Turning Patrolmen Into Soldiers: How Did We Let This Happen?

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I'm chagrined not to have noted a great Atlantic item from two weeks ago, "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police." It covers systematically much of the terrain I've been going into episodically.

Nonetheless, let's move on! Following this item about the "up-armoring" of even small rural police forces, and the decking out of ordinary police patrol forces in heavy-weather militarized riot gear, Mike Lofgren, a former Republican Senate staffer whose name may ring a bell, writes to say:

Interesting series of posts. One further similarity to the military that the police have achieved is something not often remarked on and that goes beyond the physical substance of the militarization: a psychological distancing and de-humanization vis-à-vis the population. I noticed this beginning about 2004 as the insurgency began to heat up in the Iraqi towns. US troops, with full body armor, Buck Rogers-like M-4 carbines, grenade launchers and fancy commo gear, all topped off with helmet and tinted visors or wrap-around mirrored sunglasses, looked vaguely like space aliens, or even slightly insectoid. With the Blackwater and Dyncorp mercs, many of whom were 'roided up and scary-looking to begin with, the effect was even weirder.
 
Now domestic police are copying this look. It is intimidating, alienating, and de-humanizes the cops in the eyes of the citizenry. That's the polar opposite of what a "peace officer" in a community is supposed to represent to citizens. By the same token, the cops being suited up like that probably strips away some of their inhibition about using disproportionate force by the very same psychological distancing process.
 
This is not to criticize troops or cops as individuals, or to deny that they are, in the vast majority of cases, simply trying to do their jobs in difficult and dangerous situations. But leaders who make the policies the soldiers and police have to carry out should think harder about what they are trying to accomplish, and avoid employing equipment, tactics, and visuals that make violence more, not less likely, and alienate the population as well.

A reader with a military background says that he cannot personally vouch for the authenticity of photos like the ones below, of Tampa "police" vehicles (which have appeared online here and here), but at face value they are consistent with equipment showing up elsewhere [Update: here is a link from the Tampa police themselves showing the militarized equipment]:


TampaCops.jpg

The reader adds:

As a former US Army mechanized infantry platoon leader, I find the domestic use of these military vehicles revolting (such things were once used as examples of "what 'our enemies' do to their own people") but even more chilling is the armored personnel carriers' corporate sponsorship!

Tampa3.jpg

In any event, they add further grim context to the militarization of America's police forces.  I'm starting to suspect that we're all ancillary characters in a dystopian science fiction novel.

From Tom deVries, in California, with an example of the path not taken:

I spent a lot of my reporting career covering 'campus unrest' in the Bay Area and I want to mention that the 'militarization' began a long time ago.  Police on the Cal campus in the late 60s had the face mask & black helmet look going, and they used chemical sprays and clubs quite freely.  Also guns and live ammunition.

I don't think the campus police forces themselves had gone down the path yet, just the local forces called in to help -- SFPD, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda County.  I remember the Highway Patrol guys involved looking quite miserable and underdressed.

So was this up-armor business on campus necessary and wise?  Or has it been a provocation and escalation?

Thanks to Davis prof Bob Ostertag (via HuffPost) for this picture of a campus cop at Columbia arresting a student.  Looks like the volley ball coach.  Looks totally in control.  Looks good to me.

Thumbnail image for 2011-11-19-Columbia.jpg

PS. about chemical crowd control agents:  like waterboarding, I don't think anyone who hasn't been gassed should have an opinion about what it's like.

Since he asks, and for the record: I have myself been tear-gassed twice, once in the United States and once in South Korea. My tone may reflect memories of those experiences. More after the jump.

Another small-town report:

A reader posted a picture of an armored vehicle owned by the police in Galax, Virginia.

We have a similar one in Neenah, Wisconsin (population 24,000).  It's on display at the park on the Fourth of July, I've seen it at Wal-Mart when the cops have fund-raisers.

Like your correspondent, I have a hard time imagining what this thing possibly be used for.

A few years ago I was talking with the chief of police from a smaller town to our east, about 3,000 people.  His younger officers were real eager to have the town buy them all rifles for their squad cars.  He was against this idea, and his notions about policing in a small town
carried some weight.  No rifles.

He retired last year.  The new guy is younger and possibly more amenable to the idea.

Me, if we're going to have a gendarme for a cop, then we should go whole hawg and do it right: national police force, boot camp on the Marine model, barracks instead of police stations.  Sure these guys would not be Officer Friendly but Officer Friendly looks like he's on patrol in Falujah so what is the difference.?

Another reason for up-armoring:

Re the fascinating discussion about the overarming of police departments in the US today, I suspect that your correspondent who mentioned money raining down on local PDs after 9/11 is partially correct. But I suspect that another part of the reason is that a lot of people in the US are heavily armed today, and that some of them are (or become) criminals.

I would NEVER argue this justifies shooting, or pepper spraying, or threatening to shoot, unarmed students, but I do understand that police (though perhaps not university police) have  reason to be wary. I don't think arming the police is the right approach - as far as I am concerned, we should be increasing our gun control efforts, but sadly our national elected officials seem unable to stand up to the NRA. Didn't the House just pass the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act?

And from the What Would Vannevar Blog site, more implications of the moment.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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