Friday, August 29, 2014

talking overseers, poverty, militarization and mindset


usatoday |  Often, if you wait long enough, an idea comes around. Back in 2006, I wrote a piece for Popular Mechanics on how the federal government's transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments -- sometimes in very small towns -- was leading to "SWAT overkill."

My complaints didn't get much traction with either the Bush or the Obama administrations. But now, in the wake of what many consider to be an overly militarized police response in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama has ordered a review of federal programs -- in the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security -- to arm local police with military weapons.

Lawmakers -- from Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who quoted my 2006 piece in an op-ed in Time Magazine -- are looking at legislation to limit transfers. This is good. There's a role for SWAT teams in limited circumstances, but they've been overused in recent years, deployed for absurd things such as raids on sellers of raw milk. The problem is, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you have cool military equipment, there's a strong temptation to use it, just because, well, it's cool. (Federal regulatory agencies have succumbed to SWAT Fever too.)

I don't entirely blame the police. If somebody gave me a Bradley fighting vehicle, or an Apache helicopter, I'd take it.

But blurring the lines between civilian policing and military action is dangerous, because soldiers and police have fundamentally different roles. Soldiers aim outward, at the nation's external enemies. Civil rights and due process don't matter much, because enemies in wartime aren't entitled to those. Nor are soldiers expected to be politically accountable to the people they shoot.

But police turn their attention inward. The people they are policing aren't enemy combatants, but their fellow citizens -- and, even more significantly, their employers. A combat-like mindset on the part of police turns fellow-citizens into enemies, with predictable results.

I sometimes think the turning point was marked by the old cop show Hill Street Blues. Each episode opened with a daily briefing before the officers went out on patrol. In the early seasons, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus concluded every briefing with "Let's be careful out there." In the later episodes, his replacement, Sergeant Stan Jablonski, replaced that with "Let's do it to them before they do it to us." The latter attitude is appropriate for a war zone, but not for a civilized society.