Thursday, October 15, 2015
Cops as Soldiers, Soldiers as Cops
In vast stretches of third world lands dominated by repressive dictatorships, the dividing lines between the military and the police is blurry at best. For those who have traveled to such countries, they may remember the police barracks, where the local gendarme were carefully housed among their own, behind walls and barbed wire. Sometimes this separateness was the result of armed cartels and rebels gunning for anyone in a uniform, but usually, it was to create an “us” (including the incumbent repressive regime) and “them” (most everyone else) reminder to the local population.
As ordinary police forces the world over, even in open democracies, have become increasingly militarized, from military training and tactics to some rather extreme versions of military hardware, this us-them schism becomes increasingly pronounced. Militarizing the police is supposed to build camaraderie among officers, increase efficiency against well-armed criminals (particularly gangs) and intimidate and quickly contain potentially violent situations before they get out of hand.
But with the exception of a holed-up serial killer, terrorist bomber or a dangerous hostage situation, increasingly, the use of the most militarized form of police action has deep political overtones. Instead of containing violence at its inception, it seems that militarization only makes it worse, extends the local anger and fosters escalation and confrontation, a notion that since it is “us vs. them,” we are justified in fighting back.
Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were ill-prepared to become “cops” looking for “criminals.” Their training was to capture or kill the enemy, not enforce local laws. But soldiers became cops in the field anyway, and instead of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people, they became one more repressive regime running roughshod over the locals. And trust me, our outstanding soldiers have never liked that role and still feel pretty uncomfortable in that type of deployment.
Likewise, when we call in the American National Guard to bolster a police situation getting out of hand, where riots and looting overwhelm local police capacity, fine young men and women are thrust into uncomfortable situations that are not really part of their daily training or core mission. The “enemy” become hordes of fellow American citizens, some truly criminal and some truly angry at some actual or perceived civil wrong. But soldiers are raised in a friend-or-foe universe where their main function is protecting Americans from the “enemy.” Awkward.
Lots of cops have a military background; it’s a natural fit for many. But except for the smaller police forces where training is minimal, most police recruits have to be trained into a new way of thinking. Cop, not soldier. And in today’s world with smart phone and body/vehicle cameras, it is apparent that much of that training needs to be retrofitted into a world of contemporary humanitarian values. Incumbents are going down kicking and screaming, but change is seeping into our police forces everywhere.
What happens, however, when you take a former-soldier-now-cop and supply that officer with weapons and hardware that were completely part of his/her military training and not part of that police preparation? Old instincts kick in. Those folks on the other side of the shield or outside the armored vehicles are now the “enemy” again. We begin to mirror the “us” vs. “them” mentality on both sides of the confrontation into the military police paradigm of third world repressive regimes. And, not surprisingly, we tend to get the same reactions and results.
Ferguson, Missouri exploded in flames a year ago. Rogue cops met “outside elements” gathering for the storm, faced looters using instability for pretty clear criminal purposes, and locals who were just plain infuriated at a white police force controlling a black community. The National Guard rolled in with obvious results. It seemed as if the Ferguson flames were finally extinguished, but the town never stopped smoldering. And the feds began questioning why so much military hardware was being used all over the nation for what used to be fairly limited police work. Because they could? Should the Pentagon even be supplying such advanced systems to local cops?
Tiny Ferguson was a pretty horrific example of a small town with way too much military hardware. But it took a U.K. newspaper, The Guardian, to break the story about how our Pentagon was demanding that over-armed Ferguson – scene of another spate of re-kindled recent civil unrest – return military vehicles that never should have been given to the local cops.
Here’s how the Guardian (August 11th) looked at the situation: “Several Humvees from regional police forces were among the military vehicles seen on the streets of Ferguson last summer as officers cracked down on protests over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson police officer.
“The images were seen around the world: protesters clashing with camouflage-clad police who advanced toward their lines in armored trucks and were kitted out like soldiers – wielding assault rifles and firing teargas against emotional but largely peaceful demonstrations.
“The heavy-handed police actions were sharply condemned by leaders such as Claire McCaskill, Missouri’s senior US senator, who said at the time they were compounding the problem. ‘We need to demilitarize this situation,’ said McCaskill, who has since led a congressional inquiry into the issue…
“[The government finally reacted.] The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is being forced by the Obama administration to return two military vehicles that it obtained from the Pentagon, amid widespread concern and criticism over the deployment on American streets of equipment intended for war zones.
“The US Department of Defense will reclaim a pair of Humvees that were given to the beleaguered St Louis suburb under a controversial program to distribute surplus weapons, vehicles and other gear, according to several government officials involved in the process… ‘They have simply informed us they will be taking them back,’ Jeff Small, a spokesman for Ferguson, told the Guardian in an email.”
But seriously, is this the America we want the world to see? The United States that we all live in? Are we so truly enamored of this “us vs them” mantra that we don’t see the harm of making our police force into a quasi-military force? Do we really want to give gangs justification to attack marauding paramilitary forces as their community’s sworn enemy? Most states as well as the feds recognize the need to demilitarize the cops, but the process of returning police to police work needs to accelerate, because unless you are blind, those at the bottom of our economic ladder have less and less to lose every day… and their anger is building. Stoking a dangerous fire is never a good idea.
I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes even the obvious misstep is hard to change.