The antidote to militarized police
As Occupy Wall Street protests have multiplied across the nation, we’ve seen a lot of pictures of paramilitary-looking police officers on the streets of American cities. The Reuters photo above was taken in Oakland, but it just as easily could have been shot in any number of cities. What most of these pictures have in common is that local law enforcement is dressed in military equipment and look ready to take on an army of invaders rather than peaceful protesters. It’s a big evolution from when police cracked down on the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago wearing their everyday street uniforms.
Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle who oversaw the police response to the WTO protests there in 1999, regrets the growing militarization of police forces. He writes in yes!:
There will always be situations—an armed and barricaded suspect, a man with a knife to his wife’s throat, a school-shooting rampage—that require disciplined, military-like operations. But most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy and interpersonal skills. I’m convinced it is possible to create a smart organizational alternative to the paramilitary bureaucracy that is American policing. But that will not happen unless, even as we cull “bad apples” from our police forces, we recognize that the barrel itself is rotten.
The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.
Stemper’s argument that police departments have grown more insular since the 1990s sounds plausible — funding for militarized training and equipment has swelled in the aftermath of 9/11, and police in a number of states are cracking down on citizens who attempt to videotape police officers’ actions. But a democracy in which significant parts of the population distrust the state’s extension of its authority into the community is not stable.
In an open society transparency is likely to be the proper antidote to police departments “blue wall of silence.” Here are several simple actions police departments or citizen groups could take to increase transparency:
- Police officers must always display their badge numbers or respond to citizen requests for their badge numbers
- Police departments must post the names, photos and badge numbers of every uniformed officer on a public website
- Police departments must open the citizen complaint process to public scrutiny. If they are unable or unwilling then citizen groups should create open source wikis or websites to collect and expose complaints against officers.
- The chief of police should make a year-end report available to the public detailing citizen complaints
There is no easy way to reverse the massive tide of police militarization, but transparency is generally the best disinfectant. If we want fair policing in our communities we need to open the doors to our police departments.