The neighborhood military force

Cultural trends: the militarization of the civil police. Radley Balkio describes the problem at the Huffington Post.

Dress cops up as soldiers, give them military equipment, train them in military tactics, tell them they’re fighting a “war,” and the consequences are predictable.

Police militarization is now an ingrained part of American culture. SWAT teams are featured in countless cop reality shows, and wrong-door raids are the subject of “The Simpsons” bits and search engine commercials. Tough-on-crime sheriffs now sport tanks and hardware more equipped for battle in a war zone than policing city streets. Seemingly benign agencies such as state alcohol control boards and the federal Department of Education can now enforce laws and regulations not with fines and clipboards, but with volatile raids by paramilitary police teams.

It is the war on drugs that Balkio uses as a cause for this phenomena but the Dirty Harry movies might provide a better clue. The violent revolutionary groups that were an outgrowth of the 60’s civil protests raised the stakes in matters of civil order. Police became targets for violence. SWAT teams were one defensive response to that threat. The violence and crime associated with major drug traffic has just carried this forward and provided a means to rationalize ever more extreme police measures.

The police side of the effort does not stand alone, however. The prosecutorial side also has its problems as can be seen running from the recent revelations about abuse in the Alaksa Ted Stevens trial, the Holder Justice Department voter intimidation response, and the Fast and Furious scandal.

There was a time when the level of force governments chose to use in response to a threat was commensurate with the severity of the threat. From the inception of the SWAT team in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, paramilitary police units were generally only deployed when someone posed an immediate and violent threat to others — incidents like hostage situations, bank robberies, riots or escaped fugitives.

Today, SWAT teams are routinely deployed against people who pose little to no threat at all.

Where Balkio reveals his bias, and that of the HuffPo, is when he inserts the recent OWS pepper spray incident into his list of illustrations. That incident gained so much attention because videos made it appear that the police were casual about the use of pepper spray on defenseless protesters. While that was misleading, it also contradicts Balkio’s thesis in that it illustrated police restraint. In old times, it would have been batons and force used to arrest and remove the protesters.

Perhaps such a confusion between SWAT teams with violent home invasions and the removal of illegal protesters is one reason that the problem has grown to its current status. The inability to make appropriate distinctions can lead one astray.

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