Obama and military-style policing: Back to era of Officer Friendly?

President Obama was clear in Camden, N.J.: Community policing is in, military-style policing is out. But not all criminologists think it's wise to take resources away from police. 

Chris LaChall/Camden Courier-Post/AP
President Obama (l.) tours the Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center in the Camden County Police Administration Building with Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson on Monday, in Camden, N.J.

The idea seemed to make sense at the time: The United States military had excess equipment and local police departments were happy to have it – free of charge. The year was 1997, and the “war on drugs” was raging.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and money flowed from the newly formed Department of Homeland Security to help local communities defend against terrorists. Again, police departments stocked up on military-style equipment.

By the summer of 2014, when the city of Ferguson, Mo., exploded in riots over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager, the war-zone imagery was unmistakable. Heavily armed officers in combat gear, some atop armored vehicles, invited comparisons to US troops on patrol in Iraq.

On Monday, the US changed gears on police militarization, as President Obama announced a ban on the federal provision of some types of hardware to local police departments. The goal is to help build trust between police and local communities.

“You know, we've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them,” Mr. Obama said in a speech in Camden, N.J. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”

Out are the tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, large-caliber firearms, and camouflage uniforms. Transfers of other types of equipment will be restricted, such as MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles and riot shields; in order to obtain them, police departments will have to justify their use.

Experts on law enforcement expressed little surprise that some local police forces came to look like little armies.  

“Once they have these [military-style items] in their arsenals, they’d tend to use them even when it wasn’t really necessary, because they had them,” says James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, disagrees that the use of military-style hardware is inherently problematic. The issue was a lack of training. If police forces had been given training on how and when to use the equipment, then there wouldn’t have been the kind of backlash that led to Monday’s announcement.

“I know people would like to see police officers as social workers, but it doesn’t work like this,” said Ms. Haberfeld. “Policing as a profession is predicated on the ability to use force. Of course I’m not just talking about physical force, but about the implied notion that you can resolve situations because you can use force.”

Police work is tough, and it makes no sense to limit the allocation of resources to departments, Haberfeld says.

Still, in some communities, the pendulum has swung back toward the Officer Friendly model of policing, which was in fashion during the Clinton era. President Clinton used to talk about “midnight basketball” as a way to keep urban youth out of trouble.  

Twenty years later, basketball is back. Under the “community policing” model, Obama said, the role of the officer is “not just to walk the beat, but to actually get to know the residents – to set up basketball games, to volunteer in schools, to participate in reading programs, to get to know the small businesses in the area.”

In the two years since Camden moved to “community policing,” the decline in crime has been dramatic. Obama draws a direct line between the two.

“Violent crime in Camden is down 24 percent,” Obama said. “Murder is down 47 percent. Open-air drug markets have been cut by 65 percent. The response time for 911 calls is down from one hour to just five minutes.... And perhaps most significant is that the police and residents are building trust.”

Obama also announced a Police Data Initiative aimed at promoting police transparency with the public. Twenty-one jurisdictions, including Camden, have agreed to release 101 data sets not previously available to the public, including traffic stops and officer-involved shootings.

In addition, the Justice Department announced $163 million in hiring grants for positions focused on building community trust.

“I can tell you, there is widespread understanding by the police that police-community relations must be improved, especially in communities of color,” Ronald Davis, a former police chief who runs the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), told reporters on Sunday.

On Monday, COPS released the final report of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The report outlines a series of recommendations for promoting "effective crime reduction while building public trust." The recommendations include fostering a mind-set of a guardian rather than a warrior within law enforcement, establishing comprehensive policies on the use of force, and investment in training and education of police officers. The report also recommends that the president establish a National Crime and Justice Task Force to further examine potential criminal justice reforms.

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