Militarization: When the Extraordinary Becomes Ordinary
Part of a human rights conversation on international Blog Action Day
Posted Oct 16, 2013
In line with the human rights theme of this year's Blog Action Day,* let me share four brief anecdotes. They may seem unrelated but, ultimately, they do connect. I promise.
#1: Cheye Calvo, mayor of the small town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, was in his bedroom one night, changing clothes for a meeting. His mother-in-law was in the kitchen, cooking a tomato-artichoke sauce. Suddenly, Calvo heard an explosion and the sound of gunfire. Heavily-armed men clad in black burst into the house. He saw his mother-in-law lying face-down on the kitchen floor at gunpoint. His two beloved black Labradors lay dead in pools of blood. Clad only his boxer shorts, the mayor was bound and forced to kneel on the floor. This was it, he thought. He was about to be executed, but he knew not why.
* * * * *
#2: In the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, an alert neighbor observed a man forcing a woman into her apartment. Police were called. They burst in and found the woman in handcuffs, a man hiding in her closet with rope and two pairs of women's panties in his backpack. Daryl Thomas was a resident of the neighborhood, a husband and a father, and a computer system manager for a Manhattan law firm. When questioned by Senior Detective Harold Hernandez, he was forthcoming. No, this was not his first sexual assault; he had committed seven or eight similar attacks in the neighborhood in recent months. Yes, he was willing to show police the precise locations. The detective had one major problem: He was unaware of any serial rape spree in the 33rd precinct. If the victims had reported the crimes, the Manhattan Special Victims Unit would have notified the precinct of the pattern, so police could be on the lookout for a suspect matching Thomas’s description.
* * * * *
So what's the connection?
All four anecdotes relate to an insiduous shift in U.S. policing over the past few decades, toward greater and greater militarization.
The emergence of SWAT
The raid on the home of Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland (Anecdote 1), was a victim of one such raid. Mistaken drug raids are far from rare. The judiciary's progressive weakening of checks and balances in regard to warrants and searches has fostered a police culture in which "extraordinary violence" is meted out with impunity. The shooting of dogs "at the slightest provocation," Balko writes, is part of a larger problem of an us-against-them "battlefield mentality" in which many police see the citizenry as the enemy.
Allure of the techno-warrior
As this quote implies, SWAT raids—conducted hundreds of times per year in cities large and small—foster a masculine culture of violence and a worship of a "techno-warrior" image of policing. SWAT raids are the ultimate in power, an adrenaline rush that is quickly habit-forming. Recruitment videos that emphasize this culture may, in turn, be changing the type of individual who seeks to become a police officer.
Balko traces the militarization of police to the "drug war" ideology that began under President Nixon and escalated under Ronald Reagan. One specific clause in an omnibus crime bill of 1984, not considered particularly controversial at the time, ultimately produced a seismic shift in American policing. The asset forfeiture law allowed police to seize property, auction it off, and divide up the bounty, just so long as federal agents were even remotely involved in the investigation.
Asset forfeiture created a huge incentive for police to go after people in order to seize their property. Drug enforcement brought in boatloads of cash, much of which was reinvested into more battle gear. Police departments competed with each other for drug revenue, to the neglect of investigating violent crimes such as rape, robbery and murder. So, we end up with situations like the one a few years back in Oakland, California, in which a lack of investigative prioritization allowed a serial rapist on parole to remain free to prey on young African American girls until he finally made the mistake of gunning down four police officers.
Detective work is no fun
Many police officers are appalled by the insidious militarization of police. Betty Taylor, police chief of a small Missouri town, recalled how she became troubled by the economic disparity between the "drug guys," flush with property seizures and endless federal grants, and the struggling sex crimes unit that she had established.
"When you think about the collateral effects of a sex crime, of how it can affect an entire family, an entire community, it just didn’t make sense," she told Balko. "The drug users weren't really harming anyone but themselves. Even the dealers, I found much of the time they were just people with little money, just trying to get by." Her opinion solidified when she was recruited onto a SWAT team, and witnessed first-hand the lasting terror that the raids produced in vulnerable children.
"I thought, how can we be the good guys when we come into the house looking like this, screaming and pointing guns at the people they love? ... Good police work has nothing to do with dressing up in black and breaking into houses in the middle of the night…. When you get into that [us-versus-them] mentality, there are no innocent people. There's us and there's the enemy. Children and dogs are always the easiest casualties."
The case of Daryl Thomas (Anecdote 2) involved more than neglect of violent crimes. As Detective Hernandez discovered, police brass in his precinct—and throughout New York City—were systematically downgrading crimes from serious felonies to minor misdemeanors, in order to improve their CompStat crime statistics. A model that has been adopted throughout the United States as well as in England and Australia, CompStat had the unintended consequence of fostering competition among precincts for lower statistics. Only seven categories of major crime are counted in crime statistics and made publicly available, so police can reduce crime rates by, for example, reclassifying attempted rape as criminal trespass.
The Thomas case was handled quietly, with no media attention. Thomas was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. But Hernandez, frustrated by the constant battles with his own superiors, took an early retirement. "Unfortunately, this is the culture for the young cop coming into the department. He doesn't see the bigger picture," he said. "If it's going to allow him to have a day off, and they won't ride him or harass him, he'll go along with it. And New Yorkers are being victimized, and no one responds to their complaints."
While major crimes were being downgraded to misdemeanors, Manhattan police were also being encouraged to trump up minor cases—drinking in public or driving without a seatbelt—in order to bolster their statistics. Police officer Adrian Schoolcraft surreptitiously recorded his superiors giving these directives; with the collusion of a department psychologist, he eventually found himself drummed out of the force on trumped-up psychiatric grounds. (You can hear excerpts from his secret tapes on This American Life.)
Culture of fear
Putting the case of dental hygienist Miriam Carey (Anecdote 3) in historical context illustrates just how much has changed in the past few decades.
What happened—or didn't happen—next is where the difference in culture emerges. Blogging at The Nation, Rick Perlstein compares the two cases to highlight the extreme overreaction of police today to any threat, however contained.
"There’s terrorism now, they say. But there was terrorism then, nearly every month—89 bombings attributed by the FBI to terrorism in 1975, culminating in that awful LaGuardia bomb; and a veritable wave in the winter and spring 1976, much of it around the trial of Patty Hearst: of an FBI office in Berkeley, Standard Oil of California headquarters in San Francisco. Americans didn’t freak out, or shut down, or exhibit symptoms of PTSD. They had a massive outdoor national 200th birthday party."
Writing in The Baffler, Chris Bray makes a similar point in regard to the shutdown of Boston after the explosion at the marathon that killed three people.
In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, and the paired 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, here’s what didn’t happen: whole cities weren’t locked down, armored personnel carriers with police logos didn’t rumble in, and SWAT teams in combat uniforms and body armor didn’t storm through the suburbs for a loosely ordered set of (ultimately hapless) house-to-house searches. Somehow, though, 2013 was the year it became appropriate to close cities, turning off taxis, buses, and trains and telling residents that the governor was suggesting—okay, strongly suggesting—that they not leave their homes until the police said so. One of those familiar moments in which officials ask the public to be on the lookout turned into a remarkable new moment in which officials ask the public to cease to exist in its public form so that the police can have the streets.
That leaves Anecdote 4, about armored personnel carriers, which pretty much speaks for itself.
"We are in the midst of a historic transformation," wrote Eastern Kentucky University professor Peter B. Kraska in 2007 in regard to police militarization. "Attempting to control the crime problem by routinely conducting police special-operations raids on people’s private residences is strong evidence that the U.S. police, and crime-control efforts in general, have moved significantly down the militarization continuum."
The irony is that this militarization is occurring simultaneously with a great diminution in violent crime in the United States. In particular, despite the public's perception of police work as dangerous, the job of law enforcement is getting safer all the time.
The American Civil Liberties Union is looking into the broader implications of the spread of military culture into domestic policing in the United States. The agency believes that militarization has come at the cost of trampled rights and a greater risk of violence, according to a report in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. The study is due out next year.
That strikes me as a bit too late. Pandora's box has long been opened, and there's no going back.
So, don’t be too surprised if you happen to spy a mine-resistant, ambush-protected, armored personnel carrier rolling down your street in the near future. It's only a matter of time.
Sources and recommended resources:
Radley Balko (2013), Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
Graham Rayman (June 8, 2010), Village Voice, NYPD Tapes 3: A Detective Comes Forward about Downgraded Sexual Assaults: When even attempted rapes are being downgraded to misdemeanors, is the public safe?
Rick Perlstein (Oct. 3, 2013), Nation, Culture of Fear: Miriam Carey’s Tragedy, and Our Own
Ira Glass, This American Life, “Right to Remain Silent” (well worth a look or, better yet, a listen)
Sarah Stillman (August 12, 2013), New Yorker, Taken: Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes. Is that all we’re losing?
* * * * *
*Blog Action Day is an international event in which thousands of bloggers around the world pledge to participate. This year's theme is human rights.