Roar writer Hanna Pham on links between the militarisation of the police, violent crime, police brutality, and public trust in the USA.
The murder of George Floyd has not only ignited reactionary protests against his death and the racism embedded in the justice system, but it has also aroused concerns regarding how highly militarised the policing system in the United States. As protests continue throughout the country, Americans like me can only watch in horror as the police, resembling an occupying army, pushing elderly men to the ground unconscious.
Between 1997 to 2014, the Department of Defence transferred $4.3 billion within military equipment to local police departments. Through Government mandates like the Pentagon’s 1033 program, even small towns such as South Bend, Indiana have acquired military-grade equipment like grenade launchers and M16 automatic rifles, further accelerating the militarisation of the police.
While equipping law enforcement with military-grade weapons gives off the illusion of serving and protecting citizens, it has led to consequences that represent the failure of the evolution of a militarised policing system; violence and crime have not decreased, paralleling a rise in distrust of law enforcement.
To more specifically see the failure of the militarisation of the police to combat crime, the War on Drugs, the government-led mission starting with Richard Nixon that attempted to stop illegal drug use and increase drug-related prison sentences, is a monumental example.
This declaration of war against drugs triggered the adoption of weapon-heavy means to fight narcotics crime, leading to more turf wars between drug dealers, more violence and ultimately re-enforcing the desire of police departments to assert authority via military-grade equipment and force.
The militarisation of the police has proven to be a slippery slope in which violence comes through as the most prevalent means of dealing with crime. Once a police officer’s job is framed and coordinated militarily, “appropriate level of force gives way to aggressive intimidation.” In short, supplying the police with equipment familiar to armed forces in the Middle East has facilitated an increase in the use of deadly violence.
Moreover, the militarisation of the police has led to public distrust of law enforcement. A study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science – published in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown, which incited police-public riots – found just that. Seeing heavily militarised police deteriorated trust in law enforcement.
Now, in 2020 and in the resurgence of national conversation regarding the militarisation of the police following the murder of George Floyd, distrust is still an accurate way to describe the police-civilian relationship. While views regarding the police vary by ethnicity, it is important to mention that only 50% of Hispanics and 33% of Black Americans say that police treat ethnic groups equally, since communities consisting largely of these ethnicities have been historically overpoliced.
The job of the police is to serve and protect, but it is clear that they’re not living up to their creed. And, as highlighted by the current political climate, this is especially evident in communities of colour. More often than not, militarised tactics and equipment are used in situations where they are not necessary.
The process militarisation has culminated into a police state with increased crime and distrust of the very people that are supposed to keep us safe. The great James Baldwin wrote in reaction to police brutality in the 1960s that, “the police are simply the hired enemies of the population… the law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and murderer.”
Considering how the limitless amount of military equipment in police departments has contributed to public distrust and unnecessary force— Mr Baldwin’s words still remain painstakingly relevant.