The Militarization of the Police

The Militarization of the Police

For those who follow the news or participate in social media networks, it has been hard to miss the numerous stories about the killing or assault of innocent citizens (or at least, non-dangerous citizens) by police. What were once written off by some as “isolated incidents” have clearly become common occurrences in America.

Concerns about potential abuse of using military tactics for domestic policing date back to the time of the Constitution, when the Founders worried about standing armies and intimidation of the people.

Most reasonable discussions about the use of SWAT teams focus on already-violent situations, but, increasingly, SWAT teams are being used to turn non-violent situations into violent ones. While the fear of terrorism drives much of the support for the militarization of police, SWAT teams are much more likely to target non-violent “criminals,” primarily as part of the failed War on Drugs. But even most people who support drug laws would oppose turning their enforcement into potentially violent situations that put innocent citizens and police officers in harm’s way. The likelihood of armored vehicles and military gear being used for good is far outweighed by its potential for harm to citizens and police officers.

The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown from a few hundred a year in the 1970s to approximately 50,000 raids in 2005, according to surveys conducted by Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University.

For those interested in reading more about this scary path, as well as a detailed history of how we got here, I highly recommend Radley Balko’s recent book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop. Balko had this to say about the situation:

Law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

There is reason for concern that police officers are tempted to turn non-threatening situations into dangerous ones, in order to get the chance to use their “cool, new equipment.” SWAT teams have been deployed in many American cities, leading to the deaths of innocent citizens as well as police officers, to break up illegal poker games, to capture someone suspected of defrauding the federal student loan program, to raid the homes of low-level drug users, to raid bars suspected of allowing underage drinking, and other non-threatening situations.

Assault-style raids have also been used to enforce regulatory law in recent years, including IRS raids at respected Arkansas businesses, including Mountain Pure Water in Little Rock and Duncan Outdoors in Conway. (Check out this 17-minute video about the raids on those Arkansas businesses.)

In a review of Balko’s book at Amazon.com, John J. Baeza, a retired New York Police Department detective, had this to say:

A profession that I was once proud to serve in has become a militarized police state. Officers are quicker to draw their guns and use their tanks than to communicate with people to diffuse a situation. They love to use their toys and when they do, people die.

The days of the peace officer are long gone, replaced by the militarized police warrior wearing uniforms making them indistinguishable from military personnel. Once something is defined as a “war” everyone becomes a “warrior.” Balko offers solutions ranging from ending the war on drugs, to halting mission creep so agencies such as the Department of Education and the FDA don’t have their own SWAT teams, to enacting transparency requirements so that all raids are reported and statistics kept, to community policing, and finally to one of the toughest solutions: changing police culture.

The effect of militarization on police culture has been startling. Dogs are now routinely shot. Women have been sexually assaulted during routine traffic stops. Elderly citizens have been killed for resisting unwanted medical treatment in nursing homes. Unarmed innocents have been killed for what is classified “resisting arrest.” The police are clearly out of control.

There’s only one way to stop this escalating militarization of police, and that is for the people to stand up and say “no.” It’s time to get America off the road to becoming a police state.

But perhaps it’s time to consider a more radical solution. Let’s compare the aggressive military mindset of today’s police forces to how a private police service might operate. In fact, such a service already exists, in the city of Detroit, where the government police department has thrown up its hands in failure, informing people that they enter Detroit “at their own risk.” According to a recent article at freethoughtproject.com, the Threat Management Center is filling the void:

The Threat Management Center’s sole priorities are the protection of the people under their charge. They have specific incentives to focus exclusively on safety, and find non-violent ways of defusing tense situations before resorting to force. Since they’re privately funded, they have a direct incentive to make their customers happy. Any form of misconduct can instantly result in a loss of funding. The best part? The Threat Management Center doesn’t exclusively protect paying customers. Yes, they protect people for free.

The training that they give their officers is designed to fill their “mental toolboxes” with non-violent ways to diffuse potentially-violent situations. Dale Brown, founder of the Threat Management Center, said, “We make sure that in that toolbox, there are so many options to create a non-violent outcome that it’s almost impossible to have violence.” Brown summed up his company’s goals and policies like this:

We are not looking for people, and we do not accept people, who are human predator oriented, people who like to fight or people who like to shoot people… We’re not looking for the kind of mindset that says “you know what, it’s OK to use violence as long as you can legally explain it.” We’re looking for people who don’t want to use violence under any conditions. What we emphasize is 100 ways in a situation which would normally be fatal-force oriented, 100 ways, to not have a violent or fatal incident take place. We protect communities here in Detroit, upscale communities… we have approx 1000 homes that depend on us for safety. And we have approx 500 businesses that are our clients as well. And then the people that cannot afford our services, we help them for free. The reason that we can do that is because there is a healthy profit margin leftover from excellence from providing for our major corporations. We offer free training to families. We call it Free Family Friday. Typically, the prosecutor’s offices, the shelters in the area for domestic violence victims, stalking victims are sent to us for assistance. We protect them for free. We escort them to court. If they have a violent ex-husband or boyfriend or neighbor or some stranger that’s coming after them, we will literally stay with them, transport their kids to school. We stay with them at their homes with our rifles and keep them alive. And in 20 years, none of us have had a court date and, more importantly, none of us have been killed. And the most important, no one who has ever come to us for help in 20 years has ever been injured or killed after coming to this organization.

This is an impressive record, and it indicates the possibilities for effective law enforcement without violating people’s right. If the police cannot start focusing on protecting the people rather than threatening them, private security companies may be our best option.

—Kathleen Wikstrom, LPAR Vice-Chair

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