More and more these days things are happening in such a way that makes me keep asking myself the question: What the hell is going on?
Take this as a for instance. The story begins with an 18-year- old unarmed man, gunned down in a Missouri street after a confrontation with police. Two journalists, Huffington Post reporter Ryan J Reilly and Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery sent to cover the story are arrested for their trouble by a SWAT team in McDonald’s of all places.
Of course the reporters were expectedly outraged and tweeted their arrest and even showed video recordings on their mobile devices. So what’s my point? It’s this:
The 18- year- old man who died at police hands was killed in a predominantly black neighbourhood in controversial circumstances. By all reports in a quiet area that rarely sees trouble. The FBI is now investigating what happened after witnesses and police gave conflicting accounts of what led to the death of the young man only a couple of days before he was due to start college.
Now you might think that police having already been involved in controversy might be somewhat circumspect in how they go about things back in this neighbourhood. I am not suggesting they stop upholding the law. What I mean is not doing anything that might inflame the situation and cause more violence.
But it would seem that police in that particular area of Missouri had a very different take on how they should behave. Instead of softly, softly they took what witnesses claim was a very, heavy handed approach in dealing with the crowd that had gathered to conduct a vigil for the dead man. They used tear gas and rubber bullets.
Let’s just park the whys and wherefores of this particular incident for the moment and focus on an equally important issue: What I would describe as the disturbing and menacing images of the police response that are being shown on social media and on TV.
In fact one commentator took up this theme and made a very good point, in my view, by way of a comparison. He said on the one hand, the use, and some might say abuse, of contentious anti-terrorism powers for intelligence agencies has been well documented and heavily debated thanks to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
But what has quietly slipped through, under the radar, is the fact that United States Governments have been quietly arming their police and turning them into para-militaries.
Critics are now saying that the days of accountable, civilian police held up as a cornerstone of a democratic and free society are long gone and we better get used to it. Instead we now have the rule of the gun. Forget about the presumption of innocence. Your presumed to be armed and dangerous and that’s where it begins and ends. And, the critics say, it’s delivering a blunt message to America’s poor, ethnic and anti-establishment communities: WE are a para-military style police and YOU are the enemy.
So where is the evidence of the re-arming of police? Well let’s just go through a checklist of the kind of gear police carry these days: Assault Rifles, Combat Helmets and Nightime Goggles. They ride around in armoured vehicles that also have grenade launchers. Battle equipped police are smashing down doors with battering rams, throwing stun grenades and smashing through doors and windows as if they are on some kind of military operation. Not the sort of kit or behaviour normally associated with suburban cops.
Of course these developments have the American Civil Liberties Union jumping up and down on the one spot. The ACLU points out that American neighbourhoods are not war zones. Our police officers should not be treating us, the general public, as if we were their enemies. And to make matters worse, the Pentagon is helping. Large quantities of surplus military battle uniforms, protective gear and heavy weapons stockpiled after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were given a new home. Following 9/11 the U.S Department of Homeland Security handed over this equipment to State Police. And as the ACLU also points out, if the Government hands over heavy-duty weapons to State Police they are going to use them even if the situation doesn’t call for that kind of firepower.
Doctor Tom Nolan, the chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at New York State University made the interesting point. He said many communities now view the police as an occupying army. The once close relationships police forged with communities are being smashed by the mindset of what he called the Warrior Cop.
Some lobby groups are claiming that 5000 civilian Americans have been killed at the hands of the new military style police since 9/11. I am not in a position to comment on the validity or otherwise of those statistics. But what I can say is that there are plenty of examples where disproportionate police force was used. Take the case in Arizona where an Iraqi veteran was shot 22 times while sitting in his kitchen. The 7-year-old Detroit girl shot by police after she leapt out of her bed which had been set on fire by police smoke grenades.
Critics say there is also growing evidence that Police Special Weapons and Tactics Squads reserved for the most serious armed confrontations like sieges and armed hostage taking are being used in incidents of a more minor nature. In the 1980s there were fewer than 3000 SWAT raids in the United States. By 2005 that number had exploded to 45,000. What’s worse says New York State University’s Doctor Tom Nolan, people charged with no crime are treated as if they are guilty with the violent intrusion into their home based on the mere suspicion of low-level crime. And the vast majority of these raids are against black Americans and Latinos.
As some commentators point out what is also being observed is that police in the United States are not not only vigorous in upholding the law, they seem to think they are above it. Even the Central Intelligence Agency was taken to task after it was discovered that the CIA had been spying on Congress men and women responsible for monitoring its behaviour.
I should hasten to add that this is not an exercise in police bashing. Most people appreciate and understand the difficult job police do for us every day. But in every healthy democracy there must be checks, balances and accountability. Recently the absurd situation arose where a Massachusetts police SWAT team managed to dodge Freedom of Information requests on its activities by claiming it was a private corporation contracted to multiple police departments and therefore had the right to claim commercial confidentiality.
I accept we live in a changed world. But I share other people’s concerns that this might be counterproductive. That arming the police to the teeth does not do much to reassure the general public that they are safe and out of harm’s way. Instead it reinforces the notion that we are all unsafe and in danger. Maybe from the very people whose sworn duty it is to protect us.