Police have come a long way since Andy Griffith. I shudder to think of the destruction poor Barney Fife would cause now with the tactical-grade military gear employed by the police to tamp down on civil unrest – tear gas, IED-resistant trucks, sniper rifles, and so on.
When did the police become the military? When did the American people become the enemy?
Following the American Revolution, the U.S. public didn’t want police departments, for fear they would become an oppressive force. Police departments weren’t formally structured until the mid-1800s, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. Urban riots over squalid working conditions and dismal pay by factory owners generated a fear of the lower classes, and this fear came to outweigh fear of the state.
Across the pond, Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 laid the philosophical foundation for local policing. Peel envisioned police officers existing as individuals within the mainstream citizenry, enforcing the law with as little force as possible.
“The police are the public, and the public are the police,” Peel said. “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, and behavior, and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.”
For more than 100 years, police only armed up in response to better-armed criminals, like Prohibition mobsters and bank robbers like John Dillinger. In the 1960s, police began using military tactics against civilians in the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. SWAT teams were invented in response to highly-armed groups like the Black Panthers and the KKK, as well as incidents like the 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting.
President Lyndon B. Johnson made grants available to local governments, letting them acquire military-grade equipment.
Johnson’s legislation laid the groundwork for the “War on Drugs” that spanned the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Initially, Nixon’s administration funded drug treatment and rehabilitation efforts more than it funded drug policing. However, this emphasis shifted as he sought re-election in 1972, demonizing black people and hippies to curry favor in the South.
Reagan hiked up military responses to address drug activity. In the ‘80s, SWAT teams became the go-to method for drug enforcement. Courts granted search warrants more easily and allowed for no-knock raids and civil forfeitures – confiscating and selling drug dealers’ property to purchase more armaments.
In 1996, the government enacted the 1033 program, which allowed the Department of Defense to give military equipment – from tanks to grenade launchers – to local police. The kicker: The department receiving the equipment had to use the equipment within a year. The Department of Defense has transferred over $5 billion in equipment to local law enforcement since its inception.
The post-9/11 “war on terror” gave law enforcement even more pretense to subvert the rights of its citizens.
The “war” mentality does not work for local policing. It puts protecting and serving in the back seat. It forsakes de-escalation. Furthermore, if an entity only understands itself through the language of war, it will always be in search of an enemy, even if that enemy is the American people.
Police officers are the front line for so many societal ills. They are unequipped to act as social workers, mental health professionals, and other roles demanded by the situations they find themselves in. The “weapons” they need are better training and better community infrastructure that removes some of the load from police officers, infrastructure that supports the myriad and complex problems that citizens face.
The best tool police can have is the public’s trust. But trust is only gained through accountability.