Militarizing The Police Force, And It's Unintended Consequences

Mon Sep 29, 2014 18:43:13PM

Police in riot gear at Ferguson protests.By: Jamelle Bouie
I remember when cop cars were all big, white Chevy sedans. And police officers dressed in light blue uniforms. They wore innocent enough black, cabbie looking hats, and I was never afraid to approach them with a question, or a problem. And then I grew up.

Now they drive midnight black, stealth vehicles, usually equipped with mean grill guards. Many now dress in all black, and they freely depict themselves in TV advertisements as so Big Brother that they are everywhere, even perhaps so amorphous and watching and waiting for you to screw up that they quite literally blend into the walls themselves! (You've all seen that commercial right?)

Of course, this isn't all completely true. I still see the old-school white and blue patrol cars from time to time. And not every cop uniforms in the style of Johnny Cash. But, a lot of them do now. And the newest version of the typical patrol vehicle for a police officer (if your particular community can spring for it) is more often than not solid black. Something like a solid black, Dodge Charger. Stealth and mean seem to be the new goals. Intimidation seems to be of higher priority than something like 'trying to keep peace and order'.

I bring this contrast up, this evolution of color choice of all things, to highlight what I feel is a very serious problem with the relationship between the citizenry and the people employed to police our streets and communities. At what point did this relationship devolve into such an US vs THEM mentality? At what point did the folks that run any given local police department think it fitting to slowly but surely replace Barney Fife with a bonafide SWAT team, patrolling the streets? Also, who's fault is it?

I'm speaking of course about the over-militarization of police departments. As well as this attitude that inevitably seems to come over police officers and their departments, when so equipped with military-grade weaponry and armory. Police officers are more and more being exposed all over the country (thanks to the internet and camera phones) as being trigger happy, wildly under-trained, and far too quick to resort to violence against a potential threat.

Make no mistake though, this is not a one-sided conversation, and the police are not all to blame on this serious matter. Let me be clear. I struggle to even write this because of how complicated this conversation is, and how my points likely will be misconstrued by any given reader, one way or the other. I want to say for clarification's sake that of course being a police officer is an incredibly hard job that carries with it daily, potential dangers. And that also of course there are many, many wonderful police officers that would never in a million years take advantage of their badge.

That being said, my problem with this growing US vs THEM mentality divide isn't even necessarily that I'm saying there's a lot of bad cops out there. That's not the point I'm making, even though I believe that to be reasonably true. My point instead is that police departments are creating a cultural divide that's systemic. In other words, for starters, they have an image problem. Regardless of if its true, I feel less inclined to believe that cops are ever really on my side simply by the way they present themselves in society these days.

One example, I've already outlined, being the color change in uniform style and patrol vehicles, from friendly and almost inviting (or at least neutral) color choices, to militant and SWAT and almost mercenary style attire they chose more and more to wear today. May sound trivial, but stuff like that matters.

Larger examples are of course more to the point with using big words like 'militarization', in that police departments are quite literally more and more buying up military surplus equipment, and then using that equipment on us. And to that point, I can at least shed some light, after a bit of research. Back in 1997, Congress passed what's called the 1033 Program. Here's what that allowed police departments to do:

The 1033 Program (formerly the 1208 Program) permits the Secretary of Defense to transfer, without charge, excess U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) personal property (supplies and equipment) to state and local law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

The 1033 Program has allowed law enforcement agencies to acquire vehicles (land, air and sea), weapons, computer equipment, body armor, fingerprint equipment, night vision equipment, radios and televisions, first aid equipment, tents and sleeping bags, photographic equipment and more.

The 1033 program was initially meant to help law-enforcement fight local terrorism and local drug cartels, to deal with drug culture made violence. However, the program and its equipment has since ballooned wildly into being used in almost every aspect of a policeman's day to day arsenal, in one way or another. From raiding someone's home that they suspect has a few pot plants, to tear gassing peaceful protesters at Occupy Wall Street rallies.

"With great power comes great responsibility." Spiderman, right? Stan Lee got it right. I believe that's the situation we find ourselves in today. The local police departments in thousands of cities all across this country have great institutional power, with growing means to enforce that power, thanks to the exponential acquisition of military surplus weaponry. The big question is 'how to use it?' Also, we have created a culture that is so uber-obsessed with first and foremost defending police officers' lives above all else, that we allow them to adopt the very flawed philosophy to shot first and ask questions later. Don't believe me on that one? Just Google or YouTube police shootings, and ask yourself (after you've watched a few dozen cops gun down a few dozen benignly dangerous suspects), are these just bad cops? Or, is there an inherent problem in the way we train and institutionalize police officers into their positions these days? Said another way, are there really THAT many bad cops out there, or are they just not trained properly on how to instead subdue someone, over just shooting to kill?

Perhaps the problem is that police officers have all these high powered weapons, and feel that they now always have to find some reason to use them. For whats the good in having a tank if you don't get to roll it out during a protest every once in a while? What's the point in buying up military grade armor, if you never use it? And on and on. And, the problem is, I see their point there. I really do. Sometimes, yes, it is necessary. But there needs to be a national, federal, AND most importantly a local conversation in every single community across the country as to how, when and why. Very strict and clear guidelines need to be enforced and transparently understood by all. There needs to be less secrecy and division. We need to figure out a way to end and mend this cultural divide that I feel everyday; this US vs THEM team, that pits the cops vs everyone else. It's just simply bad for everyone involved, dangerous, and doesn't benefit any community whatsoever!

So, to show that I'm for solutions as much as highlighting a growing problem of division, I highly encourage everyone to contact your local governments and police departments, as well as your state and federal representatives on this issue. Join in on the conversation, whatever your opinion may be. Start a dialogue. Make your voice heard!

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