It is a growing epidemic throughout the western world. More and more police forces are acquiring military-style equipment to police civilian populations. While there are some positives, namely the personal protection of our men and women serving to protect our communities, it is a deeply worrisome trend particularly when its necessity is actually low.
Yesterday, I spoke with a retired Chicago police officer. I will call him Mike. Standing six-foot-two, he has a fullhead of silvery-grey hair and the stress lines on his face to match. Mike is slender and does not project intimidation or a strong, overbearing personality when you meet him. His handshake is friendly, but firm. In a word, he is neighbourly. Exceedingly humble and respectful. To this day, he is a consummate professional even when he is just relaxing with his family. In my mind, he is as close to the ideal in temperament that a citizen could ask for in a police officer.
At first, Mike seemed unwilling to talk about his career. Thankfully, his wife got the ball rolling for us and touted some of her husband’s achievements. I had no idea I was in the presence of a marksman; a weapons expert; a man that has trained some of Illinois’ most impressive Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) members. He told me of two war-stories in his time, but those were for private consumption. Suffice it to say that I would not want to cross this man.
It was refreshing to hear Mike’s views on the increasing militarization of local police forces. In fact, he prompted the discussion by asking me, as a Canadian, what I thought of the police response to the Ferguson, Missouri, riots and other situations that have made international headlines. Like me, Mike is not a fan of his brothers and sisters in blue taking up military-style arms and paraphernalia to police civilian populations.
Mike wholeheartedly believes that when a police officer is dressed like a solider, it sends the wrong message to civilians, whether they are protesting or not. He asked me what I thought the most important weapon in his arsenal was as a police officer. My guess wasn’t even close. Mike believes a police officer’s greatest strength is his or her ability to de-escalate situations before they reach a boiling point. In other words, control the situation through discussion. Talk to people.
It’s Mike’s personal belief that the police response to Ferguson and other volatile domestic situations throughout the US were further exacerbated by the police showing up in full riot gear, MP5s in hand, gas-masks covering their faces, and riot shields literally putting up a physical barrier between the protesters and those sworn to protect and serve. Those officers were not doing anyone any favours, especially themselves, when they arrived on scene prepared for all-out war.
For a former SWAT member and trainer, there is no question for Mike that specialized weapons, tactics, and defence systems have their place in a civilian police force: “it is a necessary evil.” His words, not mine. But, Mike says, “It should always be a last resort and sparingly used.” That is, the police should be prepared for situations to escalate, but showing up to a mostly peaceful protest looking like the invasion force that landed in Mosul goes against the grain. What’s more, Mike believes that wearing a dress shirt and tie or a standard-issue police uniform carries the necessary respect that a qualified and dignified police officer needs to control a situation. “Force is the last thing a police officer wants to use – like a club or pepper spray … or a gun!” Mike’s eyes lit up at the thought of the last one. Seemingly defeated, he continued, “At least thats the way it used to be.”
There is a knee-jerk desire to blame the military-industrial complex, especially in the United States, for this shift. The argument is intuitive and the one that I made to Mike: when a theatre of war enters demobilization, like the US in Iraq or Afghanistan, or newer equipment becomes standard-issue for rank-and-file military personnel, the army has a surplus of high-quality, usable equipment it no longer needs. If that equipment can be sold, it lowers both the cost of new equipment or further research and development. It appears that everyone wins: the civilian population is better-protected against career criminals and it helps police officers maintain law and order.
Mike agreed that this is a stimulus for increased militarization, but the main reason is much simpler than the borderline conspiracy theory that came to my mind. For Mike, the real problem is that some individuals within a given department want this equipment, typically because they think it is cool. The frustration slowly starts to seep into Mike’s voice as we continue our discussion: “Why not have a BearCat? Why not have rocket-launchers, gas masks, and prepare for chemical warfare on the streets of Ferguson. These guys think they actually need it; and that if it is at their disposal, they can out-gun the bad guy. It’s ridiculous. A BearCat! Are you serious? I think it’s to make themselves feel big and important.”
This does happen. For example, in 2012, the mayor of Keene, New Hampshire, attempted to acquire a Lenco BearCat (pictured above) for its domestic police force. The BearCat, an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, is a war machine. It is a twenty-foot long, armour-plated vehicle weighing 8.5 tonne (19,000lbs), which can hold ten fully-equipped SWAT members, and it has a manhole and turret-mount for heavy-machinegun capabilities. It is a tank on wheels. Population of Keene: 23,000. The town’s murder rate (1999 to 2012): two. As Mike suggests, these vehicles were used on the front-lines in Ferguson, too. Population: 21,000. Even smaller than Keene.
In 2014, there was significant concern raised throughout the US with the military-style response to the protests in small-town Ferguson after an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer. The ensuing madness is difficult to understand and piece together, largely because a number of tensions boiled-over all at once: socio-economic disparity; the town’s demographics rapidly shifting from a majority white population to black in the past decade; and a predominantly white police force and their real or perceived bias and aggression toward black people, a problem that continues to play out across the US. It is also difficult to pinpoint the escalation of the protests into riots because each side, police versus protester, feels justified in their real-time responses to real or perceived threats of violence.
Some of the images are haunting and Mike suggested a few key terms I should Google to find images like this one or this one. The people behind the equipment are not soldiers; they are domestic police officers. As Mike explained: “Imagine these folks in your neighbourhood. Imagine seeing that police presence from your kitchen window or your garage as you work on your car. How would you feel being policed in this fashion if it was your son or brother, or whatever, that was killed by a cop, and your community exercised it’s constitutionally-protected right to peaceful assembly? Now, complicate that image with race. Those pictures should not be considered a normal police response to angry and frightened citizens. These people were scared. Anger is a natural, human response. As cops, we can do better. We have to.”
Some will argue that the ends justified the means, that the police response in Ferguson was appropriate because, in the end, police officers were wounded and killed by rioters. However, the protests started out as a peaceful response to real or perceived injustices. The police response, which resembled that of a country preparing for war (and there are stories of the police department actually stockpiling riot gear for future protests), was inappropriate if the goal was to serve and protect the community. People have the right to protest and the state cannot unduly infringe upon it. The military-style response escalated an already deeply-emotional community response to the killing of a young man. The state demonstrated provocation, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the people reacted to it.
The modus operandi of all civilian police forces is to serve and protect. It is a noble cause, one easily forgotten amid the chaos of a modern world faced with career criminals and terrorist threats. But criminality and external threats are omni-present. Their presence necessitates a specific, pointed response. Once the problem is dealt with, all of the ancillary personnel and equipment that was required should also fade away. To serve and protect is to make people feel safe and secure that their rights will be honoured and respected. BearCat’s and grenade launchers may be “cool,” but it comes at a significant social cost: they should be reserved for extreme circumstances and sparingly used. And those circumstances likely require a bigger response than local police officers prepping for a pseudo, yet-to-be-determined war.