In light of the ever increasing tension between police and it citizens caused by excessive police force, I wanted to explore the idea of the militarization of our nations’ police force and the impact it has had on trust of the citizens it is sworn to protect and serve. I also aim to explore how we begin the demilitarization of these forces and start to focus more on serving the public. Policing in the United States followed in the footsteps of England’s community policing model. “The “watch” system was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger.
Boston created a night watch in 1636, New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700. ” (Potter, 2013) These volunteers were unpaid and fairly unreliable; it was not uncommon to find them drinking or sleeping on the job if they showed up at all. The watch was often supplemented by a constable. In addition to serving over the watch, “constables had a variety of non-law enforcement functions to perform as well, including serving as land surveyors and verifying the accuracy of weights and measures. ” (Potter, 2013) It was not until the mid-1800 that a central municipal police structure emerged, similar to what we see now.
It was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, that crack exploded onto the scene, and with it a dramatic increase in street violence. It was the gang related violence surrounding crack that forced local and state police to start carrying automatic handguns to combat the violence. It was also during this time that we started to see SWAT teams being assigned to metropolitan police forces. This marked a paradigm shift from the “beat officers” of the 60’s and 70’s to a more militarized police force capable of meeting out extreme deadly force if necessary. Originally, this was called the 1208 program but was later changed in 1996 to section 1033.
Since the early 1990’s our nation has been quietly equipping it police force with military grade armaments. “Faced with a bloated military and what it perceived as a worsening drug crisis, the 101st Congress in 1990 enacted the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense. (Anzuoni, 2014) This shift from peace officer patrolling our streets to warrior fighting a war on drugs resulted in the spread of military style equipment and tactics.
According to a recent report by the ACLU, since its inception, section 1033 is responsible for spreading $4. 3 Billion dollars-worth of military grade munitions, clothing, equipment and vehicles to our nation’s police departments. Even more disturbing, 1033 procurements are not a matter of public record. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which coordinates distribution of military surplus, refuses to reveal the names of agencies requesting “tactical” items, like assault rifles and MRAPs — for security reasons. ”(Anzuoni, 2014) In sharp contrast to today’s militarized police force, it almost seems comical to compare them to police shows of yester year such as CHIPS, Barney Miller and TJ Hooker.
“In fact, the idea of patrol officers doing their jobs in Ford Crown Victoria and armed with . 8 revolvers and nightsticks is almost quaint, like old episodes of Flash Gordon, with rocket-ships trailing smoke and sparks and astronauts wearing jodhpurs. ” (Pilkington, 2014) After the shooting of Michael Brown by police officers, the city of Ferguson, Missouri was the site of mass demonstrations and riots. The most troubling visions to come out of the city were not that of angry mobs looting a stealing, but images of a police force kitted out with gas masks, Kevlar vests, riot armor, riot batons, short barreled assault rifles and ski masks making it impossible to identify any particular officer.
These officers were being shuttled around in mine resistant vehicles (MRAPS) designed to handle improvised explosive devices found in Iraq and Afghanistan. These officers looked better suited to invade Poland than to calm a city, suffering from a bitter racial divide and perceived injustice. Given the nationwide attention on the militarization of our police, brought to light by Ferguson and the even more recent events such as Dallas, Texas. You would expect a little soul searching as a nation.
To make matters even worse, all I ever hear candidates talk about is how we need to stand behind our “men and women in law enforcement”. I can’t recall once hearing a candidate talk about demilitarizing our police. Was it always this bad? “While a majority of Americans remain confident in the police, 52% currently express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in that institution, tying the low in Gallup’s 22-year trend. ” (Jones, 2015) The problem is not that Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams exist or even that they are used from time to time; the problem is they are overused.
The “Special” in SWAT indicates that it is out of the ordinary, and to be used on a very limited basis. “SWAT teams today are overwhelmingly used to investigate people who are still only suspected of committing nonviolent consensual crimes. And because these raids often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they’re actually creating violence and confrontation where there was none before. ” (Hrenchir, 2015) It is precisely this type proliferation that spawned the recent “swatting” craze.
Swatting is the act of deceiving an emergency service (via such means as hoaxing an emergency services dispatcher) into sending a police and 911 response team to another person’s address, based on the false reporting of a serious law enforcement emergency, such as a bomb threat, murder, hostage-taking or other h alleged incident. The term derives from SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), a specialized type of police unit in the United States and many other countries carrying military-style equipment such as door breaching weapons, submachine guns and assault rifles. Effects of Militarization” (Wikipedia, 2016)
The question still remains, does all of this military style hardware have an impact on the ability to fight crime and keep the peace? In June of 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a comprehensive report titled, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” That the ACLU concluded was “American policing has become excessively militarized through the use of weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield” and that this militarization “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion. (Kane, 2014) The ACLU also uncovered nearly 50 incidents of injury resulting in military style home assaults using flashbang grenades. There was a specific incident where a flashbang was thrown through a window landing the in crib of a 14 month old little boy.
The boy suffered a concussion, third degree burns on his chest and had to be placed in a medically induced coma. There was another incident in Detroit where a seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed by an officer during a military style assault. Officers raided the home, threw a flash-bang grenade, and fired one shot that struck Jones in the head. The police agent who fired the fatal shot, Joseph Weekly, has so far gotten off easy: a jury trial ended in deadlock last year, though he will face charges of involuntary manslaughter in September. ” (Kane, 2014) The point is, the militarization of our police is having a very real and calculable effect on the citizens of this country.
I think it’s important to say that there are legitimate uses for some to the military equipment police department have acquired and some of the military tactics they are trained in. However, there has been a disturbing increase in the amount of innocent people killed or injured in these no knock, military style assaults. There are also a number of stories regarding SWAT teams performing simple execution of search warrants in drug cases. There are cases where the individual is still innocent until proven guilty.
We’ve all heard the saying “when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. My concern is that when you dress up looking like you are going into battle to serve a search warrant, you may be more apt to look for trouble rather than to react to trouble. Task Force on 21st Century Policing – On December of 2014, the President issued and Executive order appointing an 11 member task force to handle serious issues between communities and law enforcement. One of the recommendations was that police diversity should match the communities in which they serve.
Building Trust- the Task Force on 21st Century Policing guidebook has recommendations on how to improve trust. In May of 2015, President Obama announces a new policy to stop the transfer of “tanks and other tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition measuring . 50-caliber and larger, grenade launchers and bayonets” from being given to local police agencies. Policy and Oversight – Also part of the DOJ guidebook, policy and police oversight must be overhauled to better serve the communities they serve and build the trust.