A few years ago, the Occupy movement was alive and kicking. It meant a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing that it gave to nearly everyone was a glimpse into militarization of modern police forces. Stories of protesters being hospitalized after being shot with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets in Oakland may have initially conjured images of extreme violence by hordes of unruly citizens in the streets.
Quite to the contrary, reports told of peaceful protesters being the target of these attacks. In any event, amounts of unruly protesters are almost irrelevant; law enforcement is not allowed to shower unsuspecting families in chemical weapons because of one house on the corner nearby is causing problems.
The recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent militarized call to action by law enforcement, has catapulted an important question into the headlines: why do police increasingly resemble soldiers?
Where Are These Weapons Coming From?
As our armed conflicts abroad are winding down, the federal government is finding itself with a surplus of military equipment. Under a program referred to as “war-fighter to crime-fighter,” over $4 billion dollars of wartime equipment has been re-purposed to local law enforcement. In addition to assault rifles, armored vehicles and personnel carriers are among the most common to be cruising the mean streets of Anytown, USA.
What’s the Big Deal?
Undoubtedly, there are those who may not see this as a problem. Some may even go as far as to imply if it weren’t for the unruly few alluded to earlier, police would not need to resort to such extreme measures. The problem with these positions is they miss the point entirely. Here are four of the biggest issues with police militarization.
1) Poor Police Tactics – First and foremost, bulking up law enforcement with instruments of destruction doesn’t neutralize what is most likely a constitutionally protected assembly and exercise of free speech. However, it does neutralize communication between the demonstrators and the police. Since the tragedies surrounding protests in 1960s, many police forces have made efforts to make communication and transparency with activists a priority.
Police know – or should know – that their first priority is to protect the community. This also includes protecting the Constitution. It is well settled that the best way to do so is to foster civility. Militarization only mounts tensions, and time and time again has all but guaranteed overreactions and incidents of violence.
2) Threatens Constitutional Principals - Similar to above, but much more ominous, is the likelihood that the First Amendment will not be respected. Scholars debate that the First Amendment, specifically the freedom of expression, was first priority to our founding fathers because it sits at the foundation of every other amendment. Meaning, quite simply, without it, the rest of the Constitution is remarkably toothless.
Sadly, where a police force is militarized, history has shown that any number of specific lawbreakers are not silenced exclusively, but rather tear gas, riot gear, and rubber bullets are used to just shut the entire event down. Otherwise lawful assemblies are declared, rightly or wrongly, unlawful, and chaos ensues.
As a result, citizens who were engaged in lawful political speech are violently and abruptly silenced. Frequently, journalists, who are not engaged in the demonstration at all, are arrested. The result is otherwise protected speech is crushed under the heel of a combat boot.
3) Excessive Force – A helpful illustration of how valuable our nation views the First Amendment is the $4.5 million settlement the city of Oakland reached with documentary photographer Scott Olson. The settlement is to compensate him for his injuries; both from the fractures to his skull as a result of being struck by a lead-filled bean bag bullet, as well as to the deprivation of his constitutional rights.
Olson is no stranger to the dangers of a militarized police force, and as an ex-marine and war veteran, to conflict as a whole. However, his incident is not an isolated one. The Oakland Police Department’s approach to the Occupy protests lead to several other lawsuits and federal oversight. The situation is not looking much better in Ferguson, where the Missouri Highway Patrol has largely replaced the police force, and the federal government has similarly issued staunched warnings over excessive force.
4) Lawsuits – As an overarching theme of all of the above issues are the slew of lawsuits that will inevitably follow. Far from frivolous, these suits are designed to make victims of over-policing whole again. At the risk of repetition, these lawsuits, while necessary to protect victims, ultimately weaken the local community. Money that could have gone to improving safety training for officers or upgrading more important equipment, like jail cells and squad cars – or even pay salaries – will be diverted to compensate victims.
What’s the Solution?
Often times, there is no clear answer to legal dilemmas. Fortunately, when it comes to a militarized police force, the answer seems plain and simple: stop. Just stop. Don’t do it.
Proponents may insist militarization helps taxpayers by reducing federal government waste, and how proper military training may actually be beneficial in the future and thus militarization just needs to be given a chance. Finally, some may argue that armored cars and assault weapons help keep officers safer.
However, the reality is that whatever benefit to tax payers simply cannot outweigh local communities suffering as excessive force lawsuits stack up, let alone at the peril of long held constitutional principals. Additionally, proper training clearly needs to be implemented, but not with respect to combat weapons in the streets of suburbia. In no scenario should an assault rifle mounted to a tri-pod atop of an armored vehicle – and pointed at protesters with their hands up – be tolerated. Moreover, in the rare occasion a hostile situation calls for more force, departments should all already have highly trained SWAT teams to efficiently diffuse the event.
Finally, with respect to safety, police are already armed with deadly weapons they carry during the course of their daily duty, as well as crowd control gear and tactics. Further adding to their deadliness does not necessarily make them safer. It only makes innocent citizens markedly less safe.
As a result, not only is the Constitution put at risk; life itself is as well.