Checkpoint provokes internet ire

Vehicles travel on Interstate 380 north of North Liberty on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.  (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Vehicles travel on Interstate 380 north of North Liberty on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The Henry County Sheriff’s Office is feeling the full force of internet activism.

Facebook users have been bombarding the sheriff’s public page with negative reviews all month, in response to the department’s recent post about hosting a traffic checkpoint. Activists wrecked the sheriff’s public rating with about 900 1-star ratings in less than two weeks, many of them pasting the text of the Fourth Amendment in place of their review.

Vigilante public relations campaigns such as this have become common, especially among networks of young libertarians and social justice warriors. One highly engaged Facebook page or email list can activate thousands of users to act against a business or government entity.

Internet mobs don’t always take time to learn the finer details though, and Henry County Sheriff Rich McNamee is defending the traffic checkpoints. He explained the mission is focused on traffic safety, not on drug busting or immigration enforcement.

McNamee said nearly 600 stops over three hours one day last month resulted in 171 warnings, but just 22 citations, 15 K-9 searches and three arrests.

“Most of our warnings are either for equipment violations ... or registration violations, when they may not have the card in the car,” McNamee told me. “Our entire checkpoint is for safety equipment and impaired drivers.”

Seems well-intentioned enough, but perception is reality in the public arena. Right or wrong, some Iowans were alarmed to log into Facebook and see pictures of law-abiding citizens halted amid long lines of armed government agents.

Many Iowans might not know their law enforcement officers are conducting traffic checkpoints at all. Or that the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau incentivizes the practice through grants to local departments. Or that sheriffs send deputies to assist in such projects in other counties, at their home county’s expense.


During Henry County’s checkpoints, for example, 39 officers from eight agencies assisted. That includes the Iowa State Patrol, which claims it is severely understaffed.

That seems like a lot of public resources for a program that pulled two barred drivers and one out-of-town marijuana suspect off the road. Even if the goal is traffic safety, it’s hard to see how taxpayers are getting a good bargain.

The Henry County checkpoint was not part of immigration or drug enforcement operations, but motorists don’t know that when they roll up to a parade of traffic cones and police cruisers. Such a scene would understandably stir terror for the thousands of peaceful Iowans with undocumented family members or illegal medical cannabis.

We already have plenty of traffic stops, accounting for more than a third of all police interactions in the United States, according to federal data. Americans do not have to consent to searches, but every stop still puts officers and the public at risk of sparking an unnecessary confrontation.

Facebook hordes might not be good with details, but they still can present legitimate concerns. The social media age causes headaches for government leaders, but it also gives taxpayers greater oversight.

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