Among my grandfather's many jobs was a stint as police chief in Anacortes, Wash., back when it was a boisterous and sometimes violent cannery town. There was plenty of trouble to be managed among the fishermen drinking and fighting in the saloons and brothels, the Chinese immigrant cannery workers in their rickety shacks and out on the water where smugglers ran the Canadian border and hid out in the misty coves and channels of the San Juan Islands.
With only a knife, a pistol and one deputy, Grandpa somehow managed to maintain law and order. If he were in charge of the small city’s police force today, though, he would have access to all kinds of high-caliber weaponry and armored vehicles to outfit a team of tactical officers in uniforms that would make them look like combat soldiers in Afghanistan. The federal government and military contractors would be eager to supply him with such gear, even though Anacortes is now a quiet community where the only reminder of the wild old days is a set of historical murals depicting a sanitized version of that livelier past.
Obviously, policing is different than it was 100 years ago. In most places, it is far less corrupt than it once was. In the South, police are no longer the enforcers for a racist social system. And cops have become professionals. Today’s officers are typically given intensive training in everything from community relations to handling a riot.
My grandfather was incorruptible and, in a racist era, he befriended the leader of the beleaguered Chinese community, but he was no trained expert in law enforcement. He was just a big, strong man who figured out on his own how to do a tough job. He used common sense far more than his gun (as far as I know, he never once shot it at anyone). By contrast, today’s police, however well trained, seem to be ever more likely to use force rather than finesse.
One reason for that is the impressive amount of force they can now bring to a situation. With the War on Terror as an impetus and defense contractors as self-interested cheerleaders for the policy, the federal government has found ways to transfer vast amounts of military hardware to police departments across the country. Not only has this made cops look like an occupying army, it has encouraged them to act like one. Military-style police raids have become ubiquitous – as many as 80,000 such raids reportedly took place last year.
Unfortunately, police work is still an inexact science and innocent people get mistaken for bad guys. This has always happened. But when a revved up, heavily-armed, battle-ready tactical squad comes crashing through the front door, an innocent person has less chance to raise an objection and a much higher chance of being killed. And the impact of this militarized policing is more often than not being felt in poor, minority communities where citizens are both more in need of police protection and more estranged from the police because of their overbearing presence.
Events in Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of a black teenager, have aimed a spotlight on excessive force and excessive militarization of police. The debate it has fostered is a good thing for the country and, ultimately, a good thing for the police. If we could back away from giving cops the tools of war and, instead, put our national energy into finally addressing the plagues of poverty, underemployment and social alienation that are the product of centuries of racism, our communities would be far healthier and far safer and our police would have no need to act like commandos storming an enemy stronghold.