Amid America’s largest wave of protests since 1968, it has become painfully apparent that no one has been watching the watchmen.
The carnage of the past three weeks has saturated us with images of grotesque violence and aggression courtesy of America’s finest. Picketers are met with pepper spray, elderly men bleed out on the pavement, and international reporters are arrested on live television. Each new video, shared instantaneously in the age of smartphones and 24-hour news, contributes to the growing cacophony of disorder found on our collective newsfeed. Baby boomers struggle to recall a moment of such manifest disorder in their lifetimes while millennials shudder to imagine what the next month could possibly bring. The fear is palpable.
Now, armed with weapons of war and tasked with maintaining order, American police departments seem, at best, unable to protect the public against the excesses of rioting, and, at worst, actively stoke violence. The friendly neighborhood officer of popular imagination has been replaced by one laden with tactical gear and shrouded by tear gas. Those engaged in America’s most confrontational protests would be forgiven for thinking they are standing up to an occupational force. To the average citizen, modern American policing has become faceless, mechanized and above all, militarized.
The irony of law enforcement’s centrality to this American Guernica has been lost on many. President Donald Trump and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have already called for the deployment of active-duty military personnel to quell riots under the Nixonian pretext of restoring “law and order”. Beyond the latent authoritarianism implicit in such statements, advocating for military intervention in domestic policing exhibits a deep ignorance of the extent to which American police forces have already been thoroughly militarized. Rather than address the now obvious consequences of policing which favors force-projection over crime-reduction, the American leadership is intent on doubling down on its primary cause.
Discrete policy choices made over the past several decades have effectively transformed local law enforcement agencies into small, semi-professional armies. Crime rates have fallen across the country since the 1990s, yet federal programs have continued to allocate ever-growing quantities of military hardware to American police departments with limited impact on crime rates and police safety. The acquisition of military equipment begot the adoption of military training, military tactics, and military organization by local police departments, consequently increasing the number civilians killed every year by police officers.
Since its inclusion in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Defense 1033 Program has allowed the transfer of over $7 billion dollars in military surplus equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Included in these transfers are nearly eighty thousand assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, 422 helicopters and 50 airplanes. MRAP armored vehicles, designed to withstand improvised bombs, rockets and machine gun fire from insurgencies in the Middle East, are among the most commonly requested items. Baltimore County Police Department received nearly three hundred M16 Assault rifles through the 1033 program in 2014 alone. The University of Maryland Police Department has nearly fifty.
Racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri prompted the country’s first genuine reckoning with militarized policing in 2014. Under scrutiny from critics challenging the necessity of military hardware in domestic policing, President Barack Obama curtailed the 1033 program in 2015 with additional restrictions on the type of equipment available to law enforcement agencies. President Trump overturned these restrictions by executive order in 2017, with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing the reversal at a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police union, in Nashville, Tennessee.
It was our failure to internalize the lessons of Ferguson that allowed a relatively localized event like the death of George Floyd to catalyze such a massive social movement. In hindsight, it should have come as no surprise that as law enforcement agencies militarized, those in the line of duty found themselves increasingly alienated from the society they are sworn to protect. The ascendance of the assault rifle in modern policing, coupled with the ubiquity of security cameras, has fomented a prevailing belief among America’s disaffected that the state sees them as potential combatants rather than bonafide citizens. The institution, as it stands now, is on the verge of illegitimacy.
What’s worse, as the country demands decisive leadership to reign in the most malign forces in American policing, the executive branch is empowering state authorities to exceed the already illiberal confines of the law. Minneapolis protesters were surveilled by an M-Q9 Reaper drone owned by the Department of Homeland Security last month – the same weapon system used to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January of this year. Though authorized for domestic use under the purview of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the unmanned vehicle operated far outside of its legal area of operation along the American border.
In what was perhaps the most egregious abuse of power witnessed since the death of George Floyd, security forces around the White House fired tear gas and pepper bullets into a crowd of peaceful protestors gathered in Lafayette Square at the discretion of current Attorney General William Barr. Such measures were, of course, necessary to facilitate the president’s bizarre photo op with an upside-down Bible at St. John’s Church. It is only mildly reassuring that America’s top military brass, among them former “adults in the room” Jim Mattis and John Kelly, roundly spoke out against the President in a rare series of condemnations.
Strict separation between civil authorities and the military is a cherished democratic tradition. It would betray our values to let the already tenuous distinction between the police and the military continue trending towards complete ambiguity. American soldiers are not police. They should not adopt this role in Kabul, let alone Washington D.C. But more important to this historical moment, we must be resolute in asserting that our police cannot be soldiers. The tools, tactics, culture and protocols designed to combat America’s enemies must never be used to exert control over its citizens at the behest of the government. A law enforcement agency becomes nothing more than an internal security racket when it protects the whims of a callous executive over republican virtue.
Being the only institution with the legitimate right to use lethal force against American citizens, America’s law enforcement agencies hold a sacred duty in the anatomy of the republic. But with Americans more concerned about police brutality than rioting, it is clear that the country’s police departments have become divorced from their most basic purpose: protecting the security of American citizens and upholding the rule of law. Perhaps the most obvious lesson of the recent unrest is that we, as a society, have neglected to calibrate just how this right of force ought to be used so as to remain in accordance with our ideals.
Force projection, intimidation, and preemption are not the guiding principles of a healthy social order. When we treat them as such, military hardware inevitably becomes a means to stoke unrest rather than quell it.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.