Enemies and Citizens: Why Are the Police Out of Control?

Anyone who recalls the violent attacks on strikers by police in the 19th century or in the Depression era ’30s knows that they are not necessarily nice guys. But there is also an image of the “cop on the beat” who knows a neighborhood and the people in it. He’s part of the landscape and he’s there [till recently “he” was all there was] to preserve the peace, often by diplomatic, thoughtful, non-violent means.

That changed after the 1960s and changed dramatically after 9/11. The police became militarized. More police got their training in a military trained to go after insurgents who often acted like civilians. More police joined SWAT teams that used military-grade weapons and overwhelming force tactics to go after drug dealers and hostage takers even when violence was only made more likely by the use of SWAT teams in the first place.

Fewer police were “cops on the beat” who got out of their cars and armored vehicles to develop real relationships with citizens. Trained to deal with insurgents as enemies to be neutralized or destroyed, they quickly came to see citizens as an enemy rather than as neighbors and citizens to be served and protected. Especially citizens who have historically been typed as “dangerous”: young black men.

Every week we see more evidence of the racism that underlies the militarization of the police and of the military policies designed to deal with enemies–who almost always of a different ethnic and religious background from the still dominant white segment of our society–when they are brought to bear at home.

The solution doesn’t require bemoaning crazed, racist cops; it requires a change in training and a demilitarization of the police. The police is not the army or special forces or the CIA. And its members far too often think they are fighting against insurgents who are the black to their white in a black and white game of kill or be killed. it is little wonder that snipers–angered, irrational, infuriated citizens–now appear to counterattack the police. Escalation is in the air when what is needed is a radical change in training and tactics.

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