Thursday, August 14, 2014

To Serve and Protect: Why are Cops Sporting Military Gear?

In a mature society, "civil servant" is semantically equal to "civil master."
       "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein.

This post is a rambling mess, and I apologize ahead of time.
Police interacting with an unarmed protester in Ferguson - Source NYTimes
Another day, another young black man killed by police.  This time the victim was named Michael Brown, he was 18, unarmed, and had his hands up before he was shot to death in plain sight.  Now there is a no-fly zone above Ferguson, and "riot police" are running around in military costumes.  But at least we don't need to worry about the safety of the officer who gunned down an unarmed teen, his identity has been protected.

This post is difficult for me to write.  My feelings on the subject are confused.  I find the trends in Law Enforcement in this country terrifying, but I have always been on the side of the Police Forces.  I worked in security for over a decade, and in that time I came to feel an identification with the forces of law and order.  To me the police are the good guys.  I like them.  I have police officers as friends.  I worked regularly with the Seattle Police Department and the FBI.  I was so impressed by my interactions with the Seattle Police Department that I went through the hiring process with the Federal Way Police Department.  During my panel interview I realized that the attitude of serving the public that I found so attractive in the SPD was not so evident with the FWPD.  I quickly came to feel that there was an antagonistic attitude toward the public at work in the interview, and my responses were shifted toward service to the public.  I was not surprised when I was turned down by the FWPD.  The experience also convinced me that police work was probably not in my future.  But the experience did not change my basic feelings about police, just about my ability to be a part of a police force.

Before we go on I feel like I should talk more about my interactions with police.  As I have said, I have always felt that the police have been on the same side as me.  With only one exception I have never felt endangered or threatened by the police.  The exception to that rule was when I was pulled over for going 12 miles over the speed limit on the freeway through Salem, Oregon two years ago.  The officer that pulled me over was without a doubt the rudest and most verbally abusive police officer I have ever interacted with.  It seemed very clear to me and my wife (girlfriend at the time) that the officer was trying to provoke a confrontation.  It seemed like he was not going to be satisfied until there was a physical confrontation.  Fortunately after some time of verbal abuse when it became clear that my responses were not going to vary from polite and my hands were not going to leave my wheel the cop wrote me a $280 ticket and left.  It was a scary situation.  I've always wondered how it might have been different if my wife and I were not two white adults driving a two year old car wearing conventional clothing with conservative haircuts.

But let's be clear here.  For me this was a completely singular experience, and I was not harmed or arrested.  For me, even the experience of someone being rude to me is highly unusual.  I am a large, friendly, white male with short hair.  I interact with people courteously.  Everywhere I go people are polite.  I go to bars in rough neighborhoods, rural remote areas, other countries, places where I am the only native English speaker, and everywhere people are nice to me.  I know that not everyone has that experience of life.  I try to be cognizant of that when I try to give people advice.

So for me the most egregious act that a police officer has perpetrated on my person was an unprovoked verbal assault.  For Michael Brown it was getting gunned down in the street.  For Eric Garner it was getting choked to death in public for selling cigarettes.  For Jonathan Ferrell it was getting tased and then shot ten times for knocking on a door asking for help after climbing out of the wreckage of his car.  For John Crawford it was being shot to death for holding a toy gun in a Walmart.  The most obvious difference between me and those four men who were killed by police while unarmed is that I am white.  They are black.

But I really don't want to make this post about race.  God knows racism is a real thing.  My time in security gave me a perspective that made racism far too evident to be denied.  I am not even going to try to list individual events.  And I also know that being white is not a total insulation from being harassed by the police.  When I was a young man I drove a beat up car and worked a late swing shift.  I usually headed home around 3am, and I was pulled over a minimum of four times a week.  One night in particular I was pulled over twice driving the 100 blocks from my work to my house.  Police saw me, a young man in a crappy car driving at 3am, and assumed I was drunk.  But since I was polite and sober every time I received literally hundreds of verbal warnings for various pretexts that were cited for pulling me over between the ages of 18 and 23.  I never begrudged the police their pulling me over, statistically you are pretty likely to catch a drunk driver if you pull over young men in crappy cars driving on surface streets at 3am.  And in every one of those cases the officers were polite and professional.

I figure that the police probably would not have given me endless warnings or been quite so polite if I had been black, but I really want to try to make this post about more than racism.  The trouble with making articles about the police centered around racism is that for white people like me, police racism hurts other people who look different.  The militarization of police forces affects all of us.  Race makes the threat of a militarized police force seem less threatening to people who look like me because we see pictures like this:
Police menacing that same protester - Source The Concourse
Yes the force brought against the unarmed black protester seems unwarranted.  But hey, there is graffiti saying "fuck the police" in the image, there's a storage facility in the background (you don't see those so much in affluent areas), and the guy is black with long hair.  All things that might make the image seem a little more distant and understandable.  I mean, everybody knows poor black people hate cops right?  Of course the cops would launch a military style assault on black people.  It just makes sense.

That's why I like this picture better:
Whatcha doin?  Oh you know, cop stuff. - Source Business Insider
Now it just looks scary.  There is no graffiti, this could be anywhere in the US.  And the picture puts you in the position of the viewer.  The viewer confronted by faceless men in military style tactical gear with no apparent name tags.  Men wearing sidearms in addition to their carbines, backed up by the police version of an MRAP (the Lenco BearCat).  But these men aren't soldiers, or at least they are not supposed to be soldiers, they are supposed to be police.  Why would police in the US need desert boots?  Why would they need camouflage in a city?  Why is that cop pointing a 5.56 carbine with a 30 round magazine at me? 

This is not a group of police officers seeking to keep order, this is a group of police officers preparing to fight a battle against the public.

And now let us turn back to race.  In 1967 Daryl Gates assembled a SWAT team in Los Angeles to combat things like snipers (from race riots) and the Black Panthers.  Gates used officers with military experience.  He created a military force to use against Americans.  The first LAPD SWAT team battle was actually with the Black Panthers.  But that was not technically the first SWAT style action, the first was north of LA against non-cooperating farm workers.

It is interesting to note that at the same time that California was militarizing against black militants Ronald Reagan was also speaking out against open carry.  Ronald Reagan was trying to ban open carrying of loaded weapons.  The law that passed in 1967, signed by Reagan, is named the Mulford Act.  Who was the law seeking to strip of their right to keep and bear arms?  The Black Panthers.

That's right, limiting the right to keep and bear arms and SWAT teams came about the same year, in the same place, for the same reason:  To fight back against those uppity negroes.

Maybe I'm drawing too strong of a point, the Black Panthers were in fact rather scary.  They were a bunch of angry black men running around with AK's.  And the SWAT teams were also used to crack down on Mexicans first, but...  yeah.

(Parenthetically, I don't want to draw too strong of a connection between the squashing of the right for US citizens to keep and bear arms and the militarized oppression of Americans by the government.  Not because there is not an obvious and progressive correlation, but because correlation does not necessarily imply causation.  Just because 0.125% of homicides in the US in 1991 used a military grade weapon doesn't mean that the Assault Weapons Ban was aimed at furthering the force asymmetry between the police and the populace.)

Unsurprisingly, against this same backdrop of the civil rights movement, crying out against police brutality, disquiet about Vietnam, and growing distrust of the government, one year later the Federal Government passed the Gun Control Act dramatically reducing which arms citizens could own.  Two years later the government proved that they were right to restrict the means of violence to themselves when the National Guard fired into a group of unarmed students at Kent State.

Not that the populace reacted with the same sanguine chill to the Kent State Massacre as they did to black people getting killed by militarized police forces, but I see a connection between use of military force against black people and the broadening of who the government can use military force against.  But once again, I might be drawing connections were none exist.

If we fast forward a decade or so we see another major uptick in the militarization of police forces.  Ronald Reagan (again) helped broaden the scope of what SWAT would be used for as he broadened the War on Drugs.  The scope of who the government would use military force against was expanding.

Fast forward another decade and a half.  9/11 happens.  The War on Terror happens.  The Patriot Act eviscerates the constitution.  The number of cities fielding SWAT teams explodes.  The funding for militarized police forces explodes.  And once again mission creep sets in.  The police become essentially an internal military force to protect the government populace against the populace terrorists.

Color me naive, but I feel like we have the FBI and the National Guard to protect the country.  I feel like the police are there to enforce local laws and keep the peace, not to fight wars.

But now we fast forward another decade plus to today.  80% of cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 have SWAT teams.  In 1983 that number was 13%.  In 1975 there were 500 Swat teams in the whole country.  In 1966 there were no SWAT teams (and civilians could own machine guns).  An average of 50,000 SWAT raids go on every year in America.  Today SWAT teams are used for such dangerous missions as breaking up poker games, or checking out a bar that may have sold liquor to minors.  One of my favorite anecdotes is when a SWAT team went to investigate a man suspected of running a cock-fighting ring and they drove an armored vehicle through his fence and proceeded to kill 100 of his chickens and his dog.  (for more read this article, it's better than mine)

Today police continue to kill black men with the same racist impunity they have for decades. The difference is that now a city of 21,000 people in Missouri can call in a military style assault force to crush any opposition without having to involve the actual military.

I guess my point is this.  Racism is a problem, not just for the races being discriminated against, but for everyone.  Because when racism is allowed to affect policy those policies affect us all.  Racism allowed our country to slowly build up a militarized police force.  Military force is still mostly used against minorities, but it threatens all of us.  And today it is used against all of us.

When you read about Michael Brown being gunned down in broad daylight you should acknowledge that race played a big part in his death.  You should also realize that Michael Brown was a human being, just like you.  And the same rules that let Michael Brown's killer go unnamed would let your killer go unnamed.

Think about it.
Michael Brown, yes he was that young.

And sorry again for the rambling tangent-riffic mess of a post.  I just had too many thoughts to pare it back.  I try to maintain focus in my posts, but sometimes they get away from me.



    but this cop "reasonably believed" there was an "imminent threat to his life"... maybe if you were outside a combat zone buddy. but a ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP? in the USA! why would it be reasonable to think that everyday citizens (70 yr olds) are an imminent threat?

    and why cant grandpa refuse treatment? because its not healthy for him? neither is police induced death...
    why was this young man ignored?

    Was an IV really worth this mans life?

    and why do swat teams have better gear than i did over seas? ;(

    1. Police forces need to have the trust of the people they are supposed to protect, it's kind of hard to trust a force that seems intent on proving that it can kill you for any/no reason. Police forces cowing populations with force is not rule of law.

      Another thought I've been having is how problematic I find the social analogy I have heard expressed by a lot of LEO's. The idea that the world is divided up into sheep and wolves, and it is the sheepdogs that protect the sheep. As Nate and I have discussed, a sheepdog is still a wolf, just a domesticated one. I prefer to think of myself as a billy goat. Still a part of the herd, not separate from the rest of humanity, just an individual that can and will fight back when needed.

  2. Great writing, even if some of it was written above my head! That's ok, makes me work :) I agree with most of what you have written. My biggest concern is not that Police can and routinely are shooting and choking and killing people. It's that they do it so routinely and have absolutely no consequences. That is what scares me. I told a friend of mine that I should become a cop, not because of any other reason than absolute job security. Throw a flash bang in a crib? Lie about it to the mom and keep your job. Shoot a minority youth in broad daylight? Keep your job. Five officers beat a mentally ill man to death? Kept their jobs. Cops in this country have become untouchable. Above the Law. And 99% of the time it's minorities and the mentally ill that are targetted. Yes targetted.
    I will end with this last rant. I recently reposted a video about a University student that was going through a DUI check point. He recorded the entire thing on his phone. At one point during the detainment, the cops told this sober young man, "You have no rights!" That's what our "beloved" country has come to - A Place State where they have free reign and the public has no rights, not even the right to life.

    1. hot headed cops saying things like "you have no rights" make me even more afraid to go in public. I am from Texas and should have been more aware of the traffic laws in oregon that differ from my home state, but i wasnt. I was driving to school crying hysterically on the phone to my father (talking and driving was not illegal in Texas at the time) because I was having an anxiety attack and needed some calming. I also really needed to get to school. I was pulled over, already had tears in my eyes, and now im extra nervous because I am not aware of my offense. I stumbled on my words and he yelled at me to calm down. I was not loud, I was scared. yelling at me does not make me feel safer. a million things rushed through my head including the thought that he could just shoot me and say I was hysterical. He was rude and loud until I told him I am a disabled veteran... thats what it took for him to treat me like a human.

    2. My thoughts should not have included a cop potentially harming me for no reason, and the cop shouldve been civil regardless of my job history