How much fire power should a democracy’s police forces have at their disposal? Is the trend toward militarization in urban police departments an inherent threat to our liberty? These are interesting topics, and issues with public policy as well as ethical implications, brought to our attention by the armored vehicles we have seen prowling through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
I confess to neglecting these matters on Ethics Alarms, in part because the question of whether a police officer justly and legally shot (six times) and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown has been muddled by too many other considerations already. As a result, I haven’t given the issues much quality thought, other than my usual fascination at the ability of some committed libertarians to take a position dictated by their ideology without being troubled by the obvious practical problems associated with that position, a proclivity I would file under the heading of “Irresponsible.” Also, “Strange.” How can someone advocate virtually unregulated access to increasingly powerful weaponry by citizens—including criminals—and oppose sufficient arms in the hands of the police to protect the public from a misuse of that weaponry? Libertarians (and others) maintain that a prime purpose of the Second Amendment is to prevent the government from disarming citizens to dominate and control them. Agreed. But the unfettered freedom of law-abiding citizens to acquire the weapons they feel are necessary for whatever lawful purpose they choose will also result in the same weapons being available to those with less savory objectives in mind. I understand that the opposition to a police force armed to the teeth springs from either a distrust of government generally (libertarians and anarchists) or police specifically , especially by a segment of the population, African-Americans, who are otherwise favorably inclined toward a large, intrusive government—a contradiction as striking as that offered by the libertarian position, but understandable for those who live under the threatening authority of the Killer Klown act known as the Ferguson Police Department.
Fortunately, texagg04, a distinguished Ethics Alarms regular, has been inspired to delve into some of these questions, and others, in a superb post, the Comment of the Day, on the essay Mid-EthicsTrain Wreck Observations On Ferguson. Here it is:
It would seem that our police will always be an odd balance between a militaristic force and a civilian force. It’s original beginnings were in smaller towns and villages, where social control was mere peer pressure away; where night watches of volunteers or semi-professionals constituted the only official law and order outside of the actual courts.
It wasn’t until our cities got much bigger, much more diverse, in which individuals could be easily lost in the quagmire that we saw the rise of the modern police force. The police’s earliest beginnings were inspired by the military, as the founders of most of them immediately sought to instill, as a stated goal, a military style discipline and culture in the police force. It would then follow that the development of police forces would be a race between keeping up with the complexities of the modern era – population explosion, density, diversity, eroding civic education while not becoming a military force.
1) Our cities are massive. This has the tendency of removing the police from the community. Sure, they drive through the communities, and some often walk and interact. But long gone are the days the officer may come from the neighborhood he polices. I don’t see this as an insurmountable problem.
2) The plethora of laws and regulations our police are compelled to handle have them increasingly actively looking for trouble as opposed to passively observing, which would free up mental energy to interact and to educate. The same plethora of laws has made us all lawbreakers and regulation violators at some point, slowly eroding our respect of the law (whether we admit it or not). On my way to the office this morning (and it’s a short drive), I passed no less than 4 speed traps as they canvassed that section of the highway, as they do periodically. Sometimes, commuting between our suppliers, about a 30 mile drive (crossing about 5 cities), I have passed upwards of 10 individual speed traps.
With the thought “surely you all have something better to do” on the mind, and likely shared with hundreds others on the road, erosion of respect is inevitable, as well as feelings of separation from that same force.
3) Entire subsets of the greater community have, since birth, been maliciously educated to see the police as enemies and oppositional – educated by parents, media, and entertainment. I have no solution to this other than – just stop.
4) Part of our fear that the police are being militarized stems directly from the fact that we just witnessed 2 wars in which our military was actually “police-ized”. We saw our Army compelled to engage in policing another nation. We soon stopped realizing they were conducting extremely aggressive police work and assumed, hey, that’s just war. But it wasn’t just war, and when we see our police behaving the same way (like police) we start to worry that they are too militaristic, when in all reality, we’ve just forgotten what WAR actually is.
5) However, that does not alleviate the fact that the military, military training, and military hardware has rubbed off on the police forces. This may stem a lot from discharged veterans flocking to the police forces or just simple emulation. Either way, the police gained the knowledge and desire to look and act like soldiers (a culture that IS set apart from the civilian world) when they need to act more like Andy in Mayberry.
6) Yet, I don’t see why police should not have access to the best technology, the best vehicles and the best equipment. I think where the forces have gone wrong is not in acquiring these technologies, but in not developing more advanced and more nuanced procedures that govern usage of the new hardware. If a riot seems imminent, that doesn’t mean bring out the SWAT team with tanks and snipers on every rooftop like Maidan in Kiev. It may mean give them a warning order to be prepared to upgrade, but in the mean time, stick with a lower force level response. Perhaps it is SWAT team on the scene, but dressed like ordinary beat cops. I won’t begrudge a police force an MRAP or two…I will ask them to keep the armored cars in the garage until they have to issue a warrant on a known drug kingpin known for surrounding himself with a half dozen body guards.
I won’t keep them from having M-4’s or Sniper Rifles or tear gas. I will ask them to keep them in the locker when the only problem is a peaceful gathering.
What if the gathering gets out of hand? Then ratchet up the force level. Then and ONLY then.
See, the military gets the benefit of showing up to a fight ready to dole out 2 or 3 levels of destruction more than a situation warrants. The police? Facing their own people? They have to tip toe and actually be a little riskier and wait until the situation calls for ratcheting up the escalation of force.
Also, you don’t need woodland camouflage. You don’t need camouflage, you aren’t supposed to be hiding from the community.
7) OR we need to decide at what level of our police forces we want those forces to be handling certain situations. If we don’t want our local police looking like special forces mounted in APCs, then we shouldn’t expect them to handle situations calling for it, but rather, hold those elements at the state level. If we don’t want to arm our local police to handle drug kingpins and armies of bodyguards, then we need to decide that drug kingpins are the business of higher levels of government. But that would require a colossal reality check on our culture’s part.