By Tom Cushing
Preserving DisorderUploaded: Aug 14, 2014
Chicago's Mayor Malaprop, Richard Daley the Elder, earned a kind of fame in 1968 for announcing "…the policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder." That quote came in the midst of a well-publicized Chicago police riot clearing Grant Park of anti-war protesters during the Democratic Convention. His police force was accused by one US Senator of using "gestapo tactics."
The brutality thus exposed in living color on the evening TV news shocked middle America (if not various of its minority communities) at the time. Looking back on that footage (some of it linked above), however, it all seems rather tame. No tanks or armored vehicles, just a modified pick-up paddy wagon. No shields or body armor, either even the helmets looked better-suited to an equestrian event than to a combat exercise.
Contrast that scene with the images from last evening in Ferguson MO, suburban St. Louis County. There, police sought to quell a fourth night of protest over the killing of yet another unarmed African American youth. By a police officer. The Ferguson cops were a heavily-armed-and-armored phalanx, using military tactics, and supported by military-grade weaponry and vehicles. Helicopters buzzed overhead. They drove a news team from its position with tear gas and occupied its station. Cops also raided a McDonald's (always an insurrection hotspot, or at least they had WiFi), then arrested, 'cuffed and roughed-up two reporters.
What's happening to us?
The recent killing of teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson is a partisan's dream. Only a few facts are known, leaving readers ample leeway to assume and fill-in facts that suit their preconceptions. Here was a menacing thug, struggling with a peace officer for his weapon. There was a college-bound kid and his buddy, strolling home from a 7/11, profiled, accosted and shot dead for … jay-walking? While black. The situation has not been helped by a police investigation perceived as unduly secretive, biased and slow, and heavy-handed tactics from the predominantly white Force, in a majority black 'burb.
There are a dozen directions for the story-line to jump from here but not enough is known yet to make most of them worthwhile. What I want to focus on is one thing that IS known the progressive militarization of police services in this country. It is encapsulated in those divergent images from 1968 to last night, and I am concerned about the implications.
Although US police departments have existed since 1843 and have been armed since the 1850s, the persistent image from the mid-20th century was the cop-on-the-beat. The country was more 'Car 54 Where Are You,' than it was 'NYPD Blue.'
That began to change with funding from President Nixon's War on Drugs in the 1970s. As cops faced a perceived threat of well-armed drug dealers, money began to flow from the feds to fund investments in heavy-duty materiel and SWAT team formation. It reached flood stage in the 1980s with the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Agencies Act, became a raging torrent in the name of Homeland Security after 9/11, and continues to this day.
Thus it is that Neenah, WI has its own mine-resistant troop carrier (to address a crime rate 1/5 the national average), South Dakota's 800,000 inhabitants enjoy a $100 million investment in their security (if you were a terrorist, or even a self-respecting bandit, would you target Sioux Falls?), and Richland County SC has a modified tank proudly displayed on its website. Police departments have absorbed almost 900 armored vehicles, 533 aircraft and 94,000(!) machine guns.
Okay, one might reasonably ask, it's for safety so what's wrong with that? A few things come to mind.
First, it is axiomatic that 'that which is owned gets used' often unnecessarily. Thus, SWAT teams have been dispatched to bust a string of clip joints in Florida, where the worst offense was barbering without a license. A speak-easy near Yale University was raided and found to condone under-age drinking. Libertarian journalist Radley Balko writes in his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop that SWAT teams are 'mostly used to serve warrants for non-violent crimes.' * Call me old-fashioned, but that's not the American environment I wish to inhabit.
Secondly, as NPR's excellent Steve Inskeep points out in the Ferguson report, clothes do sometimes make the man. He quotes a police chief's rueful observation that when his officers show-up 'soft' in uniforms only, they tend to engage with people. But when they arrive in riot gear, well then, riots often ensue. It's a kind of a perverse Hawthorne Effect, where people act-out according to the evident expectation. As a Ferguson resident explained, when somebody's looking for a fight, that's what he'll get.
In a place like Ferguson, where frustration and passions are already running high, is it a good idea for the authorities to arrive in battle gear? I think not. I also believe it promotes an over-aggressive, shoot-first mentality that loses sight of the relative stakes, and may contribute to unnecessary further carnage. The police in Ferguson were there mostly to protect property, after all. Does that mission justify the tactics used, risking more personal tragedy and foreclosing the very American freedom of protest?
Mike Brown is only the latest unarmed civilian to be killed closer to home, the toy rifle kid in the North Bay also comes to mind. I can't claim causation, but there's enough smoke to raise the concern. Police work is sometimes gawdawfully difficult, and its subjects are often hostile. But since that is always true, do we really want to make it more so by signaling conflict at the outset? I want military tactics to be a last resort, not the first instinct.
Otherwise the policeman really is preserving or even fomenting disorder.
* As an animal welfare guy, I would also note that the collateral damage in too many of these raids is family pets, who don't have to be constitutional scholars to recognize an unreasonable invasion of their homes.