The Danger to Civil Society Posed by Militarized Police

Watching events in my hometown of St. Louis over the past few days has sickened me even though there is quite of lot of sickening things happening in the world. St. Louis isn’t a bad city but it is an American city and what we are seeing there can be extrapolated all too easily throughout the country.

For those unfamiliar with the area what is known as St. Louis is really more accurately called the St. Louis metropolitan area encompassing the city of St. Louis and the surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois for a total population of about 2.5 million people. St. Louis county is politically separate from the St. Louis City and is composed of 91 municipalities and 9 unincorporated census-designated places. Many of those municipalities lack their own police forces and have agreements with the county to provide police and fire services, but many also do not. Anyone who has lived in the area quickly learns the speed traps run by police forces like Charlack (population 1,413) and Bella Villa (687 ), the latter even providing a link to online payment of traffic tickets. Locals soon learn where to speed and where to run a mile or two an hour below the speed limit to avoid being pulled over. Outsiders and those traveling through lack this knowledge and so get fleeced.

Ferguson is one of St. Louis county’s moderately sized municipalities of 22,000 people, and it has its own police force as you may no doubt already know. Having grown up in the area it was common knowledge that the best cops were the city and county cops because they were more experienced and professional. Being a teen meant that I was pulled over a lot growing up in the area, and I understand why and don’t really resent it. County and city cops never hassled me unlike the smaller municipality cops, and when they were needed the county and city cops were the ones who knew how to investigate crimes or handle bad situations. There is a basic reason for this: experience. Small municipal cops may know how to issue a ticket but they won’t know how to investigate a murder because such crimes rarely occur in these areas. In most such cases the county would be brought in to do the heavy lifting, but I always believed citizen safety and well-being would have been much better had the county cops done all the policing in the county instead of just the unincorporated areas or the ones with municipal agreements. Of course size is no guarantee of professionalism, just witness the troubles of the LA Police Department, but Michael Brown’s chances would have been better with a county cop than one of Ferguson’s finest.

I don’t know what happened that day. Messing with an armed cop always seemed suicidal to me.  He may not have been in his right mind, drunk or on drugs and felt invulnerable. I understand that, having done stupid things myself while under the influence. But I also understand that wearing a badge can make some cops feel like Judge Dredd and have seen cops act in a way while wearing a badge that they wouldn’t without one. Add a gun and its sanctioned use by Society and the mix can prove to be a volatile cocktail too powerful for some.

He may not have attacked the cop at all, and even if he did reports that he was shot while running away scare me because as a gun owner I know the laws and the limits of self-defense usage of a firearm. Even if I had been attacked by an unarmed Brown, if I had shot him while he was running away I would be charged with murder. Stand your ground does not apply when your attacker is fleeing, and while the Stand Your Ground laws don’t apply to the police, other laws do.

Writing in Time Magazine Senator Rand Paul discusses another aspect of this case: the militarization of the police. He quotes Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennesee who has been writing about the attitude changes among the US domestic police forces from a force protecting the people to an occupation force. Reynolds notes, ‘Dress like a soldier and you think you’re at war. And, in wartime, civil liberties—or possible innocence—of the people on “the other side” don’t come up much. But the police aren’t at war with the citizens they serve, or at least they’re not supposed to be.” Rand also quotes Walter Olson from the Cato Institute, “Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors?... Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?”

Paul ends the must-read piece,

The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.

Americans must never sacrifice their liberty for an illusive and dangerous, or false, security. This has been a cause I have championed for years, and one that is at a near-crisis point in our country.

Libertarians have been warning about the militarization of the police for years. In 2006 Radley Balko warned in his book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America that the most common use of SWAT teams was the serving of narcotics warrants. As a reminder these are non-violent offenses. Balko writes, “These increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers. These raids bring unnecessary violence and provocation to nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were guilty of only misdemeanors. The raids terrorize innocents when police mistakenly target the wrong residence. And they have resulted in dozens of needless deaths and injuries, not only of drug offenders, but also of police officers, children, bystanders, and innocent suspects.” The Glenn Reynolds piece that Paul quotes above was written in 2009. While their conservative allies may squirm as they question the legality of an increasingly militarized police, they should appreciate the danger to the Constitution.

The police are supposed to be guardians of the community they live in not foreign occupiers. It is time we rehumanized the police and returned them to the task of watching over the people instead of watching the people. Perhaps the killing of Michael Brown will start us down a new path that leads to a more peaceful and free society instead of the violent nightmare of the path we are on.

Update: Military vets sound off on the paramilitary tactics here.

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3 Comments

  1. Granny Grunch:

    The ME findings are going to be make or break for the policeman. Entry wounds in the back? Bad for him. Entry wounds in front that angle down after entry? Bad. Hopefully,when the investigation is complete, there may be info that will surprise everyone,(at least those with a modicum of intelligence) I do suspect that society is better off with the absence of Big Mickry.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    Two wrongs may not make a right but they do highlight a problem in our society. Last I checked walking in the middle of the street isn’t an offense punished by death. While I believe Michael Brown was no saint, I am concerned about a police force that doesn’t know how to police. Either they shoot to kill or they step back and watch the city burn. I suppose that’s what separates me from my liberal friends. I don’t paint Brown out to be a saint and I don’t blame a “racist society” for his death. Instead I blame cops who have become hypermilitarized and view their fellow Americans the same way US Marines viewed Iraqis in Fallujah.

    I was a teenaged boy once and am the parent of one today. Teenage boys do stupid s**t all the time, and police need to recognize the difference between a teenage boy doing stupid s**t and one high on PCP shooting up the neighborhood. In Brown’s case he clearly fell into the former category, but the cop didn’t get that. Hence the rain of bullets.

  3. The Razor » Blog Archive » Council Submissions: August 20, 2014:

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