Like everyone else, I watch in horror as our law enforcement agencies and officers become embroiled in the seemingly widespread and very divisive racial violence.
As we watch, we must always keep in mind that not all law enforcement agencies behave in an unprofessional, community-crippling manner.
However! I believe there is indeed an “undercurrent” within the nation’s law enforcement culture which is gradually undermining their objectives and even their perceptions; which should be focused upon community service and protection.
There may be some readers here too young to remember a seemingly benign, even necessary event; the appearance of special police department units – SWAT.
In 1971, a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, John Nelson, presented an idea to a then young law enforcement inspector, also with the Los Angeles Police Department, Darrel Gates, with an idea designed to address security issues for police department personnel and citizens during periods of social unrest.
A special unit – Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) was born.
I remember the event well; I thought then, as I do now, that it was a good and very necessary idea, whose timely birth in an era of highly-charged, often politically-motivated, always violent criminal activity, was very beneficial to address a specific need.
Relying upon military tactics, equipment, and even requiring military background for those members of the LAPD’s new SWAT teams, the command structure, persona, appearance, and behavior, which had not previously been used to such a degree in police departments, became the strategy of these new teams.
Redirected towards a form of urban warfare, these new and highly effective teams began to take hold, in Hollywood and among other police departments.
However! As with all organizational changes, be they beneficial, or destructive, a change is analogous to dropping and apple core on very fertile soil – the seeds contained within will, almost always, sprout a new apple tree; whether or not we want the apple tree.
And the United States has become a massive apple orchard, full of, not only SWAT teams, but military tactics, equipment and appearance; which brings me to my concern:
The militarization of our police departments.
Failing to take some dynamics into consideration, we have an orchard full of an entirely new species of apples.
In the short span of forty-four years, police departments across the nation have changed their tactics, appearance, equipment and quite possibly, their overall philosophy and attitude towards the communities they are charged with serving and protecting.
In a perfect storm of mission creep and group dynamics, the once rare appearance of police officers clad in camouflage BDUs, riding on added rails of and within armored vehicles loaded with assault weapons, explosives, flash-bang grenades and launchers are all commonplace now, including surplus Humvees and heavy weaponry in the streets of our communities
Don’t get me wrong; I am very much in favor of large police departments having some good equipment – for very specific details requiring a measure of safety and aggression necessary for very dangerous scenarios.
However! What began as an excellent idea for very specific scenarios has evolved, as we should have expected, given the psychology/behavior of all groups.
Of course, racism is the underlying issue, but there are two other very obvious aspects to the scenarios we’re seeing unfold on our tubes and our PCs now.
WE ARE GROUP ORIENTED ANIMALS
We all succumb to group behavior; it’s both innate and inevitable. From “fighting for your team” in high school, to “standing up” for your political party as adults, we follow a very basic, even primal need to gather in groups for survival, and we become an integral component of that group, protecting it against all intruders, or threats; even, at times, at the expense of our lives.
Let’s apply that primal nature to our new police departments and we have a group – a brotherhood of blue, so to speak, and the nature of that group will be, as with all groups, to ensure survival; of the group and the individuals alike.
WE’VE ADOPTED A MILITARY LIFESTYLE
We have all experienced the discomfort of transitioning from one job to another. It’s not a particularly enjoyable transition for many, but that discomfort is in fact a positive force in learning our new jobs and surroundings, for we must abandon the old to adopt the new.
Yet, alongside the surplus equipment, military personnel too make ideal candidates for law enforcement, having many of the prerequisites for the job:
- Physical abilities/conditioning
- Firearms training
- Leadership experience
- Combat experience
- Respect for discipline and authority
- Experience working with/in culturally/ethnically diverse groups
And they move to new surroundings with their old, familiar comfort levels. As our departments hire military personnel transitioning to civilian jobs, then adopt surplus military equipment, tactics and strategies, uniforms and firearms, our solider police officers will certainly transition well and bring with them that same strong sense of belonging and comfort they learned so well in their previous jobs.
And I wonder too; have we inadvertently transitioned another very strong aspect of our finely-tuned military – to effectively search out and destroy the enemy?
Are our communities now at risk of being the “others,” the “enemy?”
Have we created a scenario in which our law enforcement officers find themselves with an “us vs them” perception of their job in which those “soldiers” view all those people “outside their group” – you and me, as the outsider; even the enemy they are trained to seek out?
The vast majority of our police officers are awesome, competent, and loyal public servants; quality human beings, for whom I have very deep respect, and who understand their jobs and fulfill their responsibilities with distinction, wand absent the despicable racism we see in those who are making the news today.
However, can we honestly expect anything less than those same groups adopting the very mentality that makes a soldier a good solider, trained for nothing less than to seek out and destroy the enemy?
Especially when we make their new environment identical to their old environment by gathering hoards of surplus military equipment and adopting military tactics, command structure, etc.?
More than simply focusing on individual police officers, there are many questions that need answers and concerns in system-wide standards, both in racial profiling and overall strategy; now that we’ve tossed the apple core on the ground.