There has been a recent debate about the over-militarization of United States’ police forces. Namely, why do cities, and even smaller towns, need police forces with military-grade vehicles and weapons?
Before I begin, let’s start with two facts:
The total amount of crime in the United States has dropped significantly since the 1990’s. (source: Wikipedia)
The United States has the highest rate of incarcerated citizens in the world.
Now, the reason many of these police forces get tanks and armored Humvees is through a military surplus plan called the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted in 1990 when the crime rate in our cities was among the highest ever. Ever since then, police forces who are absolutely NO DIFFERENT than you or me, except for being deputized, have militarized themselves to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from many national armies.
Let me reiterate that last part. Police forces are no different than you or me, except for being deputized. They are paid for by your taxes, and are supposed to protect you and serve you.
So why have they become so antagonistic?
Well, it’s simple psychology. If you dress a cop up like a soldier, and give him military grade gear, he will have the mentality of a soldier. The us vs. them mentality, of seeing citizens as potential terrorists (and terrorist charges happen under questionable circumstances a lot nowadays) is the rational outcome of all this. When we have soldiers fighting wars overseas that complain of not being able to get proper protective gear, yet we have cops here in the U.S. that are dressed to the hilt in tactical gear, then something is terribly wrong.
Another problem is public perception. Even though our crime rates have fallen, the proliferation of social media and “24-7” news makes it seem like crime is happening all of the time, and more than ever. But, I guarantee if we had the same media culture in the 1960’s that we have right now, then there would have been the same debate.
Now, if there is a situation that actually requires snipers and armored vehicles, such as a hostage SWAT situation, that is one thing. But there is no excuse, or reason, for setting up snipers and armored vehicles when people are simply protesting.
Especially in Ferguson, MO. Here is the irony: the police force there murdered a young man, and are now attempting to hold their community hostage through curfews and checkpoints, just because they are protesting that the police murdered one of them. Here is another irony: there were dashcam cameras for the Ferguson police force that could have gotten the shooting on tape instead of relying on witness statements, but they were sitting in some police storage warehouse. According to their police chief, they couldn’t even afford to install them.
This isn’t just a racial thing, either. While African Americans do get arrested and locked up disproportionately, I believe this is more of a socio-economic issue. Hell, I was pulled over by Detroit police when I was a teenager, and they put a handgun to my head and threatened to kill me, all because of being “a white boy in the hood”. Of course, they charged me with a crime that was under false pretenses, and it got thrown out of court. But this happens to lower-income citizens all of the time. Adding to the irony, our judicial system is predicated on money, and our lower income citizens tend to get fined more and ordered to pay more in fees than many “well-off” citizens.
My view is this: quit outfitting our police forces like armies. There is no conceivable reason for ANY U.S. police force to have, or need, a tank. Tanks are highly specialized vehicles that are incredibly unpractical in urban environments. Unless there is an unprecedented situation of somebody in aircraft dropping bombs on our cities, if there are land mines on our city streets, or if some random person is running around with an RPG (like the video game Grand Theft Auto), then there is no reason for a police force to utilize a tank. Although, maybe they just want to look like bad asses and are going for the whole intimidation factor. This might make them feel good, but this strategy backfires every time. No law abiding citizen should be intimidated by the police, and many people are getting fed up with their heavy handed tactics.
On a related note: we need to quit building so many prisons, and divert some of that money into funding police forces with proper training, and equipping cameras for ALL policemen and vehicles. City, township, county, and state police forces do not need military grade weaponry and vehicles, but they do need proper staffing levels and the proper technology needed to do their jobs. Also, we need to raise policemen salaries, it’s only common sense that a decently paid person with decent benefits will actually give a damn about their job. Of course, this would have the added benefit of helping to cut down on police corruption, which is as high as ever. Some policemen in major cities do make decent salaries, but they have been cut back as many public sector salaries have been in this economy. Police departments are too “top-heavy”, get rid of the administrative bullshit and get back to basics. Get out in your communities and proactively interact with your citizens. It is a well known fact that proactive policing is one of the most successful ways to cut down on crime. That, and treating their communities with respect.
Welcome to the military industrialization of the United States of America. I hope, for my son’s sake as well as yours, that things will eventually change.