Low-Tide for American Police Departments

It’s a tough time to be a cop. Whatever you
happen to do in your career, it sure doesn’t help to have the media constantly
put you down and make you an object of scorn. God knows, policing is tough
enough—99% difficult and routine, 1% life-threatening. Like fighting in a war
zone, there’s little warning when one becomes the other. 

Our response to that
seems to have been to militarize our police. Even the smallest of our cities
have Swat Teams and armored vehicles—the armoring-up courtesy of the Department
of Defense offloading its surplus materiel. 
Just as the airlines
find pilots from retired Air Force personnel, our returning war veterans are
finding their way to police departments. It doesn’t take much imagination to
connect the dots from a war-time ‘them versus us’ mentality to mirroring that within
police units. The trusted beat cop image, chatting up those whose respect he
earned is fading to black-clad tough guys who don’t take any lip.

All of which is the ultimate price we pay for
‘mission creep’ in both wars and community policing. Those of us on the street
or in our cars are eerily edging toward a ‘them versus us’ mentality. Our highly
valued American system of respect for law and order is in a death-spiral from
grudging to downright fear.

That certainly is enabled by a population
increasingly armed to the teeth. A fearful and militarized police are an
awesome spectacle to contemplate. Its worst iteration is in poor, high crime
communities and the recent killings of unarmed (mostly black) citizens is
evidence enough of that. So error piles upon error and the current trend is
One thing that
puzzles me is a disturbing tendency to kill rather than wound. A minor traffic
offense goes horribly wrong as the panicked driver outruns a tazer and is shot eight times in the back, killing him. A
confused school-child is killed for
not dropping a toy gun in a mall toy
. Small wonder we have become ‘us versus them.’
Is a bullet in the
leg not sufficient? Are police even trained to make non-lethal shots? Certainly
not in the military, where soldiers are taught to kill, but police are no longer in the military. The
police are in Chicago or San Jose or Paducah, Kentucky—patrolling the streets
of a nation not at war.
If we are not at war then we have to appear to be not at war and conduct ourselves as if we were not at
Terrorizing citizens
by Swat Teams smashing down doors for a reported
(and often erroneous) minor drug bust mirrors a state of war and puts community
cops who have sworn to preserve and
at risk. Parading the latest acquired armored personnel-carrier
through the streets increases that risk, as does clothing ordinary cops in Swat
Team uniforms. 
If all we have is a
hammer, everything looks like a nail. The famous Pogo cartoon quote comes to
mind: “We have met the enemy and he is
Anthropologists, who seldom (if ever) venture
from University campuses to ghettos, tell us this is a deep social problem
rooted in poverty, joblessness and lack of education—then wring their hands and
go back to their comfortable homes for a comfortable dinner with their
comfortable family.
They’re absolutely correct. But we don’t have
the time to solve poverty,
homelessness, mental health, drugs and gangs in ghettos, while access to
fairness and justice is denied and the
less fortunate share of our society goes down the toilet
Every agonizing event
is on the nightly news. Right or left-wing, whatever source we choose from Jon
Stewart to Fox News it’s in our face and moves American society further apart.
It’s ‘them’ who are the problem and ‘we’ who can’t possibly understand the
circumstances. We are not poverty
stricken and we are not in squad cars
and Swat Teams. We are not at
risk—except that we are. Society is a
garment and every thread is intertwined.
There are
interventions. We can slow, stop and
reverse trends. We can do it now,
while anthropologists and sociologists struggle with their long-term solutions
and politics mumbles its way through this or that press-release.
In the worst policing
situations, ground-zero of us-versus-them, the quickest route to reversal is
meaningful outreach to community leaders. Every community has leaders, from
preachers to landlords to gang members and as soon as police administrations
stop trying to separate the law-abiding from the law-breakers, they’ll begin to
get results. Bring them all together.
Listen to what all of them need and
then move to provide it. Leave your egos, badges and guns at the door and listen. Then move. Begin to build some
De-militarize your
force. Send all that heavy armor back to the Defense Department, get your
personnel out of those fear inducing black jumpsuits and begin to patrol in
proper uniforms. The Philadelphia police patrols on bicycles and there’s
evidence that it makes them more mobile and respected.
Make intervention-training
a requisite for all uniformed personnel. Lower the expectation of force and you’ll lower the times when it is needed.
Look into procedural justice within your local
courts, an idea that in recent months has focused the debate about reforming
the US criminal justice system. The idea behind procedural justice is that
people are far more likely to obey the law if the justice system does not
humiliate them, but treats them fairly and with respect. That begins with the
way judges speak to defendants. Google procedural
. It works.
It’s absolutely low-tide for American police
departments. But low-tides don’t last and, in this case, a higher tide may
indeed raise all boats. Time is not on the side of law enforcement in the most
problematic areas of our wounded cities, but turning the tide is possible and
ignoring it is a prescription for further disaster. 
No one on either side of the issue wants (or
can survive) that.

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