The militarization of American police forces, turning them away from community policing and as far away as possible from the Officer Friendly image of the 1950s, can be traced to many different factors. Most of them rose to prominence in the 1960s. This commentary will not attempt to fill in all the blanks, but will hit some of the high spots.
Three major forces were at work across America in the 1960s: The demands of blacks for civil rights and full equality (still working on that one), a crime wave that had politicians promising to “get tough on crime (see: Richard Nixon) and the Vietnam war, which caused massive protests and the development of new techniques for using helicopters and huge search lights. All of these and other factors came together to create demands for action, which, in turn, sent the US heading toward both a police state mentality and, on occasion, police state actions.
The rise of expectations of African-Americans, some of which resulted in serious rioting with people killed in America’s streets, including riots in Newark, NJ, Los Angeles, Ca. (Watts), Detroit, Chicago and many other places. Simultaneously, blacks appeared to be challenging the authority of the police with groups like the Black Panthers. The rise of supposedly “revolutionary” groups of both whites and blacks unnerved Americans across the country. The actual violence attributed to these groups was modest, especially when compared to the rise of radicalism in Europe as expressed by the Red Brigade and others.
Some of America’s cities were on fire with riots, particularly after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Indeed, it was easier to talk about the few cities where there hadn’t been riots than to name all of them where there had been. Police sometimes felt they were out numbered and outgunned in these riots, though they used machine guns against rioting and looting in places like Detroit and Newark.
A little known police inspector by the name of Darrel Gates in Los Angeles proposed the creation of special police units in the late 1960s. These units became known as SWAT teams, for special weapons and tactics. The idea was that these highly trained units would be available for the new and very difficult duties police sometimes were asked to perform. The result, however, has often been the use of excessive force and allowing violent events, like mass shootings, to spin out of control while the regular officers wait for the SWAT teams to arrive.
The Vietnam war also caused massive civil protests and disruptions across the nation. A major part of a generation rose up against the war and took to the streets. At the same time, the war in Vietnam brought new technologies into the fore, like the bright search lights that were mounted on the bottom of helicopters (another import from the Vietnam war). Helicopters circling overhead with lights scanning below became fixtures in areas where minorities lived as police searched for criminals.
The table was thus set for a major escalation of how police deal with violence and crime in America. Since that time, companies that sell products to police forces have been busy inventing new, expensive equipment to make money. Most big city police departments these days have mobile command units, complete with various types of live video links, to allow those back at headquarters to observe developments in the field. TASERS have been added, resulting in the deaths of many people from electric shock, even though TASERS were supposed to be non-lethal. The most recent development has been the Pentagon shipping left over weapons from Iraq to local police departments, which was one factor in making the police in Ferguson, Missouri, look like an occupying army recently.
There is an important relationship between a nation at war overseas and the potential for war against its own citizens at home. The war mentality escalates the idea of conflict and brings into play new techniques and technologies. People trained in foreign wars often join police forces on their return. There is also the ever growing idea of “professionalism” in America whereby high paid managers make all the decisions whether or not they have practical experience in the field. This professional stance holds, often, that getting your officers home safely from a potential violent event is the primary goal above all others, including the protection of civilian life.
Whether by intention or accident, police forces across America have become an important tool of social repression, a tool to use to suppress protest and dissent. The Occupy Wall Street movement of a few years ago, which surprisingly spread around the world in a series of public demonstrations, is an example of the way police are used to stifle dissent. Gradually, the tent cities and other encampments were driven out of America’s cities by various police actions, taking place one at a time, usually in quieter ways that didn’t attract great attention. Faced with arrest and eviction from the parks, the movement lost momentum and died out, like a camp fire that has no more fuel and then sputters until the embers are gone.
The end result was no accident. We say we support the right of free speech and the right of people to say what is happening in their country is wrong, but in point of fact we find dissent, at minimum, inconvenient. One way police are used to push down dissenting movements is to attack various actions of the demonstrators as “illegal”, undermining public support and making the efforts look like intentional law breaking. By the time a protest movement is suppressed, most of the public has lost interest anyway.
The militarization of police, however, goes on. If money is available to buy new equipment and if corporations are offering new potentials, then city police departments will buy. What if you need an armored vehicle and don’t have one? Isn’t it better to have one sitting around unused for five or ten years than not have one when the need is critical? Perhaps, but then again, maybe not.
The police in Ferguson rolled out three weeks ago in full battle gear: combat boots, fatigues, gas masks, semiautomatic, high powered rifles. They looked and acted like they were in Beirut in the 1970s or Baghdad, any time in the last ten years. One of the worst aspects was to have a police officer on top of a truck pointing a high powered rifle at various citizens. This was not merely a threat against human life, it represented a breach of decency and respect, and an insult to any idea of individual rights, a corner stone of American life and fundamental beliefs. In America, we don’t point guns at the heads of peaceful citizens, at least we didn’t until Ferguson came along.
The fact is, an over armed police force will use what it has available whenever the opportunity arises. It is easier for police departments to deploy such an armed-up force against minorities, but they will not hesitate to do so against others, too. The police from St. Louis County, who handled the first week or so of the disturbances, seemed to believe they were facing an armed, hostile enemy, not citizens intent on peacefully protesting what they saw an excessive violence in the death of Michael Brown. Treated like a hostile force, many citizens reacted as one.