The mantra in support of the militarization of police has a catchiness to it: in a battle between the police and criminals, we don’t want a fair fight. And no reasonable person can disagree. But the mantra is loaded, as any good mantra should be. First, it assumes that the police are opposed to criminals. Second, it assumes there to be a fight. This is where the argument in favor of militarization goes off the rails.
In the National Review, Jay Nordinger does his utmost to distort the issue by posting a “letter from a reader, who is a policeman.” The cop offers “his day today”:
We went to serve a drug and gun warrant. The house had surveillance cameras and reinforced doors. Which means they had plenty of warning that we were coming. As the TAC team makes entry, a suspect peeks out the window, sees the cover team standing outside, and fires a round at us. Lucky for us, he’s a bad shot. The TAC team soon takes all four occupants into custody without further incident.
Assuming, arguendo, that this is a true story, it superficially appears to answer the question of why police need SWAT teams, armored carriers, military clothing, armor and equipment. Upon deeper consideration, it begs many questions. To their credit, the police went to the right house. After all, they sometimes go to the wrong house in their rush to act without confirming information or gathering intelligence beforehand.
Had they gone to the wrong house, with this same information about drugs and guns, they would still be armed as soldiers, breaking in with flashbang grenades and battering down doors, rounding up people, children, at gun point, perhaps shooting dogs, perhaps shooting people, none of whom have done anything to have their world, their home and their lives subject to the vicissitudes of battle. Radley Balko has chronicled these occurrences for years, and if you feel the need for overwhelming evidence of such occurences, read everything he’s written.
Had it been the wrong door, the police would have been safe and protected by their military gear. The innocent people whose home was mistakenly attacked would not.
In this case, the warrant (which gave no information about whether it was a search or arrest warrant, nor whether it was well-founded or vapid, but let’s assume the best) involved drugs and guns. This presents the situation where militarized police equipment is put to its proper use. Fair enough. But not every warrant execution is for drugs and guns.
What about when the warrant is for failure to pay a fine, or for gambling, or for something else which suggests no potential for violence. Still, they would have been out there in soldier garb, carrying heavy armaments and an armored personnel carrier.
So that wasn’t the case on this day in the policeman’s life? Fair enough, but this day is just one, and it happened to make a good anecdote to support his point. The next day might have demonstrated the opposite, but then he wouldn’t have mentioned that.
And there was a shot fired at the police. Most police make it through their career without ever having a shot fired at them, and without ever firing a shot. It takes some of the sexy out of the job, but that’s how it is. So this policeman had a shot fired that very day? Fair enough. But he wouldn’t have a shot fired every day, every time they pull out the MRAP to go for a ride.
It’s not that the letter writer claims his facile anecdote represents the normal day of a cop, but the potential day. He therefore invoked the First Rule of Policing:
Until we deal with why someone would so casually shoot at the police, I’ll take my military-style tactics and equipment and I’ll go home at the end of the day, whether my appearance has offended political sensitivities or not.
In response, Nordinger buys into the story uncritically, noting that his day consisted of going to the opera.
That was my problem. No one shot at me.
If someone had, it would most likely be the police.
There is no question that there are times, circumstances, where the use of military equipment by police is warranted. Those circumstances, however, are few and far between. But once they have the equipment in hand, they use the equipment, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or warranted. And when they use the equipment, dress in the clothing, carry the weapons, emerge from the armored vehicles, they have the mentality of soldiers under siege.
No one wants a fair fight between the police and criminals, though an unfair fight doesn’t necessarily require the police to approach their daily work with the most deadly weapons and attitude of war. At the same time, no one wants an unfair fight when police deal with non-threatening citizens, with non-violent crime, with egregious mistakes or even questionable actions against people who are not the enemy.
Americans are not the enemy of the police. As police have demonstrated the inability to restrain the use of military equipment and attitudes, and as police in small towns without any violent crime still desire to play soldier, with the equipment and attitudes of war, their arguments for an unfair fight are hollow.
They are going to war when there is no war. They mount an unfair fight when there is no reason to fight at all. And they are doing it with the weapons and attitudes of war. That’s the day of a cop that explains why they cannot be trusted with militarization. Just as they want to make it home for dinner, so do the Americans against whom these weapons are used. They aren’t asking for a fair fight. They are saying there is no reason to fight at all. Yet, when the police are geared for war, the unfair fight happens, even against us.
Postscript: And as this goes for the police, whose job may be to confront armed and dangerous criminals on occasion, it is far less explainable when the military equipment and attitudes are put into the hands of regulatory agencies, who have no need at all for such weapons of war.
Update: Former NYPD Police Commissioner and ex-con, Bernie Kerik, found out that there was no money to be made as a prisoners’ rights reformer, turned back to his bread and butter, loving his cops. Via the Daily News, Kerik argues that the “heavy-handed approach by Ferguson, Mo. police to protests was ‘absolutely needed.'” Why, you wonder?
“The police can’t be afraid to do their job, shouldn’t be afraid to do their job,” he said. “When the thugs try to take over the community, the police have to act and do whatever they have to do to keep the peace.”
“There was personal property that was damaged,” he added. “The police have to respond to that. You can’t let the thugs take over the city. We saw that the other day. The police had to respond. Were they heavy-handed? I wasn’t there.”
Good deep thinking there, Bernie. No wonder you’re a TV star.