Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Policing as Counterinsurgency

By John Moser
A few weeks back my wife and I visited the charming little college town of Delaware, Ohio. Delaware is about 35 miles from Columbus, and is home to Ohio Wesleyan University, as well as a collection of fine restaurants and even a microbrewery. We had chosen a good night to go, because there was a local street fair, and the town was alive with booths from local businesses and civic organizations. The Delaware police were there, too.

And they brought with them their new toy, a big black armored vehicle called an MRAP. That stands for mine-resistant, ambush-protected.

One might wonder why Delaware, with fewer than 36,000 residents, has need of such a vehicle. Is the local constabulary really that worried about mines or ambushes?

But of course this development is hardly unique to Delaware. For the last ten years the Department of Defense has been providing local police forces across the country with military hardware at cut rate prices. Delaware paid only $2,600 for its MRAP, which ordinarily sells for some $700,000.

However, this is part of a trend that goes back even farther than that. As libertarian journalist Radley Balko points out in his excellent book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, it began with the creation of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in the 1960s. These paramilitary units originally tended to exist only in the largest cities, and used in highly specialized situations such as hostage standoffs, but they have since become ubiquitous. As late as the 1980s only about a quarter of cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 possessed them. By 2005 80 percent of towns that size had them. Today they are most commonly used in drug raids, such as the one in Georgia earlier this year in which a toddler was severely burned by a flash grenade.

That this should be true is puzzling. It has been claimed that the militarization of police forces is a necessary response to rising violence in America’s cities. However, the statistics do not bear this out. Violent crimes are at their lowest level since the 1960s. Some have put forward the argument that the proliferation of powerful weapons among the general public has made life more dangerous for police officers, necessitating military-style arms and equipment to redress the balance. But in 2013 only 100 cops were killed in the line of duty (and the number becomes one smaller when those who died in automobile accidents are factored out)—a lower figure than at any time since 1944. (The high point for police fatalities came in the 1920s and early 1930s, when at least 200 officers died in the line of duty every year.)

The militarization of our police forces should worry all of us as citizens. Increasingly the line is being blurred between traditional policing and tactics that resemble those used by U.S. forces in counterinsurgency operations abroad. Indeed, some have claimed that soldiers in Afghanistan are forced follow stricter rules of engagement than police have observed in Ferguson, Missouri.

This is a troubling sign for our republic, as the tasks of policing and counterinsurgency are—or at least should be—very different. Traditional policing assumes that the vast majority of citizens are law-abiding and need to be protected from a small handful of malefactors. Those fighting a counterinsurgency, by contrast, must assume that they are surrounded by enemies in their population. Counterinsurgent forces quickly grow to view entire populations as the enemy; all too often a “kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out” mentality can develop. 
Many in the African-American community are convinced that this attitude already exists, as seen in the large number of unarmed black men who have been shot and killed by police in recent months. The racial element to these shootings is one that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, but the demilitarization of America’s police forces would be a solid step in the right direction.  

John Moser is professor of history at Ashland University.

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