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When Peace Officers Dress for War

Unrest in Missouri may stem, in part, from changes to police culture centuries ago
Police in riot gear



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Much has been written about how the militarized response of local police made matters worse in Ferguson, Mo., following the Michael Brown shooting on August 9. Many point to the antiterrorism push to arm cops with military-grade weapons and gear following 9/11. But critical changes in community–police interactions—changes made as early as the 1800s—may have contributed to the tragedy with the creation of a permanent "siege mentality" on the part of police officers. Such attitudes can cause rifts between police and the community they vow to serve and protect—especially when coupled with long-standing racial or social tensions.
 
Early 19th-century law enforcement looked much different than it does today. A loosely organized ragtag of community volunteers called “night watchmen,” with perhaps a paid constable providing leadership, patrolled streets on foot. They were local butchers or bakers who lacked formal training and did not carry weapons other than a stick or a lamp, says Johnny Nhan, associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University. Without regard to the law, the crew enforced neighborhood views of right and wrong. Actions such as gambling, prostitution and drinking—technically illegal but socially acceptable—could get a pass from the men in charge. This subjective, haphazard method of policing was anything but fair and just.
 
Over time, Nhan says, some members of the community started to criticize this model as corrupt. Upper class women, especially those influenced by the Victorian emphasis on art, culture and intolerance of police abuse, viewed social behaviors such as imbibing and prostitution as ills that needed to be eradicated. In addition, they were concerned with the rise of crime and “dangerous classes” of minorities, immigrants and the poor following the boom and bust of industrialization. These high-placed reformers chided the night watchmen for disregarding the law.
 
So the police became more professional, disciplined and organized by taking a cue from other intellectually evolving fields. “Doctors and scientists were once also considered to be corrupt snake oil salesman, but today they are the pinnacle of professionalism,” Nhan says. Using the medical school model, police adopted uniforms and formal training and management structures, along with stricter hiring standards. By the early 20th century, the police force had shed its 19th-century aura of incompetence.
 
But in the process of enforcing the law more fairly and equally between the 1930s and 1970s, cops became cold and stoic, Nhan notes. “They were personified by the character Joe Friday in Dragnet,” he adds. “They became “facts men.” Before, when the night watchmen might rely on the neighborhood butcher for backup, they now relied on one another. They introduced the two-way radio and patrolled in cars. Over time they became distant from and skeptical of the public.
 
A 1978 article by professor John Van Maanen called “The Asshole” illustrated how urban cops began to lump citizens they came into contact with as “suspicious persons, assholes and know nothings.” With their own language, strong reliance on one another and increased schooling, police eventually adopted an “us versus them” subculture, which criminologist Peter K. Manning of Northeastern University called “siege mentality.” This set of beliefs says that people cannot be trusted and are dangerous, that everyone hates cops, that cops are the moral authority and that severe punishment is most effective at deterring criminals.
 
This subculture influenced the way officers behaved. “When police view you as an asshole, they’ll deal with you with street justice,” Nhan says, adding that as early as the 1930s, and then even more so following World War II, police came to resemble soldiers. This parallel really hit its stride in the 1960s and 1970s around the time Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Then in the 1990s the U.S. donated billions of federal dollars worth of military-grade weapons to local police departments. Following 9/11 more advanced tactical weapons were introduced. Since then local cops have become more than just peacekeepers and law enforcers.
 
Norm Stamper, former Seattle chief of police and board member of Law Enforcement against Prohibition, says increasing police force militarization and violent crowd-control strategies, such as those used in Ferguson, has disturbing implications. “Seeing heavily armed police employing tactics in Ferguson is just a huge mistake,” Stamper says. “This is not a war, and at some point it becomes provocative.” Such fear-inducing approaches intimidate and build resentment, Stamper says. They can goad people toward violence.
 
For police units receiving the weaponry, training in its use or maintenance is not required. “There’s just one rule: the local agency that receives this property must use it within a year. That incentivizes irresponsible use of the equipment,” Stamper says. Suddenly, he notes, local police began dispatching teams of heavily armed SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) members to drive armored vehicles straight onto people’s lawns for standard drug raids and arrest warrants. They often used such force to bring in suspects for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses such as marijuana possession. This extravagant response is high risk for everyone involved, he says.
 
Social scientists have trouble parsing how the distinct values and lifestyles of a close-knit police force, or police subculture, shapes the way officers actually react in the field. Peter A J Waddington, a social policy professor at the University of Wolverhampton in England, observed in the 1990s that officers tend to talk big or inflate their bravery or courageousness in the “canteen.” This makes it tough for researchers to fully analyze what is happening in the field.
 
But bloated militarylike responses take psychological tolls, Stamper says. When officers begin to dress like soldiers, their uniform and vocabulary of war reinforces their mind-sets. As they become more soldierlike and less peace officer–like, they become distanced from the community. “If you’ve taken on the identity of your badge and uniform, it’s not what you do, it’s who you are,” Stamper says. “Psychologically it’s a tragedy.”
 
Not surprisingly, this extreme kind of isolation helped to turn a volatile situation in Ferguson explosive. An overwhelmingly white, unprepared and untrained militarized police force faced a predominantly black community that had suffered years of social injustice, crushing poverty, a failing school system and high unemployment rates. “This relationship between police and the community is what made Ferguson a powder keg,” Stamper says.
 
Nationally, police have taken steps to soften their rapport with and become more representative of the public. African-American officers made up only 4 percent of the police force in 1973. By 1993, they had jumped to 11 percent. In large cities female officers increased from 9 percent in 1990 to almost 13 percent in 2001. They’ve tried to increase officers on foot in the community. But such changes have done little to change their internal belief systems, Nhan says. Police are still in the same uniform, speaking the same language. They’re still evaluated on standard measures of performance, such as numbers of arrests made and crimes solved. “They don’t get credit for making a citizen happy,” Nhan adds. “Until we really change some core function of the police, they will still act the same.”
 
Manning posits that in general, however, police are taking steps in the right direction. It’s rare for officers to point guns at rioting citizens, he says. “The skill of police officers is increasing, police are shooting less, they have a higher level of education, they’re more aware and have better training,” he adds. Sure, in the occupational culture women and minorities are not treated well within the force. But he says that the public is more aware of police brutality because of increased media and social attention. “Of course there are beatings and of course there is violence,” he adds, “but extraordinary incidents are much less typical; it’s just covered more.”
 
Stamper, Nhan and Manning believe that once the dust in Ferguson has settled, police need to actively listen to their communities and discipline themselves to cultivate psychological resilience and forge new relationships. They should further diversify the police force and reject the “we’re the cops and you’re not” attitude. But Stamper fears that we’re too far gone. “Nixon declared all-out war on drugs, which is really all-out war on people,” he says. “The drug war needs to end yesterday.”
 
Both he, Manning and Nhan argue that local police should step down from the distanced, soldierlike stance and back away from the military stage. When officers are skeptical of the community and are dressed and armed for war, they’re more likely to resort to violence as a justifiable means of keeping the peace. “If the only tool you have is a hammer,” Stamper adds, “the whole world is going to look like a nail to you.”

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