Statement of Record

Militarizing the Police

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Militarizing the Police

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By Roxana Robinson 

In 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, the United States no longer needed a powerful physical military presence in Europe. Congress passed legislation allowing the Department of Defense to release six billion dollars’ worth of surplus military equipment to our local police departments across the country. This consignment included tanks, MRAPS (mine-resistant vehicles), assault rifles, grenade launchers, and bayonets. 

Americans love technology, and there were many in law enforcement who welcomed the exciting new equipment. The South wanted it more than the North did. New York State, with a population of about 20 million people, has received about $26 million worth of equipment, slightly over a dollar’s worth per person. Texas, which has about 30 million people, has received nearly $200 million dollars’ worth of equipment, over six times that much per person. South Carolina, with a population of about five million people, has received $62 million dollars’ worth, about twelve times New York’s share. Georgia, which has ten million people, has received $88 million dollars’ worth of equipment. 

It wasn’t only the South that was interested, though. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of SWAT teams (Special Weapons and Tactics) increased by 1500% throughout the country. This is despite the fact that we rarely need such highly trained teams carrying high-caliber military weapons. Most civilian crime is carried out by small numbers of people, not trained for combat.   

But the increase in SWAT teams is part of the seismic shift caused by militarization. Arming police like combat soldiers put them in closer alignment with the military and distanced them from the civilian community. A combat-ready force, carrying lethal hi-tech military weapons, presumes a mission based on making war, not keeping the peace. This newly armed police force was prepared for the battlefield, and for confrontation with the enemy. But who was the enemy? 

The “Black Lives Matter” movement has arisen in response to racist behavior by the police. For decades the Black community has reported such behavior, but the claims were often based on anecdotal evidence, and as such were often denied or ignored. Now cell phones and videos have made such incidents a matter of public record and public outrage. The response has been a massive inter-racial outcry against such unconscionable behavior. One result has been a call for the defunding or even the outright abolishment of police forces. 

We want to abolish racist behavior, but we may not want to abolish the institution of the police. There will always be some kind of disturbance to the peace, and it’s a good idea to have someone trained to maintain it. But questions remain: what is a “disturbance”? And what is “peace”? Whom do the police defend? Whom do they attack? Whom do they serve? What is criminal behavior? Sometimes the answers are obvious, sometimes not. Our own history of peacekeeping is complicated, and, like the history of our country, race plays an important part in it.

In the United States, peacekeeping forces date back to the 1600s, though they differed according to region. In the Carolinas, armed white men, volunteers, established Slave Patrols to enforce the idea that human beings were property. Anyone with dark skin who disagreed, or appeared to disagree, was considered a criminal. At that early moment, the idea of criminality and race became conjoined. These Patrols expanded throughout the South, establishing a pattern of armed white men monitoring the activity of unarmed Black men. (During slavery, it was illegal for Black men to carry guns.) In Appalachia, in the next century, vigilante groups were formed, armed civilians who imposed rough justice on their neighbors. Lynching arose from this sort of activity: local men taking the law into their own hands, applying punishment as they saw fit. 

In the North, during that same period, the approach to peacekeeping was very different. In cities, unarmed citizens volunteered for Night Watch, walking the streets to keep them safe. It wasn’t until two hundred years later, during the mid-nineteenth century, that professional police forces were established. Debate arose over uniforms and guns, but the big question concerned the use of force.

Violence was already a pattern in the American South; its roots lay in slavery. Violence is fundamental to the institution. Since 1619, Southern whites were continually at risk of a rebellion from the powerful Black community around them. Their response was preventative violence, physical violence of every sort, imposed by whips, chains, ropes, shackles, and guns. Always guns. Violence became deeply embedded in Southern culture. 

Though the North had strong economic ties to slavery, the institution itself was less present there. Northern farming was modest in scale and mixed in production; there were no vast cotton plantations that would require hundreds of laborers. There were far fewer enslaved people in the North, and violence did not become central to the culture. In 1878, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire each reported one murder; South Carolina reported 128. The murders were committed by both races: violence had become a reflexive response in the South. 

In the late nineteenth century, armed police began to be used for larger social issues, not just individual disputes. The question of whom they served became more important: was it the public or the powerful?

As cities grew and industrialization changed the social norms, working conditions became exploitative on a large scale. Workers began to stage protests, and police were called in to restore the peace. They were ordered to quell the “riots,” as they were called, though they could also be called labor disputes, or protests against inhumane working conditions. Here the police were called in by the company-owners and encouraged to use brutal force. It seemed that those police forces felt an allegiance to the powerful, not to the protesters. 

Politics often played a powerful and opaque part in the role of the police. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, corruption was rampant in many American cities. Corrupt politicians worked hand-in-glove with both police and criminals, all covertly engaged in racketeering and other illegal activities. Because police chiefs were appointed, not elected, politicians used their power to control the police, and the powerful could count on protection. During Prohibition there was an explosion of criminal behavior and a continued involvement with corrupt police. 

So for a time it seemed that the answer to the question of who the police were working for was the powerful. In any case, they were always working for the establishment. 

Police were called to respond to civil rights marches, anti-war protests, and anti-racism protests. It’s the job of protesters to disturb the peace; it’s the job of police to restore it. 

Conflicts between protesters and police are part of the long debate, constantly evolving, that’s essential to a democratic society, a conversation between the people and the establishment, or the government. The people are entitled to protest peacefully; they are not entitled to become violent. But what if no one listens unless they become violent? What if outraged protesters have their own tendencies toward violence? The police are required to restore order, but how should they do it? Whose side are they on?  

What should their role be?

American police forces rely far more on guns than do many of our allies. Traditionally, English policemen did not carry guns, only nightsticks, and the country has always enjoyed a low rate of violent crime. It’s only recently that they’ve begun carrying guns, and then only when violence is believed to be a part of an incident.

Countries who send out unarmed policemen are the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and Iceland. Other developed countries, and our allies, allow police to carry guns, but they use different training methods and rarely use lethal force. In 2018, there were 11 deaths resulting from police in Germany. In France there were no deaths from police. In the UK there were three. In the US, in 2015, there were 1,022.     

All American policemen carry guns, and the presence of firearms changes the nature of every encounter. Everyone knows, and the police know, that they hold the final and absolute response.

There is a practical reason for American police to carry guns: American civilians carry guns. 46% of all guns in private hands around the world, 400 million of them, are owned by Americans. This mad American commitment to firearms also has its roots in slavery and racism. 

After the Civil War, when Black freedmen received the right to vote and hold office, white Southerners opposed it. Northern troops were sent down to enforce the new laws. They were not welcome, and after a while they were recalled. States created their own militias to enforce the laws. These official bodies were comprised in theory of both Blacks and whites, but, since white Southerners refused to serve with Blacks, the militias became de facto Black. This meant that Black men were given the official right to carry guns. This was more than Southern whites were willing to tolerate, and ten years after the War, a group of them decided they’d had enough of Reconstruction. They began a new era which they called “Redemption.” Former Confederate General Cary wrote a letter urging his fellow white Southerners to unite against the Black freedmen who wanted to vote. He used plain terms: 

“Determine if necessary to kill every white radical in the country—every mulatto radical leader—every negro leader, [and establish] a thorough military organization in order to intimidate the negro. . .” 

Southern white men responded with vigor. They set up their own paramilitary armed forces, often led by Confederate veterans. They were called gun clubs, but they were really based on the old Slave Patrols. They were made up of the same people, angry white men, and they had the same intentions, the violent suppression of Black people.

One of the first incidents of Redemption took place in Hamburg, South Carolina, an all-Black town. Two white men tried to interrupt a Fourth of July parade led by the Black town militia. The Black men were accused of threatening the whites, and they were all called in to court by a Black magistrate. The local paramilitary group was called the Sweetwater Saber Club, named after a church. It was made up of white plantation owners, and was  some 70-strong. Members were ordered to appear at the hearing and make trouble, and they followed these orders. By the end of that night they had killed seven Black men. Some were members of the militia; some were civilians, shot in the street, or captured and executed. 

My great-grandfather was Frank Dawson, then the editor of the Charleston News & Courier. He was outraged by this incident, though he was a Confederate officer himself. He wrote that it was disgraceful behavior, breaking the code of military honor and shooting prisoners like rabbits. “Their only crime, we fear, lay in being black and carrying arms.” 

The belief that white civilians had the right to carry arms was founded in the South, first in order to create the infamous Slave Patrols, to establish control over enslaved people, and then later, after the Civil War, in response to the fact that Black freedmen were officially ordered to carry arms for the government. White men took up their own arms out of outrage at what they saw as insolence. They claimed that the government gave them the right to do so, but they were really just continuing the old Slave Patrols. The Second Amendment specifies the right to “A well-regulated militia”: this was intended to protect the country from foreign forces. It didn’t mean that unregulated civilians could murder each other. 

But white Southerners felt they were under siege from armed Black freedmen. What stuck in the craw of the white men at Hamburg was the fact that Black freedmen refused to hand over their guns to an ex-Confederate general. White men were not going to stand for that. Following General Cary’s plan, they instituted a policy of violent intimidation of Black freedmen, including vote-suppression, massacres, and lynchings. And so began the Jim Crow era.

Now the idea of gun ownership has expanded into unthinkable proportions, and mass hysteria erupts at the mere suggestion of any sort of gun control. Hundreds of thousands of Americans own handguns and assault weapons, weapons unsuited for anything but armed combat against human beings. This situation does not exist in any other developed country, all of which have strict gun control regulations. England has a long tradition of game-shooting, but it has very strict laws about weapons. If you own a shotgun, it must be kept locked in a closet, and available for the local constabulary to examine at all times. English law does not permit the ownership of military-style assault weapons, or of handguns. 

But in America almost anyone can own any sort of gun, and so we have 40,000 gun-related deaths a year. It is true that it’s people who cause deaths, but these 40,000 cases are caused by people with guns. Is it any wonder that our policemen are armed? It would be madness to send out unarmed policemen to deal with terrorists wielding automatic weapons. The existence of so many weapons puts policemen and women on an adrenaline-charged alert. At any moment they know they may die by gunshot, which makes them more likely to fire first. 

Gun control would, of course, greatly reduce this lethal chaos, but our hysterical resistance makes it impossible. Instead of imposing gun control, we ratchet up the arming of the police, which today has reached military proportions. 

Weapons have always made it easier to kill, not just physically but psychologically. Starting with the longbows at Agincourt, the more distance between you and your target, the easier it is to destroy him. Looking someone in the eyes as he walks toward you, both of you unarmed, engages your understanding of him as a human being. Even if you kill him, you will carry with you forever the knowledge of his life, the awareness of his particular humanity. Whereas inside a tank, or even an MRAP, you are cut off from your surroundings. You feel insulated from the people you are engaging with. They are outside, you are safe inside. You can’t see their humanity. This is all the more true for someone dropping a bomb from an airplane, or causing a drone to drop a bomb, sitting safe in a base in Florida: it removes you one thousandfold from the reality of killing. The easier it is physically to kill, and the further removed you are from your target, the easier it becomes psychologically to perform the lethal feat. 

Studies in military psychology show that soldiers resist shooting people who look like them—who could be them. They are more ready to shoot people who look different from them—people who represent the Other. Racism, then, has made certain wars easier to fight. And racism makes identification simple: anyone who looks different is the enemy. 

Militarization of the police has made the use of lethal force increasingly likely. Riot gear, which hides your face and distances you from other humans, and which protects you from their actions, makes violence more likely. Combat training, which creates muscle memory for lethal action, makes violence more likely. Battlefield strategy, which makes every stranger an enemy, makes violence more likely. Using a “No-Knock Warrant,” and using a battering ram to break down a door without warning is a combat tactic, used in enemy territory. This kind of action is deadly on every level, psychological as well as physical. It destroys the trust that should exist between the police force and the community it’s supposed to serve.  

But changing police culture, or even monitoring it, is difficult. The police community is tribal, insular, and self-protective. Powerful police unions are highly effective lobbyists, spending millions of dollars to present their needs to Congress and rejecting attempts to establish accountability among their members. 

The civilian population plays a part here, too: police forces are a manifestation of our communal culture, and we’re a violent nation. This trait comes from our racist past and our history of slavery, with its violence directed toward people of color. From our racist past we’ve created a culture of civilian gun-wielding, a strain of madness that is somehow entwined with a belief in American manhood. From our racist past we derive a tendency to see people of color as the enemy. All these things combine to create a tinderbox within the police culture, a firestorm waiting to erupt. 

Perhaps we are now seeing the eruption, in the national protest movement of Black Lives Matter, in which thousands of protestors from across the racial divide and across the country march, chant, hold signs, and demand an end to this racist violence.

The demand for the abolishment of the police force would require a new way to maintain the peace. One community that has made such a radical shift is Camden, New Jersey. Seven years ago, the city was one of the most violent and crime-ridden in the country, rife with drugs, shootings, and police corruption. It was the corruption that made reform seem impossible. Lawsuits brought against the police revealed widespread malfeasance: planted evidence, fabricated reports, and perjury. The city decided that it was beyond reform, and they dissolved the Camden Police Department. They let go of 400 people and started over. 

The new organization, the Camden County Police Department, is based on the premise that the community owns the streets, and the police makes those streets safe. The department trains its officers seriously in de-escalation and it holds them strictly accountable for the use of force. The ethnic makeup of the force reflects that of the community. The trust of the citizens is paramount: on his first day on the job, each new officer knocks on the doors of his beat, introducing himself and asking how things can be improved. Police officers play basketball with residents, drive Mister Softee trucks, put on drive-in movies, and host neighborhood barbecues. In May, Camden County Police Chief Joseph Wysocki marched with the community in support of “Black Lives Matter.”  

Violent crime is down 42%.

Camden’s efforts haven’t entirely succeeded—the ethnic makeup of the police department doesn’t yet completely reflect that of the community, and the city still struggles with poverty and related issues. But crime is down, and the feeling on the streets has changed. Citizens feel safe. The police department is dedicated to its original mission: keeping the peace. Tanks are not involved. 

Streets should make up a neighborhood, not a battlefield. On a battlefield, every soldier is trained to use lethal force, and the more highly trained you are to use lethal force, the more likely you are to use it. And the more you rely on weapons, the less you use empathy. A warrior may choose weapons first, but an officer of the peace should choose empathy. He should understand that the community is made up of people like him, whether or not they look like him. He should know that it’s not killing people that keeps the peace, but understanding them.

Militarizing the police force is pointless and dangerous; it makes citizens into enemies and it makes officers into invading forces. But it’s not only our citizens who are at risk; our police officers are endangered by our gun-mad society. They confront armed and violent citizens on a routine traffic arrest; no other developed country permits this. Gun control is just as important to our national safety as monitoring our police departments: we need de-escalation on both sides. We need a willed retreat from our history of racism, violence, and institutional enforcement. 

Police departments can be constructive, intelligent, helpful presences in our communities. Our towns and cities can remake them, using new models of accountability and cooperation. Remember that these public servants are not only officers of the law, they are Officers of the Peace. And that’s what we need, peace officers. Fewer guns, more empathy. 

About the author

Roxana Robinson, a novelist and biographer, is the author of Sparta and most recently of Dawson’s Fall, which investigates the moral consequences of slavery, and charts the path of its fell legacies, racism, and violence. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Vogue, among other publications.

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