An oversized and heavily armored transport lumbers forward accompanied by armored troops with weapons at the ready. Impersonal faces concealed behind masks suddenly raise their weapons and fire into the crowd of rebels. Gas canister fall among the ragtag ranks as some of their number panic and scatter in the face of such an imposing army… No this is not a scene from the latest Star Wars movie, but it could be. Instead, this is a scene that has been played out across the country as local law enforcement continues to become more militarized in their equipment and attitudes. In many places the police are looking less and less like a domestic peacekeeping force and more and more like an army of stormtroopers marching on the orders a Galactic Empire…
1033 Why Aren’t You at Your Post?
We want to start off by saying that we respect the police and everything they do. They have an incredibly hard job, and the majority of our boys and girls in blue are dedicated and amazing people who do a service to our country. However, we cannot ignore the facts that more and more local law enforcement is looking like stormtroopers invading Hoth, rather than officers of the law. Militarization of our local police forces began simply enough. In 1990, with the National Defense Authorization act. This was replaced in 1997 by the 1033 Program, both of which allow the transfer of military surplus to local law enforcement agencies, including camouflage, body armor, assault rifles, and armored transports. This was enacted at a time when we were at the height of our “War on Drugs,” and as a way to justify a bloated military budget in the post-Cold War years.
These programs may have been conceived with the best of intentions. Transferring surplus equipment from the military to police makes cost-saving sense on a certain level, and for the most part it has helped alleviate some cost burdens on smaller municipalities. Many departments have taken advantage of this program to acquire equipment like binoculars, radios, headsets, bullets, and even office supplies, but that’s not all. Small towns like Mishawacka, Michigan and Watertown, Connecticut have used the program to acquire things like MRAPs. In case you don’t know what that is, MRAP stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. They are used to protect soldiers from roadside bombs and ambushes in war zones. We aren’t entirely sure how many mines there are in Watertown, Connecticut, but is there enough to justify their use of $733,000 military vehicle? In one instance, the town of Bloomingdale, Georgia received four grenade launchers under the 1033 program, which seems a bit extreme.
In that instance, a representative of the police force stated that possessing the launchers told criminals that officers were, “armed to meet any threat,” and the presence of the weapons was hoped to act a deterrent, but that may not be entirely the case. The government does try to strictly regulate this hand-me-down military equipment, and departments need to declare what they will use the equipment for and show in some way that they have a justifiable need for it. That retroactively means that if you get an MRAP or a grenade launcher, you are going to need to use them at some point to prove that you needed them in the first place. Even more disturbingly, due to the fact that all this has to do with national security, these equipment transfers are confidential. However, the Marshall Project has put together a list of local police departments and the equipment they have acquired through the 1033 Program. It is worth checking out.
Aren’t You a Little SWAT to be a Stormtrooper?
In the Star Wars Universe there is no local police force, at least not in places like the Outer-Rim, such as on Tatooine. We see in A New Hope that Mos Eisley is patrolled not by police, but by stormtroopers. That’s because, white armored soldiers setting up checkpoints and arresting people with rifles drawn are all telltale signs of an invading army. By the Empire’s own admission stormtroopers are as much tools of intimidation as they are of peacekeeping. The same is true of the AT-AT, the lumbering walking tank that can be seen in Empire Strikes Back. The All Terrain Armored Transport is a psychological weapon of fear above all else. It was designed to keep peace on conquered worlds as an imposing expression of power. It along with fully armored and armed stormtroopers tells the local populace that they have no power. They are subjects and any resistance means dealing with swift retribution at the hands of a 22.5 meter tall walking tank.
In our world, a fully loaded MRAP and fully armored SWAT teams send much the same message. Police looking to justify and play with their new toys and have made the sight of giant armored vehicles and military grade weaponry a common one on the streets of downtown America. According to the ACLU, nearly 80% of studied SWAT teams were used to serve search warrants in drug cases. It has been estimated that 50,000 to 80,000 SWAT raids occur every year in the United States. Most police departments are reluctant to release exact numbers on how often they use their SWAT teams, but the use of them has been on a steady rise for decades. This is startling considering that SWAT teams were originally conceived in the 1960’s as special operations units that responded only to the most serious threats, such as hostage situations or mass shootings. Now, over the past 80 years the percentage of small US towns with SWAT teams has grown from 30% to 80%. In Maryland in 2012, half of all SWAT deployments were to issue search warrants for “Part II,” or nonviolent crimes, and two out of every three SWAT raids used forced entry. Even more disturbing, about 15% of the raids in Maryland in 2012 resulted in no seized contraband of any kind, and a third of the raids resulted in no arrests.
It should come as no surprise that SWAT raids disproportionately affect poorer neighborhoods of color. Proponents will say that is just where you find the most drugs, but according to statistics white Americans are more likely to possess and use drugs than African Americans. However, the real problem with the excessive use of SWAT teams is the message they send. Stormtroopers and AT-ATs marching through Mos Eisley and searching house to house for missing droids is not the kind of reputation that helps police do their actual jobs. Similarly, owning four grenade launchers and saying that police are prepared to use them, sends the message of a military gearing up for conflict, not peaceful patrolling. In fact, in some cases the presences of militarized SWAT teams have escalated situations instead of restoring order. By some accounts, violence did not start in Ferguson, Missouri until SWAT teams moved in and fired tear gas, turning the protests into something that looked like a less entertaining version of the Battle of Endor. In fact, the Ferguson protests were one of the reasons that President Obama made the decision to restrict the sale of military weapons to local law enforcement, because police need to start being less stormtrooper and more community oriented.
A Galactic Community
One of the reasons why the Empire’s troops tend to be so reviled is that they are outsiders. White clad faceless enforcers landing from outer-space to occupy and control native populations. The men behind the helmets do not come from the occupied system, nor do they have any attachment or relations there. They know nothing of local customs or of the local people, and that is a problem that also faces our own nation’s police force. In urban areas of color, and other lower income areas the police who patrol it are often not from the neighborhood. They come from the outside, and know nothing of the the people or the places. In many cases, those police also do not relfect the diversity or makeup of the community itself. In Ferguson, for example, the police department only has 3 out of 53 officers who are black in a neighborhood that is 67% African America. That means 94% of the officers cannot even begin to relate to the experiences of 67% of the community. To them the neighborhood becomes “just a job,” a place where they go to put their lives in danger and deal with the criminal element. Those officers, like the invading stormtroopers, will never see the areas they patrol as anything but crime-infested and dangerous. That is their only interaction with the community they have. They only ever meet its criminal elements.
However, ideas of community policing help change that. It is an old idea done in a new way. In cities where the new program has been tried, police officers are no longer just there for enforcement. Instead, policing becomes a community service. They attempt to walk the streets, meet the people, and get to know the good as well as the bad. The principal is that it will give officers an affinity for the neighborhood, and begin to build trust between residents and law enforcement. Today, more than ever, police officers need to be seen as community helpers, and people who have a stake in the success of the neighborhood, not just as an outsider. This is the type of thing that has been going on in local and rural communities for years, but it is desperately needed in inner cities and urban areas. Building relationships also helps prevent crimes. People are more willing to go to the police with their problems or contact a local officer with information pertaining to criminal activity. It makes the police and the community-at-large partners in preventing crime, not adversaries with an “us” vs. “them” mentality.
Some officers will be quick to dismiss it, calling it dangerous or a waste of time, and it is true that community policing initiatives have had mixed results over the years. However, that also has a lot to do with the willingness of the officers who are assigned to engage in such initiatives. It is also worth mentioning that it is safer than ever to be a police officer. Police homicide rates have dropped dramatically over the past decade to record lows, and crime in general has taken a nose-dive, and yet people feel less safe and police feel more under threat than ever. We need to deescalate the antagonism between police and residents by returning to older ideas of policing. In fact, even the way officer dress can affect, not only how the community views them, but also how they view themselves. Wearing combat camo and armor immediately puts everyone involved in the mentality of violence. Even something as simple a wardrobe change can go a long way to giving police a better image, but many departments are still reluctant to make the change.
We can’t forget that being a cop is -at its heart- a service job. Law enforcement exists to serve and protect, but lately many department have adopted a mentality of by any means necessary. This has led to military vehicles rolling down our roads, SWAT teams breaking into private residents, and a whole lot of distrust between police and the people they are trying to serve. Some departments are not always willing to take the first step toward deescalation, but we can only hope they remember that deescalating a situation is entirely their job. So if that means throwing away the stormtrooper helmets and stepping back from their AT-AT’s than maybe that is what needs to be done. We understand it can tough, though. It is hard to put away your super-cool toys, but like our old Star Wars action figures maybe it would be best if we left them behind in a galaxy far far away. And for more information on this subject check out the documentary Do Not Resist, coming to theaters this weekend.
Now move along… move along.