Monday, August 25, 2014

Does Ferguson Reflect a Trend Towards Police Militarization?

For about the past couple of weeks, there has been civil unrest in the city of Ferguson, MO over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American male who was shot six times by a police officer. I don't want to get into the racial aspect, get into the particulars of the charges filed against the police officer, or ask why the result was rioting and looting, even though there are about 400 justifiable homicides committed by police every year. What I have found most interesting about the situation is the reaction of the local government: bringing in the National Guard, mandating curfews, arresting journalists, heavily-armed SWAT teams roaming the streets. The Founding Fathers are probably rolling in their graves right now because this was the sort of thing they wanted to prevent from happening. Without exaggeration, it sounds like the description of a totalitarian county. Not that I'm a fan of Amnesty of International (AI) because of its anti-Israel bias, but maybe it should say something if things are bad enough where even Amnesty International felt that the Ferguson unrest merited a dispatching of AI delegates in America for the first time in its history. This leads to an important question: Is Ferguson an example of how militarized our local police forces have become, or is Ferguson merely an outlier that the media has hyper-sensationalized for the purposes of attracting more viewers that has no bearing on civil liberties?

"Protect and serve." That is what most people expect from their police force: to be a force of good, to catch the bad guys, and to make sure that crime is kept at a minimum. For much of American history, local police forces did not have such advanced equipment as where they can pull off 50,000 SWAT raids per annum. John Oliver's video below (start at 6:59) humorously illustrates how Ferguson is an example of increased militarization of local police forces. Just how bad has police militarization become?

If you need somewhere to start, the Cato Institute has a National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, and also has been tracking botched paramilitary police raids since 1985. Even prominent conservatives have wondered (e.g., Mark Steyn, Heritage Foundation) if police forces have gotten out of hand these days, if that says anything. What really started the militarization was when Congress passed the 1033 program back in 1997, which allows for the Department of Defense to freely transfer excess DoD property to local and state police. The amount of military equipment that the police have stockpiled as a result has been alarming. 9-11 didn't help either because the "war on terrorism" allowed for state governments to receive at least $34B in federal government grants to purchase military equipment to fight the "war on terror." So on top of fighting a war on terror, you also have police fighting a war on drugs while encouraging a "tough on crime" mentality? Should it be a surprise that police have increasingly developed the mentality of a solider or a warrior? Should it be a surprised that the ACLU found in its study on excessive police militarization that 80 percent of SWAT raids are conducted merely for search warrants, or that vast majority of raids do not have weapons when the police think there are? Should we need more militarization when the rate of police fatalities and assaults have been on the decline since before 1997?

People are realizing what libertarians have been saying for many years: the police have become way too militarized, especially in a country that is supposed to respect civil liberties. Granted, it's nice to see that every city in America does not have such a police force and that even this rioting in Ferguson is not as bad as the rioting of the 1960s. However, I'm sure for those who appreciate their liberty and civil rights, one of the last things we would want to see is the unrest in Ferguson become the norm in American policing.

What can be done to reverse this perturbing trend? First, stop the federal funding that allows for this to take place because federal subsidies artificially increase supply of military goods, thereby distorting the market. In his 2012 report, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) points out the wasteful spending that is done in the name of national security. As for the equipment that they already have, we should work on taking away some of the equipment to offset the excess supply that was created in the first place. We can constraint the law enforcement's usage of SWAT raids, require police officers to wear body cameras, or increase the transparency of data collection on SWAT raids to keep local police accountable. Even with removal of equipment, the police culture will have to change. Instead of being an isolated force, police officers should work on being a part of the communities they serve. We can also eliminate techniques like stop-and-frisk or even stop the War on Drugs altogether. As the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy shows, there are better ways to police than with reactionary police enforcement. A few bad apples, overt militarization, and inferior policing techniques should not prevent necessary policing reform that will help protect and serve our citizenry, not intimidate them.

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