The Changing Police Culture: Police Militarization Harms Everyone

I’ve used this space quite a bit over the last week since the events in Ferguson unfolded to discuss police militarization with a specific look at how harmful, disproportional and racist it is toward black people. And it is. For instance, check out this Tweet from comedian Katt Williams about the way we discuss and characterize different crimes for different races; it’s startling accurate:

Crime by Race

For some reason, we see minority crime as uniquely something different, but still representative of that minority, whereas white crime is seemingly individualized to whoever perpetrated the act.

Anyhow, for those that have bothered to read my posts, maybe they’ve come away with the impression that I think only black people are subject to police brutality and being killed by the police. I’ve never said any such thing, but if I implied it, my apologies, as that wasn’t my intention. I’ve merely said that blacks are disproportionately the targets of bad policing.

Make no mistake, however, the police culture as it is now and the continuing militarization of the police harms everyone, white, black, Latino, etc. There have been a great many white people innocently accosted or harmed by the police. In other words, the problem of police militarization is so pressing and far-reaching, that it could never be contained or specific to one race.

Justin Fritts/Flickr

From The American Conservative:

In 1984, according to Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26 percent of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80 percent and it’s still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.

As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.

So, it’s been well-documented how through the Pentagon’s 1033 program local and state police departments across the country have basically been gifted “toys” like featured above that make them resemble the military more than the police. Take that in conjunction with the rise in SWAT teams and the frequency with which they’re used and you have a recipe for disaster. Add in that these SWAT teams are routinely used for small-time crimes and more importantly, as the ACLU said in a blistering report, just to serve a search warrant — in other words, no crime has yet been committed, just suspected — and that recipe for disaster grows even worse.

And the point then should be obvious: Given this frequency of SWAT use and the militarization, then it’s bound to impact everyone, not specifically blacks, although SWAT teams, according to the ACLU, predominantly go into black neighborhoods (68% of the time). So, again, there’s that word “disproportional.”

What’s even worse? The idea of community policing has fallen by the wayside in the form of recruitment videos for those looking to join the force. They look like the military, they have the weapons and vehicles of the military and now in recruiting videos, they make it seem like a military boot camp with military-style action. All of which is the antithesis to the philosophy of community policing, protecting and serving, trust with the community, dialogue with the community and so on.

For an example look at this recruitment video from the Newport Beach Police Department:

Or how about this one from New Mexico’s Hobbs Police Department:

There’s many, many more examples of that style of recruitment. Now check out the difference in a recruitment video from Decatur, Alabama that emphasizes the community policing model; it’s stark:

Seriously, the difference is incredibly striking to me, but I love it. I genuinely love that approach. But it would seem to be going against the flow of the trend toward militarization.

But even when presented with this information — that it’s disproportional to black people, that SWAT teams and their use on small-time activities have increased dramatically over the years and that the police resemble the military in gear, guns, vehicles and recruitment — will still say to me, “Yeah, but not all cops are bad.” Look at what I just said, however. All of that is representative of a systematic problem. A systematic problem negates any notion of the “bad apple theory.”

Moreover, the police are incredibly unaccountable for their actions. Check out this story from NPR:

Landau was 19 at the time, driving around Denver with a friend in the passenger seat. He noticed red and blue lights behind him. The officer who pulled him over “explained I had made an illegal left turn, and to step out of the car,” Landau says.

“So I get out of the car first,” he says. “And then he goes around to the passenger side and pulls my friend Addison out of the car. … Addison is white, and he had some weed in his coat pocket. So he gets placed in handcuffs.”

Landau thought he was safe. He wasn’t in handcuffs, he says, and he’d already been patted down. “Plus there’s three officers on the scene. And I had never had a negative interaction with police in my life.

“So I ask them, ‘Can I please see a warrant before you continue the search?’ ” Landau says. “And they grab me and began to hit me in the face. I could hear Addison in the background yelling, ‘Stop! Leave him alone.’

“I was hit several times, and I remember gasping for air” and spitting blood, he says.

“And then I hear an officer shout out, ‘He’s reaching for a gun,’ ” he tells his mother. “I immediately started yelling, ‘No, I’m not. I’m not reaching for anything.’ “

Landau felt a gun against his head, he says. “And I expected to be shot. And at that point I lost consciousness. …

Alex Landau after an incident with Denver police in 2009.

Courtesy of Alex Landau

“It took 45 stitches to close up the lacerations in my face alone,” Landau says.

Here is the aftermath of his police beating:


He was awarded $795,000 by the city of Denver. Two officers involved were fired, but for reasons unrelated to this incident. What kinda perverse system of accountability and deterrence against wrongdoing is that? If you do something wrong as a police officer, it’s okay, the taxpayers will cover it in the civil lawsuit. No criminal charges. Nothing will change about policing accountability if the burden of accountability is continually passed off onto third parties (taxpayers) instead of the parties involved (the police and the department).

Yet, maybe there’s at least one idea to help keep the police in check from Conor Friedersdorf:

Personally, I think that’s goddamn brilliant and would make those that feel like cop cams are invasive to our privacy less queasy.

And I will be more compelled to think the problem of police abuse is the result of a “few bad apples” when more good cops, who are supposedly the majority of cops, forget their “code of silence” and start turning in more bad cops and holding them accountable. When shit like what happened to Landau occur, surely there were “good cops” at the scene that saw it go down? Or learned of it afterward? What did they do about it? Why is it that we often only learn about these situations because of journalists like Radley Balko or because a private citizen had the fortune of being at the right place at the right time with their smartphone video camera?

I’m not just talking out of my ass here. The United States Department of Justice’s own study here found:

84 percent of police officers report that they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61 percent admit they don’t always report “even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers.”

So yeah, bad apples, huh? Insert quote about how evil prevails when good men do nothing here.

Finally, to make all of this all the more troubling, there’s no good national database or data or statistics or whatever you want to say, on the number of times police officers kill, whether justifiably or not, citizens. Or at least incidents of shootings involving the police, even if it didn’t result in a death. That’s unacceptable to me.

One more thing to further drive home my point that I’m not ignoring the police violence done to white people. This story from Politico, which starts:

After police in Kenosha, Wis., shot my 21-year-old son to death outside his house ten years ago — and then immediately cleared themselves of all wrongdoing — an African-American man approached me and said: “If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.”

Michael Bell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, knows the name of the officer that shot dead his son ten years ago. That man still works on the police force today. Bell offers this poignant problem which strikes at the heart, literally, of what I’m trying to emphasize with this post:

Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.

The officers cleared themselves of wrongdoing within 48 hours, which is an incredibly fast investigation. His son’s fingerprints weren’t found on any gun, despite the officers claiming he grabbed for it. And they didn’t talk to some eyewitnesses.

Albert Gonzales, the man who shot Bell’s son, also a gun instructor, was even cited by the Chicago Tribune as “multiple instructors [who] are police officers with documented histories of making questionable decisions about when to use force.” Bell’s son had apparently been drinking and driving, which is not defensible, but that’s not the point. The point is that they shot him dead and cleared themselves of any wrongdoing.

The family received a $1.75 million wrongful death settlement. Again, the taxpayers covering for police abuse. Odd isn’t, though? That a court can find a wrongful death suit valid, but no officer involved, including Gonzales, has been punished? Odd.

Of course, Bell was not satisfied with collecting that money, so he used it to investigate police accountability and found:

In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified. There was one shooting we found, in 2005, that was ruled justified by the department and an inquest, but additional evidence provided by citizens caused the DA to charge the officer.

Either that is the cleanest state for police officers or something fucked up is going on. I lean toward the latter. A spotless record in 129 years of police work across an entire state? Okay.

Again, taken with how taxpayers foot the bill for liability, if officers know they won’t face any accountability, then there’s no deterrent in place to protect against bad behavior. Rightfully, Bell thought it a terrible fucking bit of irony that police departments enjoy the luxury of investigating themselves. Check it:


His bill, requiring a third party, independent investigation passed. A few days after, police shot a homeless man on a bench 15 times. It’s the first case to be investigated under this new. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.

As Bell stresses, he’s not anti-cop. Neither am I. I gushed over that recruitment video that emphasizes community policing. That’s the right way to do it. I am not anti-cop. I’m anti-secrecy. I’m anti-unaccountable police. I’m anti-police militarization. I’m anti-SWAT raids. I’m anti-racist policing.

I’m anti-this bad apple theory because it only perpetuates the problem. How long will we hide behind that indefensible defense?

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