Politics & Policy

Equip Cops with What They Need to Do Their Job

Baltimore police in riot gear after April’s unrest. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Forgive me if I’m less than enthused to learn that President Obama has promised to help local police departments in the fight against crime. Like any number of the president’s promises —  something about keeping your doctor comes to mind — this one rings hollow. The pledge came Monday in Camden, N.J., where the president delivered a speech in which he praised the local police department for reducing crime in what was once regarded as America’s most dangerous city. If one needed a further reminder that to believe a “promise” from Mr. Obama demands a rather more elastic definition of the term than is generally understood, he provided it thus: “Everything we’ve done over the past six years,” he said, “whether it’s rescuing the economy or retooling our job-training programs, has been in pursuit of one goal, and that’s creating opportunity for all of us, all our kids.” If the president’s intent is to do to American police departments what he’s done to the economy, there won’t be a man, woman, or child who can consider himself safe in the entire country.

The president spoke of new policies regulating the federal government’s provision of “military-style equipment” to local police departments, whose possession of such equipment is viewed by some, the president among them, as being bad for community relations. “We’ve seen,” said Mr. Obama, “how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them. It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message. So we’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”

Let’s acknowledge the kernels of truth in that statement even as we recognize the straw man the president is constructing. Yes, an overly “militarized” response to ordinary crimes diminishes a police department’s standing within a community and can create undue tension between officers and those they serve. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has been writing about this topic for years, and was no doubt surprised when in National Review (August 19, 2013) I gave a favorable review to his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Mr. Balko would surely applaud the president’s call to limit local police departments’ access to “equipment made for the battlefield,” but the equipment specified in the revised policy is not in wide use among America’s cops. Indeed, it’s not in use at all.

The new policy will bar the federal government from transferring tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, and some types of camouflage uniforms to local police departments. There are no police departments using tanks, .50-caliber weapons, or grenade launchers. And as for camouflage uniforms, I’m all in favor of eliminating their use among police officers except in those rare tactical situations where they might offer an advantage. Other equipment mentioned in the new policy, such as tactical vehicles and riot equipment, are in wider use among local police and will still be provided if the departments receiving them can provide assurances that the gear will be used responsibly. This is hardly a hurdle. In every large police department and many small ones are cops whose only duty is to prepare the documents required to obtain federal grants of money and equipment. This “new” policy announced by the president will have little if any practical effect on how police work is conducted in America’s cities.

In Baltimore (and everywhere) there are people whose only inhibition against antisocial behavior is the fear that they might be caught by the police.

But in the announcement of the policy, Mr. Obama gave himself the opportunity to attack the straw man I mention above. The president is convinced — or feigns being convinced — that the most serious threat to the quality of life in some American cities is the police. “We know that some communities have the odds stacked against them,” he said Monday, “and have had the odds stacked against them for a very long time — in some cases, for decades.” One reason the odds are so stacked, the president hinted, is that police officers are unfair to the people they serve. “And in some communities,” he continued, “that sense of unfairness and powerlessness has contributed to dysfunction in those communities. Communities are like bodies, and if the immunity [sic] system is down, they can get sick. And when communities aren’t vibrant, where people don’t feel a sense of hope and opportunity, then a lot of times that can fuel crime and that can fuel unrest.” In other words, there is crime in some communities because the cops are too mean.

#related#But what if the cops aren’t mean enough? As it happens, one American city is serving as an experimental laboratory where that question is being answered. In Baltimore, where six police officers have been arrested and charged in the death of Freddie Gray, many officers have concluded that the risk–reward ratio attached to doing the type of police work that reduces violence has been skewed in the criminals’ favor. And all evidence is that the criminals have reached the same conclusion. Violent crime in the city is out of control, nowhere more so than in the police department’s Western District, where Freddie Gray was arrested. There were 21 murders committed there in all of 2014, but this year, as of this writing, there have already been 22. Citywide, there have been 99 homicides to date this year, though the traditional summer shooting season has yet to begin. There were 211 murders in the city in all of 2014, a figure sure to be surpassed by a wide margin this year.

SLIDESHOW: Baltimore Riots

The president of course did not mention this in his remarks Monday, but there are people in Baltimore (and everywhere else) whose only inhibition against antisocial behavior is the fear that they might be caught by the police while committing some act of depravity. We can now see demonstrated what happens when that fear is eliminated. When enough blood has been spilled in the streets, when enough dead bodies have piled up on the morgue, when the law-abiding people of Baltimore have seen enough horrors, the cops will be implored to do something about it, even if it takes a tank or a grenade launcher to get it done.

— Jack Dunphy is the nom de cyber of a police officer in Southern California.

Jack Dunphy served with the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 30 years. Now retired from the LAPD, he works as a police officer in a neighboring city. Jack Dunphy is his nom de cyber.

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