Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Problem With Militarized Police

Several months ago, I broke down and bought Radley Balko's "The Rise of the Warrior Cop." Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother with Balko. I tangled with him over his lies, falsifications, and political agenda when he was at "Reason," and I have never had a high opinion of either his writing or his agenda.

Nevertheless, his focus on police abuse was timely, and his research, I thought, would be useful. Unfortunately, he started out with falsehoods within the first few pages, and his libertarian politics and agenda practically overwhelmed the book's narrative. For those who are into that kind of thing, I suppose it is fine, but I was unable to read the rest of the book.

The problem of militarized police and the warrior cop is deep-rooted in American history, and the transformation of police forces from ideals of protection and service to practices of armies of occupation is widely noted and condemned. Something happened, or so many observers speculate, with the initiation of the drug war in the 1980s and then again around 9/11/2001 to infect the police with ideas of occupation, revenge and murder.

In other words, the way police behave now is not the way they used to be, and they've changed their behavior to become much more brutal and warrior-like in order to combat "drugs" and to suppress a potential "terrorist uprising."

Well. Yes and no. Police warriorism has always been there, and certain communities have always been under implicit threat and explicit occupation by the cops. It was baked in at the outset of civil policing in America -- which for the most part derives from volunteer militias and slave patrols. Police have always behaved brutally toward certain populations, they have often resorted to murder. They lie routinely.

Statistically, there's probably somewhat less brutality and somewhat less killing by police nowadays than there was fifty years or a hundred years ago.

They've found that they can accomplish their objectives better with less overt and frequent resort to brutality and gunplay. This tends to highlight reports of brutality and murder by police because it is so relatively rare.

Drug war actions and terrorism suppression may be the psychological drivers of so much police brutality and murder these days, but there were other drivers in the past -- labor suppression, for example, enforcing Jim Crow and its many offshoots throughout the country, rounding up, confining and exterminating Indians, chasing outlaws. The romance of the country is filled with the lore and legend of military, police, militia and patrol actions from the very beginning of European settlement and seizure.

It's always been accompanied with an abundance of brutality and murder.

At one time, too, "militarization" of the police -- and society in general -- was not considered a bad thing at all. In fact, the military was widely admired for its order and organization, among other things, and many civilians believed that emulation of military principles and behavior was good thing, not a bad thing at all. I was raised at the tail end of that era.

Both my parents served in the military -- my father was in the service during both World War I and World War II, and he remained in the reserves through the Korean Conflict. My mother joined the Women's Army Air Corps during World War II.

Both admired the military greatly and they could not understand my refusal to either join or be drafted in the mid-1960s. My objections to the military and its use by politicians to enforce imperialism and neo-colonialism in Southeast Asia made no sense to them. They really believed that the military actions abroad were saving us from facing hordes of Orientals and Communists invading at home, and that it was the duty of all young men to join or be drafted into the service of their country. It did not occur to them to question that point of view, and they were outraged when I did.

To them, the military was a form of utopia, an ideal society, from which nothing but good emanated.

The idea of militarizing the police got going very early among idealists as well. The civil police have been quasi military from the beginning, and their military trappings were -- and still largely are -- welcomed. The more they resemble the military in bearing and action, the more they are admired by many segments of the population.

That was true a century and more ago and it still is.

And yet many people object to the militarization of the police and the warrior cops that seem to be running rampant these days.

The problem, in my view, is not so much the militarization of police -- that actually might still be a good thing, but I'll try to explore that idea a bit more later -- as it is the inappropriate use of police, the rampancy of their behavior and the impunity with which they are allowed to act and use force.


I've repeatedly mentioned the insane theories of Dave Grossman and his "killology" as part of the foundation of why the police are the way they are today. In Grossman's mythology and imagination, which he asserts with absolute certainty in a nearly religious ecstasy, the police-warriors (he sees little or no separation between the military and police) are sheepdogs protecting the flock (that would be you'n'me) from the wolves who would prey upon us with impunity were it not for the righteous intervention of the police and military. To Grossman and his acolytes and devotees, the highest accomplishment a cop or a troop can achieve is to kill in righteous battle. That is, so he opines, what they live for.

But he also said this:

The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours. [Emphasis mine]
Except we know something has gone terribly wrong, don't we? Every. Single. Day. Multiple times a day, the police-warriors brutalize, wound, shoot, and kill "sheep" -- every single day. They are almost never removed or punished when they do. Many times they are rewarded and praised for killing the innocent, or for brutalizing whomever they choose whenever they choose.

His theory is that the sheepdog warrior-police would never, could never, harm or hurt the sheep they are protecting from the wolves who would prey on them without mercy, but the protests are due to the fact that police ARE harming and hurting the innocent sheep every single day, and they're getting away with it almost every single time.


This is the problem and the issue that has led to so much outrage, protest, resistance and revolt. Police are behaving not like "sheepdogs" protecting the flock but like wolves preying on them/us. THAT is the problem, and it seems to be one that police in their self-righteous bubbles cannot fathom or understand.


At least a third of the people police kill every year are unarmed. At least a third are mentally ill or suicidal. These killings may be ruled "justified," but are they appropriate  or  necessary? Probably not. SWAT teams are sent to serve warrants. Is it appropriate? Is it necessary?  Probably not, especially when simple warrant service turns into a violent home invasion in which occupants are brutalized, wounded or killed. It's not appropriate. It's insane.

Meeting nonviolent protesters in the street with military hardware and costumes and with snipers at the ready is not appropriate, it's insane.

Sending snipers to deal with people in crisis -- to kill them, summarily execute them -- is not appropriate, it's insane.

Demanding that people obey commands that are contradictory or are impossible for the individual to hear or understand or for which they are given no time to comply is not appropriate, it's insane.

Treating mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, or other disabling conditions as criminal is not appropriate, it's insane.

These and many more inappropriate actions on the part of the police are all matters of policy. They can be changed overnight.

These policies for the most part are not military policies, they are driven by civil demands on the police for crime reduction and for "order."

In practice, however, they resemble some of the military's behavior during the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan where inappropriate, arbitrary and bloody reactions to native unrest -- or simple day to day life -- was frequent and often went unpunished.

Yet some of the military's actions overseas were derived from domestic civilian policing.

We can't say that the inappropriate behavior of the police at home is due to the militarization of police forces. The problem is more complex. There is interplay between military and police to be sure, but the focus on militarization of police may be misplaced.

The focus needs to be more directly on the inappropriate behavior of police and the impunity with which they are allowed to behave. Those are policies which can be changed -- essentially by directive and very quickly.

Militarization, on the other hand, is woven in to the whole fabric of policing and is not likely to go away as long as domestic police forces exist.

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