Policing Protests Like Soldiers Makes Everyone Less Safe–Even Police

Yet Americans perpetuate the military approach by recruiting for and celebrating it.

As events in Ferguson, Missouri, force the American media to confront the fact that it's problematic when police officers dress and arm themselves like combat soldiers, the few lonely voices who've touted this issue for years are earning vindication—and Radley Balko, who wrote the book on police militarization, is pressing forward with an important article about how police ought to respond to protests. It doesn't take an expert to see that Ferguson authorities reacted in exactly the wrong way. But experts understand exactly why their behavior was so counterproductive and how they could've easily brought about a much better outcome.

They are hardly the first police agency to bungle mass protests in this way, after all. Lessons have been learned elsewhere. They're just lost on the vast majority of Americans, including those in law enforcement. The whole article is worth your read.

Balko draws on the work of a pioneering police chief, Jerry Wilson, explaining his belief that "an intimidating police presence didn’t prevent confrontation, it invited it. That didn’t mean he didn’t prepare, but he put his riot-control teams in buses, then parked the buses close by, but out of sight of protesters. Appearances were important." He explains the errors police officers made during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Another source, who works for the Dallas Police Department and is writing a post-graduate thesis on policing and protest, Major Max Geron, explained that police interacting with protestors should "come to an agreement about what’s expected, what’s allowed, and most important, you want to reach an agreement about what won’t be allowed,” but should avoid arbitrary prohibitions, like a demand that protestors disperse at a particular time—a tactic used in Ferguson—because it needlessly provokes rebellion and interferes with the right to protest even when no laws are being broken.

The article continues:

Geron also emphasizes personalization, pointing out that when police show up in full riot garb, especially gear that covers their faces, they dehumanize themselves to protesters. This is especially dangerous when the protests are against the police themselves, as was the case in Ferguson. “You make all of your officers look  like one another. To the protesters, to the people, your officers are no longer individual human beings with faces. You’ve just made each of them a faceless symbol of the police institution that the protesters are reacting against.”

There's a lot more to the article—like I said, read the whole thing. Balko concludes by noting that there is not, in fact, "a zero-sum relationship between officer safety and less aggressive, less militaristic more community-oriented policing." Police can make themselves less safe by being overly aggressive and militaristic.

All I'd add is that prior to this week's events in Ferguson and the press's unusual response to them, most police officers received from their subculture and American culture generally the most counterproductive message possible: that extreme aggression and overt militarization confers upon them safety, respect, and esteem. In fact, it has allowed them to tap into the esteem previously reserved for U.S. troops. Policemen doing so quickly became normalized in scenes playing out across the country, mostly unnoticed. Let's take an example at random. On March 23, 2012, the Minnesota Wild, a National Hockey League team, were playing at home. The ceremonial puck drop before the game unfolded as in the photo at right.

Eric Miller/Reuters

That is not a special forces soldier dangling from the roof of the arena in camouflage. As Reuters explains, "Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu hands a puck to officer Joe Reginek of the St. Paul Police SWAT team for a ceremonial puck drop after Reginek rappelled to the ice from the rafters." This stunt was conceived by all parties with the expectation that it would delight the crowd and generate nothing but positive press. And that's exactly what happened. Those in the arena who didn't hear the announcement over the loudspeaker doubtless thought that they were watching a young enlistee back from fighting in Afghanistan or soon to deploy abroad.

Another example: Redwood City, California has a population of 79,000. In 2011 and 2012 it reported zero murders. Here is the Redwood City Police Department SWAT team training in 2013:

Stephen Lam/Reuters

How their green camouflage would aid them in a real urban school shooting is hard to fathom (as is the utility of their obscured faces in a scenario where the school shooter in question acquired the same outfit and face mask that they wear). Of course, they're unlikely to face a school-shooting scenario, but they surely don't let their outfits and equipment collect dust. Who in Redwood City has been exposed to them? The question is never asked when the training session is written up and photographed by news agencies who don't see anything worthy of inquiry.

And note that, contrary to some press reports, this trend predates the September 11 terrorist attacks. Here's a photograph from 1997 of two Los Angeles police officers:


Wouldn't it be fascinating to know how many times that M-16 has been fired in the intervening years, and in what circumstances?

The trappings of a military force doesn't just affect how the policed see those policing. It affects who decides to be a police officer. I grew up 10 minutes from Newport Beach, California, one of America's wealthiest and safest cities. Knowing what it's like I can't help but laugh at its police recruitment video, and the wildly misleading impression it gives recruits of what the job will be like:

As Balko says in yet another vital piece, this reflects what leadership in that department regards as the kind of police work that it wants to emphasize and glorify. Community policing, helping people, and deescalating conflict are nowhere to be found. After featuring videos from around the United States that were just as bad or worse, he included a rare example of a good police recruiting video.

Consider the difference in the applicant it is trying to attract:

The officers in that latter video will strike most people in this article as the ones they'd want policing their neighborhood. But their type is not venerated in the movies or television shows that we watch. Neither is it lauded in most American police departments. There are training methods, cultural conceits, and a martial culture that America uses to surround those we send abroad to kill declared enemies. And when police departments and officers adopted that same culture to prepare and surround those meant to protect and serve on America's streets, we thought it was cool.