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Monday, December 8, 2014

The Michael Brown Effect: The Vicious Cycle of Police Militarism

     The Michael Brown police-involved shooting case, like the O.J. Simpson double murder verdict, has exposed a disturbing reality in American society. In general, blacks and whites have a different attitude toward the police, policing, and the criminal justice system. The Michael Brown case, for all the wrong reasons, has also focused public attention on another problem that has been developing over the past thirty years: the increasing militarization of American law enforcement.

     Today's heavily armed police officers in their flak-jackets, combat boots, and helmets are indistinguishable from military troops at war. Most police departments now have massive SWAT tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other military type vehicles. Modern police officers no longer see themselves as armed public servants but as crime-fighting warriors who view criminal suspects as enemies of the state. This militaristic mindset does not lend itself to any form of community policing.

     Police militarism has risen during an era when rates of violent crime are at a 35 year low. This begs the question: If American society has become less violent, why are the police becoming more militaristic? And why are the police shooting so many people every year? (According to my own study conducted in 2011, police officers that year shot about 1,200 people, killing slightly more than half of them.) And why are so many young black males being shot by the police?

     Some politicians and black activists like Al Sharpton would have us believe that the police are targeting black men. Under this theory, the police-involved shooting problem is fueled by police racism.

     Having looked at thousands of police-involved shootings, I don't see race as a major factor in these cases. Moreover, while some police shootings are legally justified but unnecessary, a vast majority of these cases involve excellent police work. There are the cases, however, of trigger-happy officers who  commit criminal homicide in the line of duty. Many of these officers are not brought to justice. But again, that is not a matter of race.

     While violent crime rates overall have been dropping, violent crime in inner city black neighborhoods remains high. This is particularly true in places like Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, and Detroit. This, along with the fact that many young black men hate the police and are eager to exhibit this hatred, explains why so many black subjects are shot. Citizens should be taught that resisting arrest is unacceptable and dangerous behavior. This is true for all people.

     Police shootings in rural, small town and suburban America are also too frequent. That is because of the never-ending and escalating war on drugs. Every year there are more than 80,000 pre-dawn, no-knock drug raids. These forced entries into homes are usually not necessary. Subjects of these home invasions are traumatized, manhandled and injured. Pets are killed. Subjects of these SWAT raids are shot thinking they are protecting their families from criminal invasion. Ending this facet of the drug war won't solve the drug problem, but it would reduce, in every community, the number of police involved shootings. It would also help improve police-community relations.

     More citizens are being shot because more Americans are drunk or under the influence of meth, PCP, bath salts, molly, and synthetic marijuana, substances that alter behavior in an anti-social way. Another problem in our society that lends itself to police violence is mental illness. It seems that an increasing number of Americans are becoming seriously mentally ill. Many of these people are also suicidal and use the police to end their lives. Decades ago the insane among us were housed in institutions. Today they are out on the street attacking citizens with knives and guns, taking hostages, and pushing people off subway platforms. These paranoid schizophrenics are extremely difficult to deal with. When they threaten others with immediate serious bodily injury or death, police officers have little choice but to shot them. While it's true they are not criminals per se, they can be dangerous.

     The rioting and civil disorder in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City will justify increased police militarization across the country. Law obeying citizens demand that the police maintain order. The increased militarization, to a point where officers are essentially occupying our cities, will result in more civil unrest and create more police militarism that in turn will lead to more police-involved shootings.

     We are in a vicious cycle fueled by false assumptions and racial politics. 

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