The Slow, Gradual Change in America’s Police

by Jim Geraghty

From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

The Slow, Gradual Change in America’s Police

In the past ten to twenty years, the appearance of the police in our cities, towns and counties changed dramatically; the unnerving suspicion is that the mentality of our police changed as well.

Kevin Williamson grew up with Peter Pat and the Policeman; I grew up with Sergeant Murphy:

Yes, I grew up remarkably sheltered in small-town New Jersey in the late 70s and 1980s. But if a person of, say, Generation X or older is asked to picture the police, they probably picture a man or, less frequently, a woman, with a walkie-talkie, handcuffs, gun, and sharp blue, instantly-recognizable uniform.

Not this:

Kevin offered this picture with the simple caption, “aesthetics matter”…

… and for a half-moment I thought, “man, the villains in Star Wars VII look awesome.”

Let’s begin with all the proper stipulations: Of course, we all want the police protected from harm. Yes, they face danger on our behalf. Yes, they need to defend themselves and us with lethal force at times. Yes, in the face of a rioting crowd, they need to be able to apply – and threaten to apply – sufficient force to quell the riot quickly.

But one of the ways we as Americans responded to 9/11 was to throw gobs of money at first responders, to prepare police forces large and small to respond to any imaginable horrific emergency – a Beslan-style attack on a school, an Oklahoma City style bombing, heavily-armed criminals like the North Hollywood shootout. In theory, this was a good idea. It may still be a good idea.

But it had side effects. One is that the Department of Homeland Security started popping out military-grade equipment, weapons, armor and gadgets like a Pez dispenser, resulting in top-grade hardware in almost comically small towns:

The city of Keene, N.H., population 23,000, nestled in a valley in the state’s southwest corner, may not be the first place that comes to mind as a terrorism target, but this summer it will take delivery on a $286,000 armored vehicle, compliments of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Lenco “BearCat,” fitted with thermal imaging, radiation and explosive gas detection systems, gun mounts and rotating hatch is but one example of the kind of quasi-military equipment that has been acquired by local and state law enforcement agencies through billions of dollars worth of federal grant money in the last decade.

Just what they need if the annual Pumpkin Festival gets out of hand.

One big question is whether this represents a wise use of federal taxpayer money. But another big question is whether a country can outfit its police forces in the weapons, tactics, armor, vehicles, and tools of an army and not see a change in the behavior of its police forces.

Once a police forces is outfitted with the tools of war, who are they going to fight? This type of equipment usually goes to SWAT teams, which usually refers to Special Weapons and Tactics. (It’s worth noting that Los Angeles Police Department’s team was originally referred to as the “Special Weapons Assault Team.”) But notice that first word, “Special.” This presumably refers to uniquely dangerous sets of circumstances, primarily situations where armed assailants endanger the lives of civilians. This country appeared to have fairly clear views on the distinction between the role and responsibilities of the military and the role and responsibilities of the police since, oh, say, Posse Comitatus. Now the satire site Clickhole runs a faux-fashion feature asking, “Who Wore It Better: Police or Military?

We live in the era of increasingly common “no-knock raids”,  with roughly 70,000 to 80,000 raids annually.

As a kid, you’re (possibly) taught a simple concept: obey the law, and you won’t get arrested. And the law is usually clear and easily-learned. If the sign says “no parking”, you can’t park there. You can look up the legal code; to avoid getting arrested, you just have to follow those written-down rules.

But the “failure to obey a lawful police order” misdemeanor on the books in most places seems like a formula for trouble. The law is largely intended for situations like, “back away from the accident scene” or “don’t touch that” or other circumstances where a civilian could interfere with police business.

It’s the only law that Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly could conceivably be charged with breaking when they were handcuffed and taken into custody Wednesday night; both were released without any charges. Suddenly the law isn’t necessarily what’s written down or posted; it’s whatever the guy with the badge, gun, and handcuffs says it is. To avoid getting arrested, you have to obey the guy with the badge, and his definition of a lawful order is up to him and his colleagues.

This is America. We don’t have to accept any of this as the price of a safe society.

And at least last night, the evidence suggested that cops in regular gear, interacting with the protesters in a non-confrontational way, worked well:

Hundreds of protesters gathered and marched near the flashpoint where riots and civil unrest have unfolded here in recent days, but no violent clashes were reported as of early Friday morning.

Citizens protesting the death of black Missouri teenager Michael Brown appeared to be getting along peacefully as they marched alongside state troopers, who took over operational control of the protest scenes Thursday.

Several marchers stopped to shake hands with police and troopers. Some people stopped to hug and chat with Capt. Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol, who was born and grew up near this community and is now overseeing security.

The scene stood in stark contrast clashes earlier this week when officers wore riot gear.