Saturday, June 24, 2017

Adept Police Forces Are Essential for Capitalist Empire Democracy

Jacobin |  The most dramatic effort to modernize policing at home occurred with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime. The 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which provided funding, developed guidelines, and helped with coordination among federal, state, and municipal law-enforcement agencies, while also offering research grants to test experimental tactics and technologies. A decade before the beginning of the incarceration boom, a federally backed revamping of law enforcement set the stage.

The original idea for new federal anticrime infrastructure had emerged a few years earlier, in early autumn 1964. Summer unrest had shown police forces to be underprepared and insufficiently trained to handle urban riots or apparently increasing crime levels. As a result, Johnson administration officials launched a program to assist domestic law enforcement modeled on an ongoing program to assist foreign police.

Counterinsurgent foreign police assistance was not new in the 1960s, but it gained a robust, centralized leadership and a budgetary line of its own in 1962. The program consisted of three areas: technical assistance, such as help setting up crime laboratories, surveillance units, or prisons; material aid, what some skeptics derided as “running guns to cops”; and training. Advisers aimed to help indigenous forces fight ordinary crime, control unrest, and keep tabs on radicals. No great distinctions were drawn between these tasks, and the means for their accomplishment overlapped.

In December 1963, the Office of Public Safety (OPS), housed within the Agency for International Development, opened its International Police Academy in Washington, DC. High- and mid-ranking police officials from over seventy-five countries attended classes there for a decade. They learned state-of-the-art police techniques, including logistics, riot control, marksmanship, and record-keeping. The academy’s raison d’etre was one of “training trainers,” so lessons imparted there were sure to be replicated in other countries.
One OPS executive argued,
Regardless of what color policemen are, the suits they wear, what they call themselves, they are all the same. They are the same for the simple reason that a policeman exists in society as a behavior control mechanism. The basic principles of what is done, how it is done, and why it is done are the same.
If this projection was not yet true, OPS’s mission was to make it a reality.

Culled from agencies around the country, OPS’s advisers represented the best and most versatile experts US law enforcement had to offer. In addition to prior police work at home, most also had experience in counterinsurgency and special-warfare operations overseas.

Although Congress eventually shuttered OPS amid accusations that it taught and condoned torture and bomb-making, most of its work was utterly pedestrian — and that underpins today’s problem. OPS’s version of counterinsurgency did not try to institute highly militarized police forces so much as attempt to create standards of discipline, specialized units, benchmarks for training, facility with up-to-date technologies, and autonomy from external influences. Its lessons were based on the idea that adept police forces are essential for capitalist democracy.

Even today, we live with the legacies of OPS. Its program of total surveillance of South Vietnamese citizens using tamper-proof national ID cards might make today’s electronic spies jealous, but the means of checking those IDs — stop-and-frisk — would be recognizable to any beat cop in New York or Chicago. In 1964, an OPS training manual advised, “These methods — checks, searches, passes — are tolerated only in situations of national emergency in which they are necessary to combat the enemy. Viet Nam today is in the midst of such an emergency.” But today, on US streets with continually declining crime rates, these “reformed” actions of the police constitute the emergency.