Nine months after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, initiated a national conversation on the relationship between police and those they’re supposed to serve, the Obama administration has taken a step toward slowing the militarization of America’s police forces:
The Obama administration announced Monday it will ban federal transfers of certain types of military-style gear to local police departments, as the president seeks to respond to a spate of incidents that has frayed trust in communities across the country.
The banned items include tracked armored vehicles, bayonets and grenade launchers, according to a report released by a White House working group that made the recommendations. Other equipment, including tactical vehicles, explosives and riot equipment, will be transferred only if local police provide additional certification and assurances that the gear will be used responsibly, according to the report.
This is undoubtedly good news (how anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to give local police bayonets and grenade launchers is difficult to understand). But everything we’ve learned in the last nine months tells us that the problems in American policing are so deep and so wide that they not only will require years if not decades to solve, they require a fundamental rethinking of the ideology of American policing.
There’s no question that this issue has been boosted higher up the media agenda. When someone like Tamir Rice or Walter Scott or Freddie Gray is killed by police, it’s now national news in a way it wasn’t a year or two ago, though hundreds of people die at the hands of police every year. We now understand that these eruptions of violence are often momentary manifestations of entire systems of exploitation and hostility that not only breed distrust of authority, they serve to keep people in poverty and leave them vulnerable to catastrophe on the smallest provocation.
In Ferguson, the Brown shooting cast a light on a local government that sustains itself by imposing a shocking level of fines on its black citizens, making every walk down the street a risk of financial ruin, and Ferguson is hardly the only place where this goes on. An alarming new report from WAMU and the Center for Investigative Reporting shows how police in Washington, D.C., arrest thousands of people on the charge of “assaulting” a police officer under a law that allows that charge for practically any behavior a cop doesn’t like, including wiggling around while the cops are beating you with their nightsticks. Two-thirds of the people charged with the “assaults” are never charged with any other crime, suggesting they weren’t doing anything wrong to begin with, and 90 percent of the people charged with these “assaults” are black.
But while race courses through so many of the problems with American policing today, we also have to confront an entire ideology. Why is it that American police shoot so many people, while the number of people killed by police in countries like Germany, England, or Australia are usually in the single digits every year? Yes, the ubiquity of guns is part of the story; American police are more likely to get in a shootout than police in other countries. But our police also kill large numbers of people who don’t have guns, and police in other countries frequently confront criminals or mentally ill people armed with knives or other weapons. Why are they able to end those situations peacefully, while so often American police are not?
The difference is that American police are trained to use deadly force when confronted with even a small risk to their safety. Many of their leaders mock the idea that they should focus on de-escalating confrontations. When you’ve been inculcated with the “warrior mentality” that says that every day when you go out on the street you’re engaged in a battle that will be won either by you or your enemy, it creates a base level of fear and hostility toward the people you’re supposed to be protecting that has awful consequences even when nobody is getting killed. As Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former police officer, wrote last year:
Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance. Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, “complacency kills.”
Officers aren’t just told about the risks they face. They are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance. And as they listen to the fallen officer’s last, desperate radio calls for help, every cop in the room is thinking exactly the same thing: “I won’t ever let that happen to me.” That’s the point of the training.
The program under which military equipment is transferred to local police departments has certainly helped spread the idea that police are soldiers in a war. Give a small town’s police force an armored personnel carrier and a dozen assault rifles, and suddenly carrying out that warrant on a guy you think is selling drugs turns into a military operation. This may be anecdotal, but I’ve seen police in a number of small towns where no cop has ever been shot wearing bulletproof vests on their daily rounds, while 20 years ago, cops would only don the vests if they were going on some kind of raid. And that’s despite the fact that crime has dropped precipitously over that period.
This web of associated problems with American policing — racism, abuse and exploitation of people in poor communities, inadequate training, the warrior mentality — is going require sustained attention and policy energy, particularly at the local and state level. Not arming every local force like it’s the 101st Airborne is a start, but it’s about the least we can do.