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The Thin Blue Line, and its Alarming Shades of Green. Part 1
Here to protect and serve, but who? and against what?
Why does the sheriff in my little town need an MRAP? Why does the nearby state police barracks (yes, its called a barracks) need an APC with a mounted machine gun? Why do they have more fully automatic rifles than employees? Why do they carry combat shotguns and flashbang grenades on patrol? Why do they turn out in full riot gear for political rallies and protests? Why does a town in rural Pennsylvania need equipment that was designed for use in occupying warzones in Afghanistan and Iraq? "Just in case" is the answer you see small town sheriffs and chiefs of police giving all over the country, but just in case of what? Don't we have the National Guard "just in case" there's a massive violent uprising somewhere on our soil? What the hell is going on?
The 1033 program, part of the 1997 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), gave local police forces like the one in my little town access to our Armed Forces' surplus equipment. It is the legal grounds for communities like mine to spend tax dollars on equipment which was originally designed for the express purpose of occupying enemy territory. Since it was passed, this program has been used to transfer more than five billion dollars worth of equipment; weapons and armor, vehicles and aircraft, to local police agencies. In 2015, President Obama issued an Executive Order limiting the types of equipment that would be made available. Under this order, combat aircraft, 'tracked' vehicles (like tanks), grenade launchers and bayonets would no longer be part of the exchange, but due to recent turmoil the administration has considered lifting these restrictions.
So lets get this straight, police brutality has driven people to the point of randomly murdering police and the response is to give them better means to commit acts of brutality? I'm not in law enforcement, and I'm not a politician, but that seems counterintuitive to me. Granted this is a multi-faceted issue, and of course we want our law enforcement officials to be able to deal with threats, but in what case can you imagine a local police force needing an M1A1 Abrams tank? Under what circumstances would a town cop need a fully automatic assault rifle with drum magazines holding 200+ rounds and an M203 40mm high-explosive grenade launcher attached? Am I missing something?
Enough about the ordinance for a minute. You would think there was an ungodly hellstorm of rampant violence sweeping the nation if our police need this stuff to begin with, right? Well, that's not exactly the case. According to FBI crime statistics, violent crime (murder, rape, assault, kidnapping, etc) is occurring at the lowest rates since WWII for several years running, and the number of police KIA has been on a steady decline for twenty years, even including the recent rash of violence against police despite what you may have heard from Donald Trump during his RNC nomination acceptance speech. Now, on the flipside of this, Police involved shootings are at a 40 year high according to "The Guardian's the Counted". The FBI incredibly does not require local police agencies to report police shootings to any national database. Infact, there is no official national database compiling statistics on these types of incidents, so we're left to rely on statistics that are very likely omitting a good number of them. Police would have you believe there's a "war on cops", but if there's a war on involving the police, the information available suggests they're winning by a very wide margin.
According to the FBI database, 41 police officers were "feloniously killed" in the line of duty in 2015, down from 51 the previous year in keeping with a steady decline (with exceptions) for more than twenty years. However, last year alone and even with only self-reporting by police agencies to rely on, 986 people we're killed by the police in 2015, a full third of whom were later determined to be unarmed and/or mentally ill. These statistics are just a google search away, yet somehow there seems to be a debate as to whether or not the police are often too quick to escalate already volatile situations to fatal violence.
This is likely a result of a near complete lack of accountability for erroneous or excessive use of force by cops. Of the thousands of police involved shooting since 2005 (yes, thousands) in which a criminal complaint was filed by the family of the victim, as of April '15 (see the Washington Post) only 54 officers had actually been charged, even fewer convicted. This is likely due to the fact that there is no independent investigation when these incidents occur. Departments involved in shootings are not just allowed, but required to investigate their own officers. To a layman like myself, this seems a clear conflict of interest and I've heard no argument to dissuade me of this opinion. I've only mentioned shootings too, there are an unbelievable number of complaints of excessive force, tens of thousands, every year which result in zero criminal action against the accused officer, despite that in many cases officers have multiple, in some cases dozens of complaints against them. During these internal investigations officers are often placed on paid administrative leave or given different assignments. If when you made a mistake at work the penalty was paid vacation or a lighter workload, would you make any effort to improve your performance?
Tomorrow I will publish, at the editor's pleasure, part two of this article, which will focus on the concept of the warrior cop, lauded by police as empowering, but resulting in widespread fear of and violence against them. Join me then, and thanks for reading.