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Just bear with me a sec...

The events in Ferguson have generated a nationwide debate on the "militarization" of police forces. In the context of the debate, "militarization" has referred to gear, equipment, or even clothing, given the absurdly out of place jungle camouflage sported by Ferguson SWAT teams performing (what they characterize as) "riot control."

But let's consider that camo for a moment. Would the military be so clueless as to send out combatants into an urban context dressed like that? Of course not. The haphazard waving of assault rifles, daily reports of threats or harassment, parading of over-the-top, inappropriate hardware... this is not a "militarization" of a police force, so much as it is a "soldier-of-fortunization" (or perhaps a "painballization," if it all weren't so violent and tragic).

The thing is, it might be time for a more serious look at militarizing police in a sense less skin deep than giving them surplus APCs on the cheap.

Consider the difference between police and military. We're always hearing (from the military side, at least) that ground troops are not police, and in fact that problems arise when we expect them to act as police in occupied territory (or during the US's attempts to build democratic institutions from the ground up in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan). And that's absolutely correct - it really doesn't work so well.

That's because soldiering, despite the superficial commonalities, is fundamentally different from policing. Profoundly so. The difference has been poetically expressed this way; the military is there to take territory, to attack, while the police exist to protect.

But that's not very specific, so consider the following distinctions.

Military forces and operations are large-scale and goal-driven. Over the centuries, militaries have evolved to be more effective and efficient by acting as machines. Recruits learn to be useful by suppressing the self and acting instead as a well-oiled part of a unit. Proper procedures, regulations, and a rigid hierarchy make up the nervous system of an effective military. Individual combatants do not get to make up the rules of war for themselves as they go.

In diametric contrast, consider what historically makes a good police officer, who is tasked with an ongoing process-driven mission (protect), rather than a project, or goal-driven one (win). That the police officer needs to be responsive to the community and adaptive to different situations has made subjectivity and autonomy a fundamental part of policing since the beginning of the last century. This is not to say that police don't have their own procedures and regulations, but the mission and nature of the job creates an understandable resistance to the creation of procedures and regulations that minimize individual autonomy. I have no doubt that many police academy instructors would bristle at this suggestion, but that doesn't make it less true. Given this, it's no wonder why police departments push back so hard at reformers' attempts to impose civilian oversight, or regulatory regimes on things like tasers, or whatever.

(In my state of Vermont, comprehensive taser use legislation was watered down into feelgood mush from pressure by statewide police groups, and its because it goes so much against their grain.)

So where military combatants are expected to submerge their individual autonomy in service of the mission, police officers see individual autonomy as fundamental to their mission.

And that latter model simply isn't working anymore.

There are four basic reasons for this. The first three reflect the basic qualities of modern culture; increased population density, our communication/information culture, and the easy circulation of people between different communities. All three of those factors increase the need for a uniformity of expectations of police, by the public, across the country. Increased population means more people are going to be bumping into each other, which means more conflicts. And if citizens are to have a reasonable sense of what to expect from those tasked with protecting and serving, nationwide communication and the movement of people between communities necessitate a new level of procedural uniformity between police forces.

The fourth reason is perhaps more obvious, and it is this soldier-of-fortunizing of many departmental cultures. Population pressures have for decades required police forces to grow, and that growth has encouraged insular subcultures (that often feel embattled) in larger communities. In smaller communities, the communication culture can create resentment of the expectations of "outsiders," so this subcultural siege mentality is almost inevitable from both directions.

All of this is to say that the model of the autonomous police officer is becoming obsolete, if it isn't already. Until it changes, we are likely to hear more Ferguson stories - and the way to modernize the profession is to consciously move away from the old-school frontier sheriff archetype and more towards the well-oiled machine model. That means more regulations, procedures, expectations of strict adherence, and severe consequences when those expectations are not met.

In other words, militarize.

Now before anyone says anything, of course I realize that there are examples of members of the military also acting in inappropriate, even horrific ways. This is not to say that the military is perfect, and our police challenges would be magically solved if they just act like the military.

I mean, I'm not an idiot (or at least not a complete one).

But as a template... a platform from which the 21st century police paradigm should start, its something to consider.

(Crosspost from the brand spankin new POVt.net.)

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Comment Preferences

  •  rec'd for sidelong reference to that elegant if (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hayate Yagami, Alexandra Lynch

    possibly apocryphal line often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

    Plus, I agree part way.

    Babylon system is the vampire... ~Bob Marley

    by sfinx on Fri Aug 22, 2014 at 08:45:04 PM PDT

  •  Central to military training is learning how to (4+ / 0-)

    kill, and kill efficiently, against an enemy as defined by military command.

    Becoming friendly with the local community, on a long term basis, interferes with that directive.  

    You are much less likely to kill someone whom you empathize with and whose family and living circumstances you know well.

    "Trust me... I've been right before." ~ Tea party patriot

    by Calvino Partigiani on Fri Aug 22, 2014 at 08:45:57 PM PDT

  •  The police had a field day gathering experience in (4+ / 0-)

    how to subdue Americans who were merely protesting, you know, freedom of assembly in the Constitution and we are met with an attempt at Iraqi level solderiing.  But this is why we are Americans and we must educate our police in the rights we hold dear.  Or we will fire all those police who can not and will not respect the Constitution.  Vote and register to vote everywhere in America.

  •  Props for a creative idea (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gramofsam1

    but probably not one I'd recommend.

    If the core problem is that the human beings who wear police uniforms see certain groups in the community as being more dangerous and less deserving of the benefit of the doubt, I'm not sure converting those human beings from police officers to soldiers would be a prudent thing to do.  The uniform might change, but the attitude wouldn't.

  •  Absolutely not. The main thing I learned how to... (4+ / 0-)

    Absolutely not. The main thing I learned how to do in the Army was to lock everything that makes me a decent human being away so as to just follow orders. Right now, what we should be doing is taking guns away from patrol officers. If only special units were allowed to have guns, at least far less people would be killed every year by cops.

  •  asdf... (2+ / 0-)
    But let's consider that camo for a moment. Would the military be so clueless as to send out combatants into an urban context dressed like that? Of course not.
    All of this is to say that the model of the autonomous police officer is becoming obsolete, if it isn't already. Until it changes, we are likely to hear more Ferguson stories - and the way to modernize the profession is to consciously move away from the old-school frontier sheriff archetype and more towards the well-oiled machine model. That means more regulations, procedures, expectations of strict adherence, and severe consequences when those expectations are not met.

    In other words, militarize.

    So, you want the Police Forces to think, train and behave militarily? Ok then. All you need to do is provide them with military grade equipment. Oh, what's that you say? They already have military equipment? Carry on then, I guess.

    Your ideas are intriguing and I'd like to subscribe to your newsletter!

     photo jon-stewart-popcorn_zps4d8c036e.gif

    As private parts to the gods are we, they play with us for their sport. - Black Adder "Chains"

    by Clive all hat no horse Rodeo on Fri Aug 22, 2014 at 10:02:40 PM PDT

  •  Good Point (0+ / 0-)
    So where military combatants are expected to submerge their individual autonomy in service of the mission, police officers see individual autonomy as fundamental to their mission.
    The submergence of the individual in the military means that the mission supersedes the individual to the point that the individual is expected to give his life to accomplish it.

    The police seem to what it both ways.  They hide behind the military look and hardware as more of a defense rather than an offense.  When the Seattle mayor recently made the point that militarization wasn't acceptable the union quickly jumped in that the lack of toys will threaten individual cops lives.  

    I would define the military mission more as the projection of state political policy, usually foreign policy.  They may do it explicitly by blowing up shit and killing people or implicitly through the threat of blowing up shit and killing people.

    The police mission is not to win or even to guard their lives at all cost it is to uphold the law and keep the peace fairly and impartially.  They are not there to project political policy.  They are not there to protect their life at all cost.  They have a right to be reasonably safe but I believe that those who voluntary accept the power of the badge have to accept that risk goes along with it.  Other nations seem to have effective policing without our shoot to kill at the first sign of any threat.  Yet another example of American exceptionalism.    

    I will grant you that there needs to be more uniformity in the system.  If your McDs burger and fries taste the same in NY and CA or is the same no matter the race of the customer, you should expect the laws to be enforced the same in both locations.    

    A bad idea isn't responsible for those who believe it. ---Stephen Cannell

    by YellerDog on Fri Aug 22, 2014 at 11:34:24 PM PDT

    •  why? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Calvino Partigiani
      I will grant you that there needs to be more uniformity in the system.  If your McDs burger and fries taste the same in NY and CA or is the same no matter the race of the customer, you should expect the laws to be enforced the same in both locations.    
      Why should different laws be enforced the same?  Shouldn't the voters in the respective states have something to say in the matter?

      Sounds like more Zero Tolerance Policy bullshit to me.  Yes, our policies are awful, but at least we enforce them consistently.

      Count me out.

  •  matter of semantics (1+ / 0-)

    Basically, the police need better training.  They do not need all the military equipment.   Militarizing the police, even by your definition, would be terrible as it would be very close to a tyrannical form of gov't.  Better training with an emphasis on non lethal force would be better able to address the problem with the police.

    •  I just think thats silly. (0+ / 0-)

      Training them to be more uniform, tightly regulated, and to lose the Judge Dredd/Frontier Sheriff archetype? Seriously, what's the problem? There's a lot of knee-jerk, military=bad stuff going on here.

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