A report said that 20 campus cops at Boston’s Northeastern University are going to be armed with semiautomatic rifles qualifies as distinctly ho-hum news. Or thought of another way, it catches the everyday reality of a country whose police have been up-arming with a kind of passion since 9/11.
In these years, the militarization of the police has taken place amid a striking upsurge of protest over police brutality, abuses, and in particular the endless killing of young black men, as well as a parallel growth in both the powers of and the protections afforded to police officers.
As TomDispatch regular Matthew Harwood, who has been covering the militarization of the police for this site, reports, all of this could easily add up to the building blocks for a developing police-state frame of mind. Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor of the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU. He has more to say:
If you’ve been watching the national news dominated by panic and hysteria over domestic terrorism, including the shutting down of a major urban school system over an outlandish hoax threat of a terror attack, or the recent Republican debate over “national security,” which turned out to mean only “ISIS” and immigration; can there be any question that the way is being paved for institutionalizing a new kind of policing in this country in the name of American security and fear?
If you’ve been listening to various police agencies and their supporters, then you know what the future holds: anarchy is coming – and it’s all the fault of activists.
In May, a Wall Street Journal op-ed warned of a “new nationwide crime wave” thanks to “intense agitation against American police departments” over the previous year. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went further. Talking recently with the host of CBS’s Face the Nation, the Republican presidential hopeful asserted that the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t about reform but something far more sinister. He insisted: “They’ve been chanting in the streets for the murder of police officers”.
Even the nation’s top cop, FBI Director James Comey, weighed in at the University of Chicago Law School, speaking of “a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year.”
According to these figures and others like them, lawlessness has been sweeping the nation as the so-called Ferguson effect spreads. Criminals have been emboldened as police officers are forced to think twice about doing their jobs for fear of the infamy of starring in the next viral video. The police have supposedly become the targets of assassins intoxicated by “anti-cop rhetoric,” just as departments are being stripped of the kind of high-powered equipment they need to protect officers and communities. Even their funding streams have, it’s claimed, come under attack as anti-cop bias has infected Washington, D.C. Senator Ted Cruz caught the spirit of that critique by convening a Senate subcommittee hearing to which he gave the title, “The War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement.”
According to him, the federal government, including the president and attorney general, has been vilifying the police, who are now being treated as if they, not the criminals, were the enemy.
Beyond the storm of commentary and criticism, however, quite a different reality presents itself. In the simplest terms, there is no war on the police. Violent attacks against police officers remain at historic lows, even though approximately 1,000 people have been killed by the police this year nationwide. In just the past few weeks, videos have been released of problematic fatal police shootings in San Francisco and Chicago.
Unfortunately, as the rhetoric ratchets up, many police agencies and organizations in the United States are increasingly resistant to any reforms, forgetting whom they serve and ignoring constitutional limits on what they can do.
Indeed, a closer look at law enforcement arguments against commonsense reforms like independently investigating police violence, demilitarizing police forces, or ending “for-profit policing” reveals a striking disregard for concerns of just about any sort when it comes to brutality and abuse. What this “debate” has revealed, in fact, is a mainstream policing mindset ready to manufacture fear without evidence and promote the belief that American civil rights and liberties are actually an impediment to public safety.
In the end, such law enforcement arguments subvert the very idea that the police are there to serve the community and should be under civilian control.
And that, when you come right down to it, is the logic of the police state.
It’s no mystery why so few police officers are investigated and prosecuted for using excessive force and violating someone’s rights. Local prosecutors rely on local police departments to gather the evidence and testimony they need to successfully prosecute criminals. This makes it hard for them to investigate and prosecute the same police officers in cases of police violence.
Since 2005, according to an analysis by the Washington Post and Bowling Green State University, only 54 officers have been prosecuted nationwide, despite the thousands of fatal shootings by police. As Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green, puts it, “To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way. It also has to be a case that prosecutors are willing to hang their reputation on.”
For many in law enforcement, however, none of this should concern any of us. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order appointing a special prosecutor to investigate police killings, for instance, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, insisted: “Given the many levels of oversight that already exist, both internally in the NYPD, New York Police Department, and externally in many forms, the appointment of a special prosecutor is unnecessary.” Even before the New York Governor’s decision, the chairman of New York’s District Attorneys Association called plans to appoint a special prosecutor for police killings “deeply insulting.”
Such pushback against the very idea of independently investigating police actions has, post-Ferguson, become everyday fare, and some law enforcement leaders have staked out a position significantly beyond that. The police, they clearly believe, should get ‘special’ treatment!
Mullins put forward a legal standard for officers accused of wrongdoing that he would never support for the average citizen – and in a situation in which cops already get what former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson calls “a super presumption of innocence." In addition, police unions in many states have aggressively pushed for their own bills of rights, which make it nearly impossible for police officers to be fired, much less charged with crimes when they violate an individual’s civil rights and liberties.
Put another way, there are two kinds of due process in America – one for cops and another for the rest of the Americans. This is the reason why the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights and civil liberties organizations regularly call on states to create a special prosecutor’s office to launch independent investigations when police seriously injure or kill someone.
As with the US wars abroad, think mission creep at home. A program started to wage the war on drugs, and strengthened after 9/11, is now being justified on the grounds that certain equipment is useful during disasters or emergencies. In reality, the police have clearly become hooked on a militarized look. Many departments are ever more attached to their weapons of war and evidently don’t mind the appearance of being an occupying force in their communities, which leaves groups like the sheriffs’ association fighting fiercely for a militarized future.
The post-Ferguson public clamor demanding better policing continues to get louder across the United States, and yet too many police departments have this to say in response: “Welcome to Cop Land. We make the rules around here.”