Typically, this blog focuses on matters of an international nature. However, the recent events in Saint Louis, Missouri--my home town--have illustrated the extent to which American law enforcement has become militarized across the nation. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Micheal Brown, his death has acted as catalyst for outrage against racist and militaristic procedures commonly enacted by police departments across the nation.
Police officers have widely implemented policies which disproportionately affect African Americans and other people of color. For example, Caucasians and African Americans are just as likely to possess marijuana. Yet, black males are far more likely to be stopped and arrested for illicit possession of the drug. 50% of SWAT raids--which have become ubiquitous in the post 9/11 era--target people of color, and are primarily conducted in response to drug violations or to serve warrants. According to Time magazine, only 7% of SWAT deployments were made in response to hostage or barricade situations.
Moreover, officers have been held unaccountable for their actions throughout the years, especially in cases where violence is unnecessarily used against black males. Perhaps the greatest example of such institutional racism existing so blatantly in our police departments is present in the death of Eric Garner. Following the asphyxiation of Garner, who was recorded pleading for his life, the NYC Police Commissioner issued a statement in which he posited that video taping police officers constituted interference. No condemnation of the officers' actions, an update on the investigation, or pledge to institute more oversight. Rather, he criticized a system which creates accountability in an officer's interactions with local citizens.
There is no excuse for Anonymous to release the private information of city employees, or for residents to loot and vandalize. But recognize the underlying conditions which have created such violence in Ferguson. When people lose faith in the system which serves them, the creation and perpetuation of radicalism occurs. People are mad because of systemic repression, something that continues to persist decades after Martin Luther King marched on Washington.
Currently, we don't know what happened between the unnamed police officer and Brown. Even if preliminary evidence suggests that the unlawful use of deadly force was used, we will not be given the whole picture until the FBI completes its investigation. But, to a certain extent, that is irrelevant. What's more pertinent is that Ferguson residents have no reason to believe that Darren Wilson was justified in his actions. When governments are responsible for undermining the health of society, it ought to not surprise us when citizens cease to hold faith in their honesty and effectiveness. As the authorities lose their grip on legitimacy, social break down and disorder begin to creep up the spine of society. Therefore, reformation of these institutions is paramount in increasing their overall ability to serve communities across our nation.
The obvious necessity in ameliorating law enforcement institutions is to reduce their armaments. As Business Insider columnist Paul Szoldra noted, "In Afghanistan, we patrolled in big, armored trucks. We wore uniforms that conveyed the message, 'We are a military force, and we are in control right now.'" When departments deploy paramilitary forces in response to mostly peaceful protests, their presence largely serves to incite anger instead of deterring further unrest. Citizens begin to view officers as a foreign occupier, widening the already substantial gap between many departments and their communities.
Current Pentagon programs such as 1033 have funneled weapons to departments across the nation. Law enforcement entities in peaceful suburbs suddenly have the ability to impose martial law and put into action de facto military occupations. Take the Boston Bombings last year. County Sheriffs and local cops were transformed into a freightening force capable of massive destruction. Under the pretext of national security, officers began searching the house of citizens without affiliations to Tsarnaev or his compatriots (granted, while the searches were technically voluntary, it's rather hard to say no when a SWAT team is leveling guns at you face.) Unsurprisingly, in a post-9/11 era, militarizing equipment carries the added effect of militarizing their actions. The essence of policing is radically altered when it occurs through the sight of an assault rifle.
However, reinventing the way officers view their community is necessary as well. Increasingly, the warrior's ethos has been drilled into the minds of police officers. The notion of a community being their charge is supplanted with paranoia of their city's population. Such a mentality has created the perception within officers that their city is tantamount to the streets of Fallujah. The physical mutation of an officer's arsenal is coupled with a psychological overhaul which prepares him to use it as he sees fit. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this warrior paradigm is that an officer is constantly equipped with it. Even if legislation were to substantially reduce the amount of arms that departments possess, changing current mentalities is extremely difficult. This requires bottom-top, grass root movements to change how departments operate on a community and state level. Recognizing the importance of legislation on a local level is one way citizens can reform their local and state governments. Next you go to the polls, don't gloss over local issues--chances are, they could affect you.
Accountability and Reform
The first step in changing racist and militaristic policies is to accept they exist. The second is to begin pushing for more oversight of police actions. Body cameras have vastly expanded the ability of citizens to ensure that officers are not abusing their authority. In Rialto, California, the local city council passed an ordinance requiring officers to wear cameras. Since the implementation of the policy, an 88% drop in complaints and a 60% drop in the use of force by officers occurred. Furthermore, removing internal norms which allow for officers to abuse citizens with near impunity need to be removed as well. It's quite common for authorities to turn a blind eye to abuses as they occur, necessitating more civilian supervision of internal investigations. In high profile cases such as the Micheal Brown shooting, bringing in an outside agency to preside over an investigation can go a long way in constructing legitimacy with a disenfranchised population.
If we admit that law enforcement is a legitimate function of the state, then standing by while they are pervaded with racist and militaristic conceptions of policing is to support the oppressive utilization of force. Citizens hold a vested interest in ensuring that institutions responsible for their safety are using constitutionally sanctioned and proportional responses to criminality. As militarization and racism increasingly garner our attention in the media, we ought to take advantage of the momentum created by outrage to push for legislative reform to structural flaws in our law enforcement entities.