An unprecedented 95 percent of Americans favor criminal justice reforms that include police reforms. The National Opinion Research Center (“NORC”) at the University of Chicago found in its report released on June 23, 2020, that Americans support having specific standards for the use of force by the police. These standards include prosecution of officers who use excessive force, mandatory use of police body cameras, and compulsory disclosure of officer misconduct.
But the NORC poll found divergent views on one of the most—if not the most—important issues encompassing policing in this country: whether the police are too militarized. Americans diverge on whether there is a need to curtail the use of military equipment in carrying out their pledged duty to “protect and serve” the community.
In 2015 and again in 2018, we discussed (here and here) at length the increasing dangers inherent in the militarization of the nation’s police forces.
Growing Tension Expected
In our 2015 piece, we observed:
“Our militarized law enforcement has actually been created to respond to in-border threats—violent gangs, social unrest, and, yes, even minor civil disobedience. The problem is that cops are not trained by military combatants. Thus, unfortunately, because law enforcement is not always professionally trained or because they collectively see power of the badge as a shield against black fear, the country is increasingly witnessing unnecessary (and sometimes criminal) lethal responses from our white law enforcement officers against black people.”
Eight Minutes and Forty-Six Seconds, Powder Keg Explodes
The George Floyd protests today across the country underscore this observation made four years ago. The nation has been sitting on a George Floyd powder keg for the past decade. That keg exploded with full velocity on May 28, 2020, when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, effectively smothering him to death.
In our 2018 piece, we warned that the powder keg was dangerously close to exploding:
“The current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, considers the militarized police forces as his own private army that should quell all civil disobedience against him and labels journalists the’ enemy of the people’ for exposing his corruption, his betrayals of the nation’s national security interests, and his proclivity for maintaining ‘enemies’ lists.’ The President and his loyalists recognize only one amendment to the Constitution: the Second Amendment. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer steadfastly believes he is “above the rule of law” and thereby sets the example for all of the nation’s militarized police to follow: the right to kill at will.
“This nation has entered unprecedented dangerous, perilous times when the very rule of law and its democratic institutions are at risk. The President’s verbal assaults on the First Amendment and the physical assaults on the amendment by the militarized police threaten the very democratic fabric that has held this nation together for past 227 years—all in the name of ‘make America great again.'”
Military Response to Constitutionally Protected Free Speech
This warning was realized on June 1, 2020, when the Attorney General of these United States of America, William P. Barr, assumed military command of the U.S. Park Police, the Secret Service, national guard troops, and a rag-tag unidentified quasi-government militia to drive, with brutal force, protestors from Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. The military assault on demonstrators was initiated for the President to stage a cheap “military strongman” photo-op in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church.
And therein lies the dangerous clog in the artery, behind which a critical pressure is building.
Republicans, and to a lesser extent Independents, have no problem with militarized police forces. They see it as an integral component of “law-and-order”—a political agenda pushed fifty years ago by racist Republican President Richard M. Nixon and his cohort in political racism, independent presidential candidate, and avowed segregationist, George Wallace.
Law and Order Drum Beat by Politicians of Both Parties
In succession, three presidents—Ronald Reagan (R-CA), George H.W. Bush (R-TX), and Bill Clinton (D-AK)—beat the “law-and-order” political drums for two decades. This political rally bestowed upon the nation’s police increased numbers, greater power, increased immunity from misconduct, and escalating militarized policing authority and equipment. To ensure increased federal funding and donations of war-like equipment from the military, the police had to increase arrests, engage in excessive force, and resort to unlawful “no-knock” military-like raids. To keep the department budgets well-funded, law enforcement agents needed to frame hundreds of thousands of people of color with manufactured evidence, perjury in courtrooms, and suppression of exculpatory evidence.
Vast Majority Supports Police Reform
Today, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, 95 percent of Americans, including some Republican lawmakers, favor reforms like recruiting and training more professional police officers, mandatory use of body cams, and higher command authorization no-knock raids, and improved data collection on police actions.
Police departments in Houston, Dallas and Austin are struggling with which reforms to undertake. We support these “baby-step” reform efforts, but at the end of the day, they will not change the now deeply rooted militarized mindset in policing across the country. This military mindset must be completely scrubbed from policing before any meaningful reform discussion can take place.
Protect and Serve
There already exists a military to defend this nation against foreign adversaries and a national guard to respond to social disasters. Neither of these national security functions has anything to do with policing. The police have a public identity and institutional purpose: protect and serve. There is a growing debate about what “protect and serve” entails, and what powers and associated funding should be removed from policing.
There is no place in our communities, especially in those marginalized by racism and intentional economic deprivation, for “military police.” But as long the President of the United States demands a military response to civil disobedience and the attorney general of the United States struts around in military fatigues, there is little hope that meaningful police reforms will be realized in this country without continue and massive public outcry.