ferguson

A clear example of police militarization during the protests in Ferugson, MI

The militarization of the U.S. police forces, subsidized by cheap military hand-me-downs and further enabled by the preferential hiring of ex-soldiers, is one of several drivers that have led many in the population to lose trust in the police as an institution designed to preserve order.

In order to regain both this trust and the job of preserving order, instead of enforcing authority, we need to reshape the criminal justice system. It isn’t just about de-emphasizing the military aspect, but also about fostering a more empathic bond with the community. It should never again be an easy job to create a half hour video of avoidable police deaths.

If you watched that video, then I’d like to direct your attention to the deaf man who was whittling a piece of wood at around 11 minutes 30 seconds. This short clip speaks volumes about everything that needs to change: the police officer should not randomly be stopping a guy who simply had a small knife which he was threatening no one with, and the police officer should not fire at anyone who is not even threatening them.

Unlike in a firefight, the chief tool of the peace officer is not his gun but his mind. I say that knowing there is almost 1 gun per person in the U.S. (about 314 million people with about 310 million guns), but also the knowledge that being killed as an officer is lower than the chance of being struck by lightning (which is a lifetime chance of about 1 in 3000).

I come to this conclusion based on the fact we have approximately 900,000 police officers in the United States, and about 150 officer fatalities per year (of which about 100 are accidental). That leaves 50 out of 900,000 police officers dying “maliciously” each year, or a chance of about 1 out of every 18,000 people.

An officer of 6 years is as likely to be struck by lightning as they are of dying from a malicious attack. Despite these odds, police are armed to the teeth – a fact that suggests conscious shifts from “defense” to “offense” and from “protecting and serving” to “confronting and repressing.”

Just check this traffic stop, for not wearing a seatbelt, the video was sent to me by Robert Kelly-Schleyer:

Robert Kelly-Schleyer emphasized the constant military involvement, approximately 216/239 years of U.S. history has been steeped in war. Many of these wars have resulted in foreign occupations, some stayed (like Hawaii) and some faded from grip after years of bloodshed (Philippines). The fact that someone failed to be completely obedient (like the deaf man whittling a piece of wood shown in the first video) to the law is not a reason to escalate a situation, especially not to the point where shots are fired before commands are given. Obviously, the wrong focus is being given in training and maybe the wrong criteria used to select recruits.

We need to move in the oppose direction: we need to de-escalate in the place of training that teaches officers to escalate. We need cautious empathy in the place of aggressive certainty. A police officer, much like a firefighter, but differently than a soldier, is expected to put their life on the line for the well-being and safety of the community they’re in. They need to be expected to exercise restraint in tense situations, and prioritize community safety above personal safety.

Junior officers, those with less than 2 years experience, should not be outfitted with a firearm. This is already standard procedure in many first world nations, and the United States appears to stand alone in demanding less than a year of formal training before allowing an officer to go out armed on the beat.

We should also consider making the police commissioner publicly elected – or at least subject to public feedback – instead of chosen by the mayor, to hinder political corruption from overflowing into police priorities (as we saw with the NYPD during the Occupy movement). Making the choice of police administrator more open to the public would make a big difference.

“The chief administrator of any agency sets the moral tone and ensures that discipline is maintained. American law enforcement has imagined a world more dangerous than exists around us resulting the loss of innocent life. Law enforcement acts as though these killings of innocents is collateral damage as the military would. In the United States we are in a desperate situation. Corruption and brutality have become common place in law enforcement in America.” – Melvin Willis, an honorably retired (22 years) police officer at city of Mesquite Police Department who also has a masters in Clinical Psychology from East Texas State University

The problem is that the “collateral damage” caused by police includes the very same people they are serviced to protect. Arresting a single drug dealer, while injuring or killing even one bystander, is not to be considered a success: if saving lives in the community is the goal then the loss of innocent life should rarely if ever be an acceptable cost.

The focus for tomorrow’s police needs to be on peace, instead of obedience or control. Taxes need to pay for police, and the lives of career police officers, to lower the incentive for corruption. Police need sufficient training in de-escalation and constitutional rights included to ensure legal interaction with citizens. An overall de-escalation of American domestic and foreign policy would be helpful in ending the continual flow of military hand-me-downs that have helped justify the militarization of police forces. We need to consciously move away from a culture of militancy and occupation, both at home and abroad.