Militarization of the Police, Fargo Edition

We thought North Dakota was too sensible for this.
Law enforcement team this past winter in Fargo, North Dakota ( Michael Vosburg, Fargo Forum )

The stormtrooper look by law enforcement in Missouri has usefully brought into focus the long-term trend of police forces morphing into military units. For previous installments and a reading list, see here and here

Today's photo, courtesy of Michael Vosburg of the Fargo, N.D. Forum, is of a police team six months ago, in the winter. The photo is worth a second look, for details ranging from the vehicle's license plate to the choice of green camouflage in the snow.

The full story, by Archie Ingersoll, is also worth reading. It points out that the last big public disturbance in the Fargo area was 13 years ago, during the Testicle Festival. (I'll let you look it up.) Oddities like the Testicle Festival are part of the picture we'd like to have of Americana. Combat-dressed cops are not, or shouldn't be. Usefully, the Forum article ends with a sane observation from the police chief of Moorhead, Minnesota, which is Fargo's sister city across the Red River:

[F]ear is a factor police have to be mindful of when dealing with disorderly crowds, said Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger. When officers don intimidating riot gear, their appearance alone can stir trouble.

“If you show up with that gear and you don’t have a riot, you’re inviting one,” he said. “The best weapon we have is our ability to communicate.”

Let's send Chief Ebinger to Ferguson. Meanwhile on policing, reader Billy Townsend of central Florida says the Ferguson showdown highlights the oddly uneven ways in which we hold public servants "accountable":

There's a fascinating parallel here between police officers and teachers. Police body cameras and test scores serve the same purpose. They are meant to provide accountability, assessment, and motivation for the core interaction between a public servant and the public served.

American political power at all levels has determined that a tortured, inaccurate, funhouse mirror statistical approximation of a teacher's interaction with a student is absolutely vital to public well-being and worthy of billions and billions of tax dollars.

Meanwhile, it is controversial—and maybe too expensive—to provide a precise, direct accounting of the core interaction between a police officer and the public. That is, to be direct, completely nuts. 

Think about it: in the eyes of American state power, teaching Mike Brown makes the teacher immediately suspect and open to public sanction based on Mike Brown's test scores. Shooting Mike Brown in the street and leaving his body uncovered for four hours makes Mike Brown automatically suspect in the eyes of state power.

A camera provides for police the holy grail that education reformers seek for teachers—the ultimate evidence of policing quality. How would such evidence have changed what happened in Ferguson?

More from Townsend on his own site, here.  Thanks to reader JW for the Forum tip.

Update If you would like an illustration of Townsend's point about the difference that photographic evidence can make, consider this cellphone video of police shooting to death Kajieme Powell yesterday.   

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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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