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Tuesday, 19 August 2014 06:46

Police in the US: Preserving and Protecting Disorder

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aaaDontShoot(Photo: Erinmiran)"The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder."

- Richard J. Daley

It's not terribly controversial to note that, in recent years, increased funding to police, across the country has led to what can only be termed a militarization of police activities. And this militarization just doesn't seem to go all that well. The recent debacle in Ferguson, Missouri is just the latest example. There was tear gas, there were arbitrary detentions of journalists, there was a freaking no fly zone. Things finally ended when the governor of Missouri stepped in to order the local police to stand down.

You could call this an isolated incident where things spiraled, very quickly, out of control. You would be wrong. While response to the (mostly) peaceful protests following the shooting of an unarmed, African American, 18 year old was noteworthy for its almost cartoonish excess, similar police actions are not uncommon. A similar, if less excessive, police response occurred in Albuquerque, NM, as protesters marched against APD's killing of an unarmed, mentally ill, homeless man who was in the process of surrendering. These protests, while again, not 100% peaceful, were met with disproportionate force. (And, as a cherry atop the whole thing, the APD wrapped up the night by killing yet another person who may or may not have had a weapon. The APD has an impulse control issue.)

But beyond the excessive reactions to public protest, let's take a quick look at the actions that people are actually protesting. It seems as though every few days, there is yet another incident in which a police officer kills a civilian. Often they're minorities. Often they're mentally ill. Rarely does the police action result in much more than a suspension with, of course, pay. And that tends to get people a little worked up, worked up enough to take to the streets, where they are met with police departments exercising their usual restraint.

But why is this happening? In the name of combating terror, massive amounts of funding have been launched at local police departments – upwards of $30 billion. Departments used this funding to modernize, expand and, in many cases, start purchasing shiny new military grade equipment. Even before the universe was threatened by the abstract noun of terrorism, military equipment has been flowing to police departments. The 1033 program, begun in 1997, operating under the motto "From Warfighter to Crimefighter," distributes surplus military equipment to police forces. Last year alone, they passed out over $400 million worth. Funny thing about getting lots of money and shiny weaponry: you want to use it as much as you can. And once you're on the money and guns teat, you never want to let go.

Unfortunately, and not terribly surprisingly, US government does not provide a comprehensive database of incidents of police violence, so it is difficult to track long term trends in police violence. It appears that incidents are on the increase, but this may simply be due to the greater ease with which we can report and disseminate news.

Trending aside, here's a fun fact: in 2011, 17 Americans were killed, worldwide, by terrorist activities. That same year, according to one attempt at quantifying the issue, 607 Americans were killed by police activities. That means you, as an American, are about 35 times more likely to be killed by a police officer as you are by a terrorist. That all of our funding and weapons go to the side amassing the higher body count is, while amusing, cold comfort.

So you can see, even without being able to track clearly the relationship between militarization of the police and police violence, that something is going wrong. And here's the reason for the stupid body count: our police, all over the country, are geared up for flat out war. Who's the enemy? They'd like you to think it's the bad guys. You know: all those criminals who have somehow amassed the firepower of a minor army. The problem, of course, is that there simply isn't a well trained and equipped army of criminals out there. And the majority of police interactions are with civilians like you and I. Maybe you ran a red light; maybe I'm getting a warrant served for skipping jury duty. Doesn't matter. They're geared up for war and you and I have become the enemy. Which is why SWAT teams are serving search warrants and flash bang grenades are being thrown at babies.

There's a neat law that we have – the Posse Comitatus Act – that generally prohibits the usage of federal military forces in a policing capacity. Like most such laws, there are holes and exceptions, but it doesn't work half badly. But it looks as though we may have come up with the ultimate way around it. Forget having the military act as the police – let's just have the police act as the military. You know how they say that, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail? Well when you have a de facto army, everyone starts to look like an enemy combatant.

Protect and serve my ass. A bit of rewording is in order, I submit. "To protect my fellow police from the consequences of their excess and to serve the cause of securing as much funding and shiny military equipment for my department as is humanly possible." That's more like it.

Probably wouldn't fit on the side of a police car, though.