Police are not soldiers; our communities are not war zones

When police dress for war and act like an occupying force, it's not just a concern for rioting urban neighborhoods. The militarization of civilian police pervades how police treat all citizens. It's not professional. It should stop.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd Sunday, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo.

Mark Steyn, who was writing about the militarization of police long before the Ferguson tragedy, makes a key point:

A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out – to let you guys know: We’re here, we’re severe, get used to it.

This is not a small thing. The point about “the thin blue line” is that it’s blue for a reason. As I wrote a couple of months ago:

“The police” is a phenomenon of the modern world. It would be wholly alien, for example, to America’s Founders. In the sense we use the term today, it dates back no further than Sir Robert Peel’s founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Because Londoners associated the concept with French-style political policing and state control, they were very resistant to the idea of a domestic soldiery keeping them in line. So Peel dressed his policemen in blue instead of infantry red, and instead of guns they had wooden truncheons.

So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it’s not a fashion faux pas, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are. Forget the armored vehicles with the gun turrets, forget the faceless, helmeted, anonymous Robocops, and just listen to how these “policemen” talk. Look at the video as they’re arresting the New York Times and Huffington Post reporters. Watch the St Louis County deputy ordering everyone to leave, and then adding: “This is not up for discussion.”

Really? You’re a constable. You may be carrying on like the military commander of an occupying army faced with a rabble of revolting natives, but in the end you’re a constable. And the fact that you and your colleagues in that McDonald’s are comfortable speaking to your fellow citizens like this is part of the problem. The most important of the “nine principles of good policing” (formulated by the first two commissioners of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and thereafter issued to every officer joining the force) is a very simple one: The police are the public and the public are the police. Not in Ferguson. Long before the teargassing begins and the bullets start flying, the way these guys talk is the first indication of how the remorseless militarization has corroded the soul of American policing.

Which brings us back to the death of Michael Brown. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that everything the police say about this incident is correct. In that case, whether or not the fatal shooting of Mr Brown is a crime, it’s certainly a mistake. When an unarmed shoplifter* in T-shirt and shorts with a five-buck cigar box in one hand has to be shot dead, you’re doing it wrong.

After going into some detail into comparative statistics between police shootings in Western Europe and the United States – the short version is that theirs shoot their weapons a tiny fraction as frequently as ours do and that, even on a per shooting incident basis, they fire far less ammunition – Steyn responds to the most obvious rejoinder:

A startling number of American readers wrote to say, with remarkable insouciance, that the US could not afford the luxury of First World policing. Large tracts of America had too many illegal immigrants, drug gangs, racial grievances, etc. Maybe. But the problem is that, increasingly, this is the only style of law enforcement America’s police culture teaches – not only for the teeming favelas, but for the leafy suburbs and the rural backwaters and the college-town keg party, too.

That’s quite right.

My dad was a military policeman and, for a time, a plainclothes officer in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division and quite far from a bleeding heart liberal. He was appalled 30 years ago by the militarization of civilian policemen and could not believe the lack of professionalism that had pervaded police dealing with ordinary citizens. My own experience with police, which is almost exclusively in traffic situations and the like, is that Steyn’s vision of cops acting like occupying forces even in posh suburbs has already reached fruition. Police officers treating “civilians” with friendly respect is the exception, not the rule, these days.

As I’ve noted in previous posts over the years, the fact that policemen affect military-style uniforms and behavior patterns, including adopting the conceit that the ordinary citizens are “civilians” and they themselves are not, is highly problematic.

Stephen Green reminds us that:

Twenty years ago almost in the wake of Ruby Ridge, NRA President Wayne LaPierre called federal agents “jack-booted thugs” in their enforcement of gun laws. The left reacted in its typical mock horror. But that thug attitude has trickled down from the BATF, along with billions in military equipment, to local police forces across the nation.

The horror we feel now should be real, and it should be felt by everybody.

This should be an issue that unites liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Alas, it’s mostly conservatives these days who act as if the police can do no wrong.

Just as the citizenry has gone too far in worshiping those who volunteer for service in our armed forces, we’ve bent over backwards in justifying almost any action taken by police officers. They have a difficult and sometimes dangerous job.They are not, however, soldiers. Our communities are not war zones. We should not tolerate them acting otherwise.

James Joyner is editor of the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.