Last week, police in the small town of Moundsville, West Virginia received a military vehicle designed to withstand mines. The Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle was given to the town (population 9,318 in the 2010 census) by the federal government as part of the “1033 program,” which distributes surplus military gear to local law enforcement agencies.
As we engage in a national dialog about reforming police, we should ask not only why a small town with two murders since 2005 would need such a vehicle, but how such military gear and tactics affect who chooses to become a police officer. De-militarizing our police should not only be about taking away gear that is too often used to conduct violent raids on nonviolent suspects; it should also be about reforming the mindset, held by too many officers, that they are soldiers going to war against their fellow citizens.
After the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, the militarization of police became a rightful object of criticism and concern. Why do our police increasingly look like soldiers in a warzone? Why do police average around 124 SWAT raids per day, nationwide, at a time when crime has dropped to rates that haven’t been seen since the 60s? Why do so many cops seem willing to commit casual acts of violence even when they’re being filmed, as is being documented in an ongoing Twitter thread from criminal defense attorney T. Greg Doucette? (RELATED: Poll: Nearly Half Of Americans Think Police Violence Is A ‘Very’ Or ‘Extremely’ Serious Problem)
Today’s idea of a police officer is no longer the whistling, baton-twirling officer who will assist an old lady with her groceries and help little Timmy find his stolen bike. While such things still happen around the country, and there are many neighborly cops around, the image of policing has drastically changed. That image is what matters, because it’s what many prospective cops have in their head when they decide to pursue this career.
A shocking recruitment video produced by the SWAT team of Hobbs, New Mexico (population 33,405 in the 2010 census) highlights the problem. Over a grinding metal soundtrack, police are shown undergoing military training, practicing with assault rifles, throwing grenades, traveling in armored vehicles, training as snipers, and much more. Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the video is the first line, “The rules of engagement of SWAT are simple: Defeat the enemy . . . any way you can.” The video clearly implies, “join the police if you want to break down doors and bust some heads.”
While there are exceptional times when such weapons and tactics might be required, a police department should consider it an achievement if military weapons and tactics are never used. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true, as police around the country continually use military-style raids, mostly to serve search warrants for drugs. Perhaps that’s not surprising if many police officers start complaining “what the hell? I was told I could throw grenades, break down doors, and bash heads, not find some kid’s stolen bike.” (RELATED: Here’s Why Bad Cops Aren’t Held Accountable)
The Hobbs video, and many more like it, also highlight a more general problem of police often being tone deaf to the messages they convey. For example, during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, a police officer—who had evidently come to the city to help with crowd control—was photographed wearing a shirt with a menacing, baton-wielding cop hovering over the Denver skyline with the words “we get up early to beat the crowds, 2008 DNC.” This stunning endorsement of casual violence has shown up in other places, including on a shirt commemorating the 2012 NATO summit.
All of this points to a crucial aspect of policing that is difficult to reform: department culture. Some departments are paragons of honor and duty. New recruits are socialized into a system of accountability and respect for citizens’ rights. Far too many departments, however, are beset with the warrior cop mentality (to borrow a phrase from the Washington Post’s Radley Balko, whose book The Rise of the Warrior Cop is the definitive text on this issue). In those departments, officers will high-five a colleague for wearing the “we get up early…” shirt and ask where they can get one for themselves.
Rolling back our militarized police forces won’t be easy. While ending the distribution of dangerous military gear to local police is a good idea, we will also have to deal with the gear that is already out there. There are 1,098 MRAPs currently distributed to local law enforcement, according to records from the Defense Logistics Agency that administers the 1033 program. Additionally, there are myriad of assault rifles, grenade launchers, tactical body armor, and much more. Moreover, even without the 1033 program, police can and do acquire military gear on their own. (RELATED: How President Bill Clinton Helped Militarize American Police Departments)
Local governments can limit police acquisitions of military gear, but they will have to go through the police unions, which can hold a lot of power, especially on the local level. Yet given the current fervor for police reform, it may be possible to overcome the unions. One possibility is to push for further transparency. We know surprisingly little about when, how, and why militarized raids are used. Local jurisdictions, as well as the state and the federal governments, should push for laws that require police to extensively report the nature and justifications for such raids.
Increased transparency would be a sign of progress, but unfortunately it won’t do much to reform departments with entrenched cultures of unaccountability and casual violence. Fixing those issues will require a deeper look at the type of people who choose to become cops in the first place.
Trevor Burrus is editor in chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review and co-host of the weekly podcast “Free Thoughts,” from libertarianism.org.
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