Editorial: Officers stumble across thin line of justice

One year after the devastating events of Sept. 11, American citizens are in many ways still concerned about their safety at home. And while this concern has brought about much-needed reforms to security procedures, the cost in civil liberties that has at times resulted makes some changes harsh to the point of being ludicrous.

Aside from late-night comedians who drone on about nail clippers causing trouble at security checkpoints, few will argue with more scrutinized searches or the presence of military personnel in corridors. Authorities, now more than ever, walk a thin line dividing security and freedom, but few consider luggage-searching a serious invasion of privacy.

There are areas where the line becomes more blurred, however, and as a result, authorities may step over the line in what they believe to be legitimate investigations, only to trample the rights of citizens.

Consider the case of University student Mohammed Budeir. The Wayne resident was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct in August for taking pictures of police cars at the Williamstown Township police department’s rear parking lot. Budeir, a U.S. citizen, maintains that he wanted the photos for his personal collection and that he is part of an online community that trades and posts police car photos on the web. The police say he was charged because of an FBI warning to be on the alert for potential terrorists photographing emergency response vehicles.

Police officials insist the student was charged not because of his race – Budeir is of Syrian descent – but because he took pictures in the lot on consecutive days despite offiecers’ warnings to leave and not return by an officer. They justify charging the student in that photos could be used to reproduce the markings of a police car on an ordinary white car, potentially a serious threat.

Where the authorities’ story against Budeir disintegrates, however, is on the Internet, where a great deal of police car photo sites do exist. This includes photos from local municipalities such as Philadelphia, West Chester and Norristown. Dozens of sites featuring thousands of police cars can be found in seconds with a search engine. Clearly, there is sufficient material for terrorists interested in creating police car clones.

It seems that in Budeir’s case there is more than meets the eye. While it is impossible to state with any certainty that race was the reason he was charged, the situation serves as a chilling reminder of the camps where Japanese-Americans were detained following the assault on Pearl Harbor and, more recently, the compound set up for citizens of Middle Eastern descent in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a year ago. Should this be the case, we can only hope that justice will be served and Budeir released without the incident appearing on his criminal record, as the notion of any citizen detained on race alone should sicken people as it did last September.

In these uncertain times, we lean more heavily on the authorities than we have in earlier times, as they are the front line against another Sept. 11. But as responsible citizens, it is our duty to keep them in check when they cross the line, as they have done here. Budeir’s case is one of well-meaning officers overzealously guarding their turf. What the officers must remember is that their job is to protect not only the safety of local residents, but their rights as well.