It seems a man can’t go online today without reading about another shameful clash between the police and the citizens they are sworn to protect. The over-the-top crackdowns on peaceful protests like Occupy Wall St. in New York City are just one example of the chilling trend facing today’s citizens. It’s a facet of daily living now for anyone paying attention—we’ve even covered the issue before in our Single Serving Story- ‘Of Pipers and Pigs’.
More and more each day, police are responding to peaceful demonstrations with violence, illegal detainments, and intimidation. It’s difficult to imagine reading about any political demonstration these days without just assuming the inevitable conclusion. People gather to express their opinions and values in a public forum; they may march, they may sit, there’s probably the occasionally song sang or pot banged. Then they come—the police roll in with automatic weapons and tactical response vehicles; cracking heads, illegally arresting innocent citizens, and pepper-spraying people at close range. The documented abuses of power seem to go on without end (Source).
But what is to be said of the men and women wearing the badges? Off duty, they walk those same streets, shop at those same stores, and are affected by those same issues. How is it that a badge, a uniform, and a gun can draw such a harsh distinction between ordinary people?
Clichés and disparaging stereotypes aside, I believe it’s fair to say that a significant proportion of police officers get into such a line of work because they care: about their communities, about the people in them, and about the general values and safety of the society they too occupy. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we could all feel some hint of pride and protection when we looked upon one of the ‘boys in blue’.
But it isn’t blue anymore, is it?
On Aug. 9th, 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson led to significant protesting and calls for justice across the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The police response was heinous; men in camouflage, armed with all manner of deadly weapons and riding in tactical response vehicles swept through and terrorized the neighbourhood (Source). To an untrained eye, it would be impossible to tell if this was the response of a local police force or an invading army: and that’s a significant problem.
The increasingly militarized appearance of local police forces is the result in part of the dangerous and irresponsible ‘1033 Program’—part of the Disposition Services of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) (Source). The purpose of this program is to transfer surplus military hardware from the army to local law enforcement agencies. The result is that small law enforcement offices around the country are being supplied with military grade tools—technology designed to destabilize and control foreign militants is being deployed against the very citizens it was designed to protect.
Now, take a breath and clear your head. A rational thinker might interject here, insisting that this equipment would be held in reserve in case of a dire local threat—such as a terrorist strike, or perhaps the unsolicited landing of a foreign offence force in some small shit-town in mid-west America. But if we look closer at the agreement between the DLA and participatory states, we’ll find that one of the clauses agreed to is that the military equipment be put into use within one year, or returned (Source).
Clearly, this puts a dangerous expectation on the police officers in these communities. If the equipment has to be used within a year, the difficult job befalling them is finding a way to use it. This involves selecting a group of citizens to use this equipment on, as well as some excuse to do so. The result is that these tactical vehicles and dangerous weapons are showing up for duties of crowd control, warrant searches, and notably, against people of colour in 58% of cases.
Here, we see a growing divide between the general citizenry and the officers sworn to protect them. The ongoing process of militarization, and government pressures to use such alarming equipment against its people, serves to ramp this tension up to 11; and a veritable pressure cooker for impending disaster.
The quote has been going around for a while now, but that makes it no less fitting. The words of Commander William Adama, of Battlestar Galactica, echo the situation with prophetic accuracy:
“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
-Commander William Adama, Battlestar Galactica.
Another key issue factoring into this divide is the skewed demographics of police forces. In order to serve effectively, a police force must be seen not only as representative of its district, but also as able to identify with the specific needs and values of its community. Sadly, this is seldom the case. In the example of Ferguson, 6% of police officers were African-American—and this in a community where 67% of the citizens are African-American (Source).
This separation between police and community is strengthened by the execution of overtly unfair laws, such as the Civil Forfeiture practice, which allows possessions to be seized from citizens and sold for the profit of the police force with no trial whatsoever (Source).
It’s a pretty dismal picture, but what exactly is the driving force behind these startling trends? Whether the militarization of police forces is motivated by the so-called ‘war on drugs’, as claimed at the onset of the program (Source), by the goal of counter-terrorism, or simply to continue lining the pockets of America’s Arms distributors (Link), who’s to say? The real question is, just what is to be done about it?
The police, in this strange position of paramilitary, anti-citizenry force, certainly make for an easy target—and that in spite of their camouflage. But a police force is an undeniably important facet of any functioning society, no matter how utopian the goals may be. If you imagine a world without cops as an equitable paradise of peace and prosperity, I fear you are not sufficiently acquainted with humanity.
One thing that’s clear is that something needs to change. If history is any indicator however, holding our breath for the government to enact legislation in favor of the people—and against corporate interests—will mean we won’t be long for this earth. So what can change then?
Ultimately, the duty falls upon the men and women wearing the badges. Upon taking such a position, these people are duty bound to serve the best interests of the citizenry in their jurisdiction. That duty has become increasingly difficult as the militarization effort continues, and police forces which fail to represent their district only obfuscate the problem further.
The egregious errors that have been made were strongly influenced by the current system, and while there certainly needs to be accountability on that front, I am more concerned with the personal responsibility of all who wear the uniform. When in the line of duty, there must be a sense of ethics operating beneath the badge—and a conscious consideration of whether the duties imposed on them are truly the sort of activity they signed up for.
We must count on the strength of character in these good men and women, and hope it proves sufficient to see them through in situations so inundated with uncertainty. The fact that this distinction must be made is a damning sign of the times, but we must now call upon all police officers to act with wisdom and empathy for those they protect; not simply because of their badge, but perhaps in spite of it.
-Brad OH Inc.