Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Militarization of Law Enforcement

For at least the past year the headlines have been full of stories of black victims of police violence.  In most instances a black has been thought to be in violation of some regulation, is confronted, and violence ensues—often resulting in the death of the suspect.  Since these occurrences inevitably involve a black suspect and a white (male) police officer, race is always indicated as a factor in the incident.  Crime statistics tell us that police preferentially will confront black offenders rather than white offenders.  There clearly is a racial issue in an administrative sense, and perhaps one in a personal sense.  The racial element can clearly be responsible for biasing the enforcement of laws, but does violence necessarily have to follow?  Does violence follow from racial animosity—or is there something else in play?

Are police overly aggressive physically because of the way they are trained, or are they more likely to resort to violence because policing attracts types who are ready and willing to use violent tactics?  And if the latter case is true, is it because of the nature of police work, or is it because police recruitment is designed to attract people who see police work as exciting because it provides access to military style weapons and threatening situations?  Should people who find the opportunity to fire guns at other people exciting be welcomed into law enforcement, or turned away at the door?

Daniel Denvir provided an article for CITYLAB (The Atlantic) addressing recruitment issues: Who Wants to Be a Police Officer?  He suggests that police problems with violence cannot be explained by white versus black bias.  There is plenty of evidence that black officers have not hesitated to use violence on black suspects.

“But to what extent does diversity, for all the discussion, make a difference when it comes to police conduct? Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, says that research suggests it basically doesn't. ‘Black police officers are just as likely to use force as white police officers,’ says Vitale. ‘In fact there is some indication their behavior toward black suspects is actually worse than that of white officers’."

Denvir’s source, Vitale, indicates that police recruitment videos often emphasize the military gear and the rush of excitement from dealing with dangerous people.

"’The emphasis is totally on SWAT team, and shoot outs, and driving fast and all the militarized equipment, and nothing to talk about problem solving, dealing with the public, diverse skill sets, that can be helpful in policing,’ says Vitale. ‘Too many departments have completely emphasized the adventure-seeking aspects of the job, which are actually just a tiny fraction of what most police officers do every day’."

“Vitale says that a preference in many departments to hire military veterans, which has the advantage of bringing in older, more experienced recruits, may squeeze out other applicants and foment the warrior mentality.”

Denvir also provides this insight into where some police departments have been heading.

“….New Orleans scrapped a requirement that new officers without two years of military service have at least 60 college credits. The move might grow the department, according to a recent Times-Picayune story, ‘but research suggests the officers it takes on could be more likely to use force on the job’."

And how is two years of military service in any way equivalent to 60 college credits?

A recent article in The Economist suggested that without the allure of guns, excitement, and potential violence, recruitment of police officers is ineffective.

Radley Balko provided commentary on the recruitment issue and provided links to several videos in use by police departments in an article in the Washington Post: The disturbing messages in police recruiting videos.  He leads off with a video being used by the police department in Hobbs, New Mexico.

“Note the aspects of policing the video emphasizes: Shooting stuff. K-9 enforcement. Nabbing the bad guys. The SWAT team. This is the first step in the process.”

“(There’s also the separate but related question of why Hobbs — a town of 35,000 people — needs a SWAT team in the first place….the SWAT team has its own page on the Hobbs department Web site, complete with a video of SWAT cops shooting and destroying things, set to heavy metal music. The statement in the video that ‘The rules of engagement of SWAT are simple: Defeat the enemy . . . any way you can’ is also troubling. The mission of a SWAT team ought to be to resolve volatile situations without force and violence whenever possible.)”

“Note, too, what’s missing from the recruiting video: Public service. Cops walking beats. Community policing. Helping people.”

“Now ask yourself:  What sort of person would be attracted to a career in law enforcement based on the images and activities depicted in that video? And is that the sort of person you’d want wearing a badge and carrying a gun in your neighborhood?”

Balko has written a book on the subject of police militarization: Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.  He also provided an overview of that work in an article for The American Interest: SWATted: The Militarization of America’s Police.  In that piece he provides this perspective:

“Policing in some ways has become more professionalized, organized and regimented, but it has also become more aggressive, militaristic and belligerent. Put another way, there may be fewer cops going rogue today, but the kind of force now permitted and regularly practiced has changed to the point that it resembles rogue behavior en masse. The key case in point is the astonishing increase in the number and use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. In America SWAT teams now violently smash into private homes more than a hundred times each day. The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against non-violent and consensual crimes, mostly having to do with illicit drug use.”

“In many cities, police departments have given up their traditional blues for “battle dress uniforms” modeled after soldier attire. They now sport armored personnel carriers designed for battlefield use, and some have helicopters, tanks and Humvees. They carry military-grade weapons. Most of this equipment comes from the U.S. military itself. Many SWAT teams are trained by current and former personnel from special forces units like the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers.”

“SWAT teams once used violence to defuse already violent situations and to save lives at immediate risk. Today they are primarily used in a way that creates violence and confrontation where neither needs to exist. They were once used to confront a suspect or suspects in the process of committing a violent crime. Today, they’re used as an investigative tool to search the homes of people only suspected of crimes, and not particularly serious or violent crimes at that.”

Compliant judges willing to issue “no knock warrants” (and the inability to find the correct address—10% error rate in New York City) leads to violent entries, damaged property, and people literally frightened to death for no good reason other than that is the way police now like to conduct business.

“But even if police were to get the right house every time, the more important question here is whether violently breaking into private homes to serve search warrants for nonviolent, consensual crimes (at least) 100 to 150 times per day is the sort of thing with which we should be comfortable in a free society.”

The situation has not been helped by blustering politicians craving attention.

“This sort of fear and demagoguery has always begun with politicians—the people who are supposed to hold police officials accountable. Nixon began the modern drug war, with all of its martial and apocalyptic rhetoric and dehumanizing of drug offenders. Reagan then intensified the rhetoric by declaring drugs a threat to national security, portraying the drug fight as a war between good and evil and at one point comparing it to the Battle of Verdun. In the years since, the martial rhetoric from politicians has only intensified. William Bennett once pondered whether drug dealers should be publicly beheaded. Daryl Gates once suggested that drug use was treason and suggested users be taken out to the street and shot. Representative Charlie Rangel once declared himself the drug war’s ‘front-line general.’ A few years ago, one sheriff in Georgia lamented that the drug war was being fought too much like the war in Vietnam. To win, he said, we need to fight it as if we’re storming the beaches at Normandy. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has referred to the NYPD as the ‘the seventh largest army in the world’.”

The constant emphasis on use of force and the training that emphasizes danger lurking in every encounter cannot be healthy for an agency that spends most of its day treating mundane social issues unrelated to crime, violent or otherwise.

“Too many police departments today are also infused with a general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they’re soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us-versus-them mentality that sees the public not as citizens to be served and protected but as a collection of potential threats. Police are regularly told the lie that their jobs get more perilous by the day—actually, the job has been getting safer since the mid-1990s, and 2012 was one of the safest years for cops in decades. And they are told that every interaction with a citizen could be their last. Consequently, they are trained literally and conditioned psychologically to treat every encounter with a citizen as if it could be their last.”

What should be taken away from this discussion?  Perhaps all parents should be giving their kids “The Talk.”  Encounters with police should be taken seriously.  Think defensively and show the same decorum you would expect from the officer.  And remember, he or she may be more afraid of you than you are of them. 

We should also be defending our Fourth Amendment rights as fiercely as our Second Amendment rights.

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