In the monthly e-newsletter for the Justice Department's Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) program, Senior Policy Analyst Karl Bickel sounds the alarm about the militarization of America's domestic police forces. Here's his conclusion:
Police chiefs and sheriffs may want to ask themselves—if after hiring officers in the spirit of adventure, who have been exposed to action oriented police dramas since their youth, and sending them to an academy patterned after a military boot camp, then dressing them in black battle dress uniforms and turning them loose in a subculture steeped in an “us versus them” outlook toward those they serve and protect, while prosecuting the war on crime, war on drugs, and now a war on terrorism—is there any realistic hope of institutionalizing community policing as an operational philosophy?
Given that a number of federal agencies are responsible for incentivizing and providing the hardware for police militarization, it's interesting -- and encouraging - to see a federal agency publish a piece like this. I suppose if there were a federal agency that would publish it, it would be COPS, which promotes a style of policing that's in direct contradiction to the trend Bickel, and I, and others, find troubling.
Community policing should be the antithesis of militarization. It puts cops directly into the community, where they walk beats, attend neighborhood meetings, and know the names of the high school principals and business owners in the areas they serve. The idea is to give the cops a stake in these communities, so they're seen by the communities -- and see themselves -- as citizens protecting and serving other citizens, not enforcers fighting wars on crime, or drugs, or terrorism.
But it's also worth noting that while its aims are certainly noble, the federal COPS program itself has contributed to the problem. It's another example of good intentions not necessarily producing unintended consequences. If you'll permit the indulgence of quoting from my own book:
In 1994 Clinton started a new grant program under the Justice Department called Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. For its inaugural year, Clinton and leaders in Congress (most notably Sen. Joe Biden) funded it with $148.4 million. The next year funding jumped to $1.42 billion, and it stayed in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion through 1999. COPS grants were mostly intended to go to police departments to hire new police officers, ostensibly for the purpose of implementing more community-oriented policing strategies.
The problem was that there was no universal definition of community policing. Most law enforcement officials and academics agree that community policing is a more proactive approach to policing than call-and-response, but within that general agreement is a huge range of approaches.
The style of community policing embraced by officials like [reform oriented police chiefs Nick] Pastore and [Norm] Stamper aims to make police a helpful presence in the community, not an occupying presence. But theirs is not the only way to be proactive about law enforcement. Street sweeps, occupation-like control of neighborhoods, SWAT raids, and aggressive anti-gang policies are also proactive . . .
One of the first to notice what was going on was Portland journalist Paul Richmond. “The unfortunate truth about community policing as it is currently being implemented is that it is anything but community based,” Richmond wrote in a 1997 article for the alternative newspaper PDXS. Instead, he wrote, in Portland the grants had resulted in “increased militarization of the police force.” . . .
[Criminologist Peter] Kraska found that when most law enforcement officials heard “community policing,” they thought of the militarized zero- tolerance model. To them the idea of a police agency simultaneously militarizing and implementing community policing policies was perfectly reasonable.
In fact, two out of three departments Kraska surveyed said their SWAT team was actually part of their community policing strategy. Surprising as that may seem at first glance, it went hand in hand with the increasing use of these tactical teams for routine patrols.
In 2001 a Madison Capital Times investigation found that sixty- five of Wisconsin’s eighty-three local SWAT teams had come into being since 1980—twenty-eight of them since 1996, and sixteen in just the previous year. In other words, more than half of the state’s SWAT teams had popped up since the inaugural year of the COPS program. The newer tactical units had sprung up in absurdly small jurisdictions like Forest County (population 9,950), Mukwonago (7,519), and Rice Lake (8,320). Many of the agents who populated these new SWAT teams, the paper found, had been hired with COPS grants. A local criminologist was incredulous: “Community policing initiatives and stockpiling weapons and grenade launchers are totally incompatible.”
Perhaps that was true in theory, but not in how community policing was being practiced.
All of that said, the COPS program is a favorite of Vice President Biden. (He claims credit for helping to create it.) And re-funding the program was one of Obama's campaign promises in 2008. If the agency has or can get the ear of the White House, perhaps folks like Bickel can convince the Obama administration to end the Pentagon's giveaway of military gear to police departments across the country, cut the DHS grants that go toward purchasing even more military-like gear, or stop the federal grants and asset forfeiture policies that encourage the use of SWAT teams to serve warrants for nonviolent drug crimes.
HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.