Before I begin, a disclaimer: I am against the way policing is being practiced, but I am not anti-police. I am against war, but I am not anti-soldier. I have nothing but respect for people who are willing to lay their life on the line for what they believe, they are much braver than I am, and no disrespect is intended on a personal level (and that includes all first responders, like firemen and EMTs, etc). Dialogue can only be productive if we move beyond the simple dialectic of pro and anti.
Last year, the topic of militarized policing jumped into the mainstream consciousness with the Ferguson riots and highly publicized killings of unarmed black males in several states. Now, hardly a day goes by without a video of police brutality or misconduct making the rounds of you-tube or alternative media sites. While this is no doubt due to an increase in the ability of the public to record and spread these acts, there can also be no doubt that the number and severity of these acts is increasing as well. The militarization of the police is becoming a larger problem that needs to be addressed.
Traditionally, the police are seen as a “body of persons empowered by the state to enforce the law, protect property and limit civil disorder ” (Wikipedia- Police) This is part of the so-called social contract, where citizens give certain powers to the state in return for the state protecting them and their rights. We agree to live according to the law, and the state is required to protect us in accordance with those laws. The police have the right to use force on behalf of the state to maintain collective order, which would be non-existant of every member of society went around using force against other citizens. Until recently, saying “the police” conjured up images of men in blue uniforms with badges “walking the beat”, or perhaps more derisively of giving speeding tickets to unwary drivers.
Now, however, the image the police evoke is of people in black, full-body armour with assault weapons and armoured vehicles. It is difficult to forget the picture of row upon row of storm-troopers with machine-guns advancing on unarmed protestors in Ferguson, lobbing tear gas and broadcasting warnings from their armoured vehicles. The scenes more resembled images of the war-torn middle east than our image of suburban North America. One very disturbing aspect (which got almost no media attention) was that the officers had their badges covered. That, combined with full face masks, means that it is nearly impossible to identify individual officers, even with near continuous video coverage, making it impossible to prosecute officers who violated the law. And do not think that this is strictly an American problem; it is happening all over the western world (and China, and Russia, etc). I can even remember a recent example from my home where officers arrived fully armoured at a crime scene hours after the suspect was dead. Were they worried his unarmed corpse was going to harm them?
The militarization of the police in term of hardware is impossible to deny. Even the smallest towns in American now boast assault rifles and drones and armoured vehicles. According to Fances Weave in The Week:
In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has provided $35 billion to local police throughout the country to help buy weapons for “the war on terror.” The rest can be traced to the Pentagon, which has off-loaded $4.2 billion of surplus armored vehicles, rifles, and equipment to police departments as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down. Cash-strapped police departments obtain these weapons for free; all they have to do is pay for the shipping. (http://theweek.com/articles/445062/militarization-americas-police)
However, I would like to focus on two other inter-related facets of militarization, the tactics of policing and the view of the public. Police are trained to respond to situations on a continuum of force, ranging from non-violent (ie. verbal interactions) to physical (ie. restraining a suspect) to lethal (ie. shooting suspects), and the response has to be appropriate to the situation. That means an officer should not be using lethal force against a suspect with his hands up. Or that officers should not be physically abusing the elderly, or disabled, who clearly pose no physical threat. If there is no danger to the officer or civilians, lethal force cannot be justified, period. (In an unrelated topic, I also do not understand the point of shooting people to prevent them from committing suicide. How does killing someone to prevent them from killing themselves make the situation better? No death was prevented, merely state sanctioned murder replacing the “crime” of self-murder.)
Police used to deal with civilians using the least intrusive methods possible. Until recently, police had discretion as to whether to even charge people or not (the classic example being taking a child caught stealing home to his parents for punishment). Most officers realized that there were better ways of dealing with problems than using the criminal justice system or force. Now, however, it seems like the response to any interaction is to resort to violence, even for failure to obey an order. This is a failure of training and leadership. If an officer is unable to deal with questions, non-violent non-compliance or even insults without immediately resorting to force, they do not deserve to be police officers.
A large part of the problem is the shift in perception that has gone on since the 9/11 attacks, both within the police force and in the government in general. I know from personal interactions with officers while I was studying criminology, that police used to view the pubic as divided into two classes: citizens, and criminals. They knew that they were there to enforce the laws against criminals and to “serve and protect” the public. This is no longer the case. We now live in a culture of paranoia and fear. The Snowden leaks have shown that we live in a surveillance state, where the citizen is considered the suspect. The constant fear mongering has scared people into accepting that it is okay for government agencies to completely violate privacy rights, to accept constant monitoring of communications and more and more video cameras.
This mindset is prevalent in today’s policing, and is the most worrying part of police militarization. The military is not designed to enforce laws, the point of the military is to defeat opponents using force. The mental militarization of the police turns them into the enforcement arm of the surveillance state, where everyone is suspect until proven innocent. This total reversal of the system creates an environment where police feel justified in using force at will, because we are no longer citizens, we are all possible domestic threats. Military training teaches soldiers to de-humanize the enemy, which in turn allows the soldiers to commit acts that they would not be able to do if they thought of the enemy as human. When this occurs in policing, it results in an escalation of violence and a lack of respect for the citizenry, which are an antithesis of what policing needs to be about. This in turn leads to increased suspicion and anger towards the police, which leads to increased suspicion and anger from the police, becoming a cycle that can quickly escalate out of control.
The crux of this argument is : what do we think the function of the police should be? I believe, as I’m sure most people do, that we need a police force. We need police to protect the social order and prevent the chaos that would come if people went around using force to get their way. I think that the police should be an extension of the community they serve, not the government (or more correctly, the government should also be an extension of the community, not it’s ruler). I believe we should return to the community policing model, where officers actually did walk a beat, and interacted with the community they police in non-policing situations, get to know the community and it’s individual members. This allows for much more discretion than merely having officers respond to places after a crime has been committed, or just before the state believes there is about to be one. This reactive form removes the officers from having any investment in the community, and the pre-emptive strike method is now basically a guarantee that there will be ill feelings on both sides. To be clear, I am not advocating that protests not be policed, but that showing up in force, fully militarized and expecting trouble is a recipe for disaster and tells the protestors that the police are not their to protect them and their right to peaceful protest, but to watch and control them.
This is a difficult and complex issue, with many valid arguments on both sides. I am well aware that police feel less safe, but I would argue that their behavior has a large part in the reason they feel less safe. No amount of weapons or armour will prevent police deaths, there have always been officers killed in the line of duty, and sadly, there probably always will. However, escalating the violence by militarizing will only lead to further violence. We need to return to the lower end of the force spectrum, unless absolutely neccesary, and return to having police as part of the community, not apart from it.