets associated with the Authoritarian Right, which tirelessly promoted the narrative that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake deliberately provided “space” for looters to “destroy” private property.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake, a standard-issue technocrat, may have had too much confidence in the ability of government to fine-tune mass behavior. Her oft-repeated statement that the policy of leaving “space” for peaceful protesters was exploited by rioters was an awkwardly phrased lament over the chaos that traumatized the city, not a confession of her involvement in a plot to bring it down. Her meaning should have been plain to anyone not interested in deliberately misconstruing it to serve partisan interests or to validate racially tinged conspiracy theories.

One important detail disclosed but not dwelt upon by Lewis is that at the time he heard the stand-down order he and the other police were not protecting private property. They were defending the infrastructure of the coercive sector – City Hall and, particularly, Police Headquarters.When large-scale violence breaks out within a tax jurisdiction, the first priority of the enforcement caste is to protect itself, those who divide the plunder, and the symbolic manifestations of their “authority.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

This was the primary reason Sheriff Lewis rallied his “troops” for “urban warfare” and made the trip to Baltimore in his department’s federally subsidized armored assault vehicle: He acted out of tax-feeder solidarity, not in defense of property. A subsidiary purpose of that trip appears to have been using the afflicted city as a backdrop for his self-promoting media appearances.

Amid predictable claims on the Authoritarian Right that the riots reflected the devious work of well-funded “outside agitators,” Sheriff Lewis was actually playing that role, which is precisely what we should expect from someone who loots other people for a living. Freddie Gray, the homicide victim whose death in police custody precipitated the violent convulsions in Baltimore, was a low-level narcotics offender. Michael Lewis is a nationally renowned narcotics profiteer. He was a pioneer in the form of road piracy called “civil asset forfeiture.”

The recently published book In Roads: A Working Solution to America’s War on Drugs features a nearly hagiographical profile of Lewis and his successful efforts to “pull in expendable cash hand over fist.” By exploiting every traffic stop as a “consensual encounter,” police trained in the methods used by Lewis can build legal pretexts for drug searches. This, in turn, can result in confiscations of cash and salable property that can be spent on “just about anything under a law enforcement agency’s roof,” exults the author, former Kane County, Illinois Deputy Roy Hain.

Thanks to his acumen in road piracy, Lewis presides over a department enjoying a huge and recession-proof windfall from the prohibition-inflated narcotics industry. His interdiction efforts do nothing to abate drug use, and they actually help boost the profits of the criminals who have captured that market with the government’s assistance. Criminal kingpins on both ends of this arrangement live very comfortably while street-level petty offenders like Freddie Gray are killed by the retail-level gangs controlled by those elites. This includes the officially licensed gang called the Baltimore Police Department.

In addition to using plundered proceeds to buy MRAPS and other expensive toys for his comrades, Lewis enjoys a lucrative part-time career as a circuit-riding evangelist for the Prohibition Plunderbund.

Hain points out that Lewis “travels the country and the world (to include Australia, London, Germany, Russia, and the West Indies) teaching classes to police officers on these tactics and the examples of the fruits of their application. He also designed a seminar for police administrators, to share the importance and potential of this cause, as well as passing on his imperial mission: the refusal to surrender to drug traffickers and engagement of every patrol officer in the realization that drug interception is their responsibility.”

It is worth underscoring Hain’s description of Lewis’s work as an “imperial mission.” That expression is not used ironically, or disparagingly: Sheriff Lewis, who has been embraced by many self-styled constitutionalists for his supposed opposition to federalization of law enforcement, is an unabashed proponent of a globe-spanning prohibitionist empire. The seminars he conducts overseas are part of an international counter-narcotic effort that grows out of a United Nations treaty – the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The same “law and order conservatives” who denounce the Obama administration and allies such as Al Sharpton for their efforts to federalize and militarize law enforcement have made a media idol out of Michael Lewis – a preening, lavishly subsidized functionary in body armor who is indifferent to civil liberties and sees himself as something of a superhero.

“I have the unique ability to distinguish between a law-abiding person and an up-to-no-good person,” Lewis casually boasted to a New York Times Magazine reporter five years into his career as a narcotics enforcer with the Maryland State Police. “I’ve got that supercharged knowledge of the Constitution that allows me to do this right.”

“He can tell if a man’s lying, he says, by watching the pulsing of the carotid artery in his neck,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg. “He can smell crack cocaine inside a closed automobile. He’s a human drug dog, a walking polygraph machine.”

Actually, at the time, Lewis was a low-echelon road agent in the federal government’s war on the Bill of Rights. He was adept at devising pretexts to stop harmless people by using the DEA’s index of “narcotics indicators” to build the stop into a warrantless search and, hopefully, a roadside confiscation -- nothing more.

“The goal of Lewis’s unit, the criminal-interdiction unit, is to find drugs, guns, and untaxed cigarettes in the cars of smugglers,” explained Goldberg. “However, in order to stop a suspected gunrunner or drug mule, troopers first have to find a reason in the state’s traffic laws.”

Once a pretext stop is arranged, the armed functionary responsible for the ambush assesses the driver and the vehicle for “indicators” – “air fresheners … loose-fitting clothing, day-old beards … food wrappers on the floor.” One informal but inescapable narcotics “indicator,” Goldberg points out, was – and is – the ethnic background of the driver.

In 1999, the year the Times published that profile, Lewis’s agency was sued for profiling of the racial variety. The Maryland State Police lost that lawsuit, but through the exercise of dilatory tactics it has managed to drag out legal proceedings to this day.

Like much of the evil done in the name of law enforcement, the profiling in which Lewis was engaged with the MSP wasn’t necessarily a product of racial animus, but a reflection of federal priorities. Lewis began his career in 1984, the same year the DEA initiated “Operation Pipeline,” through which he and countless others were recruited and trained to be federal counter-narcotics assets.

Although he claims a “super-charged understanding of the Constitution,” Lewis has never explained what provision of that document authorized the federal government to criminalize the use or sale of narcotics, or to subsidize state-level enforcement efforts. Although he is among the county sheriffs who loudly announced their intention to prevent federal gun confiscation efforts under Obama, Lewis spent decades seizing guns as part of a federalized state police task force.

In similar fashion, Lewis’s supposed hostility toward Washington – at least during the reign of Barack Obama – hasn’t deterred him from accepting battlefield-grade vehicles and weaponry through the Pentagon’s LESO program. The only documented instance of Lewis interposing against Washington involves federal “under-reach,” rather than over-reach. After former Attorney General Eric Holder proposed a handful of trivial and inconsequential “reforms” to civil asset forfeiture, Lewis gloatingly observed that this wouldn’t apply to forfeiture operations carried out by police at the state and county levels.

Whatever current federal policy might be, Lewis and his comrades will continue using the tactics taught to them by the Feds. The violent cretins who pillaged businesses in downtown Baltimore embody a localized menace. As a federally licensed looter, Lewis has propagated evil nation-wide – and on a global scale – by sharing his techniques with law enforcement officers.

Where federalization of law enforcement is concerned, Al Sharpton and other proponents of federal intervention have been talking the talk – but Sheriff Michael Lewis and his ilk have been walking the jackbooted walk.