Eleanor Holmes Norton has proposed to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House for limited automobile traffic. She convincingly testifies that a barricaded executive palace does not properly reflect our standing as a shining “city upon a hill.” After two long years of paralyzing traffic jams due to the paranoid closing of the Avenue of the Presidents after the Oklahoma City bombing, this coup de main by the District of Columbia’s delegate to Congress raises profound doubt about the proportional nature of security in the land of the free. The D.C. municipal government has launched a new “zero tolerance” initiative to crack down on minor infractions of the law. Strict penalization for minor offenses, the argument goes, will discourage more serious crime by inculcating heightened respect for all laws. As a result of this new policy, police have dramatically increased arrests for such inconsequential transgressions as moving violations.

The imperious enforcement of a zero tolerance agenda creates confusion concerning the appropriate use of police. Since the dual role of the police is to enforce laws and keep the peace, there is a perpetual danger that authorities will cross the fine line of the former in pursuit of the latter. For example, while playing catch on the Capitol lawn during a quiet, sunny weekend, two friends and I were accosted by a Capitol policeman and ordered to leave the park. Under the mistaken notion that Washington is not ruled by martial law, we respectfully asked the officer what statute we were violating by tossing a baseball around in a public park (more than 250 yards from the foot of the Capitol steps). The officer angrily retorted that his sergeant considered us to be a security risk and ordered our immediate removal.

In a similarly inexplicable incident, I was randomly pulled over while driving home from work one Friday evening on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The traffic cop insisted on a breathalyzer exam even though I was neither speeding nor swerving and had not had a drop to drink. When I asked if he could legally make random searches of this kind, the officer arrogantly replied, “Well, I am.” In like manner, motorists across the country are increasingly subjected to roadblocks and chance searches.

The ridiculous nature of these stories should be obvious. In a city with hundreds of homicides per year and a nation plagued by violence, the police have countless obligations that are more pressing than bullying law-abiding citizens. For example, church pastors in the increasingly trendy Chinatown neighborhood asked the Metropolitan Police if a patrol car could drive through the area on Sundays because churchgoers were being harassed and threatened on their way to religious services. The request was rejected by the 3,500-officer police department with the excuse that the city did not have a spare car or cop—perhaps the churches should hire private security guards, the police suggested. As a result of this policy of neglect, the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C, are increasingly risky at all times of the day. Last year, 78-year-old Alice Chow was gunned down at 2:00 P.M. on a Sunday while walking home from her church in Chinatown. Now Mrs. Chow is just a statistic, part of the annual 400 homicides in D.C. and over 20,000 nationally.

But these tragedies obscure the growing problem of police harassment. As crime escalates unabated, politicians play the demagogue, passing new laws that give law enforcement agencies more unrestrained powers. Both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch have suggested federalizing local criminal statutes and police forces. Meanwhile, overzealous authorities trample on the rights of ordinary Americans who have no viable vehicle of protest.

Whether playing catch in the park or drifting a few miles-per-hour over the speed limit to and from work, good law-abiding citizens are incessantly tormented by those whose duty it is to serve and protect them. While neighborhood streets are left vulnerable to crime, armed barriers are constructed to serve as a moat, keeping the people as far away as possible from their elected President. Like this blockade, many instances of overbearing state control seem insignificant—but they quickly add up when unchecked by a submissive population.

In a speech in 1771, Edmund Burke warned that “the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” In contemporary America, the tyranny of both criminals and the police rises while the unprotected majority live in fear. The bloated police bureaucracies do not need more staff, larger budgets, or new laws; they just need to crack down on criminals and leave the rest of us alone.