The cellphone video “reality footage” just doesn’t stop. Black men are shot, killed, handcuffed. The shortcomings of their prematurely terminated lives soon become public knowledge, vaguely justifying the shocking wrongness of the officer’s action — always poisoning the grief.
The family, the loved ones, the sympathetic sector of the American (and global) public demand “justice.” Even when they get it, or sort of get it, in the form of an arrest or some official expression of regret, the victim — the human being they valued — is still dead.
At least it seems as though nothing changes, but of course change, in the form of outrage, revulsion, disbelief — and, ultimately, awareness — is stirring in the collective mind. How it will manifest in the form of specific social policy is, of course, unknown. The status quo, after all, has plenty of defenders — and they’re armed.
And being armed is primarily a liability, a surefire means, so to speak, of increasing one’s insecurity. Socially, we cling to this insecurity, roiling matters immeasurably. Given this, how do we even begin to have the serious conversation we need to have about who we are and how we need to change — a conversation that goes as deep as a bullet?
Here’s one place to begin: Should the police be armed?
I ask this mindful of the enormous controversy it instantly sets off. An alternative, but related, question is simply: What sort of policing do we actually want? Right now we straddle a terrifying polarity: community policing, in which officers serve and have accountability primarily to the public they work with and protect; or militarized policing, in which officers have accountability primarily to an entity, “the state” or some other interest, that is separate from the neighborhood they patrol.
The latter is mostly what we have, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The images of policing in these neighborhoods are mostly the shocking videos that capture instantaneous death sentences handed out for minor misbehavior. But there are counter-images as well, such as that of Chris Magnus, the police chief of Richmond, Calif., joining a protest last December and holding a sign that proclaimed: “Black Lives Matter.” He stood holding the sign for four and a half hours, the amount of time Michael Brown’s unattended body lay on the sidewalk in Ferguson, Mo.
“The whole point of holding the sign,” he said, as quoted recently at Aljazeera America, “was to acknowledge that relationships can be better between police and communities of color, that that happens through dialogue and communication and relationship building.”
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Dialogue, communication, relationship-building . . . this isn’t what we think of as cop talk. But this is the essence of community-based, community-accountable policing. Can you imagine? Policing based on mutual respect? It’s the opposite of racial profiling. It’s the opposite of the army-of-occupation scenario the media endlessly purvey. With this sort of M.O., unarmed policing — the sort of policing that actually exists in Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand — becomes, perhaps, imaginable. First, of course, one needs to be able to imagine a source of strength and authority beyond the barrel of a gun.
Community-accountable policing has another problem in the United States as well. I was alerted to it by an offhand reference in an excellent article on British policing by Jon Kelly, which ran in the BBC News Magazine in 2012. Kelly noted at one point: “But to most inhabitants of the U.K. — with the notable exception of Northern Ireland — it is a normal, unremarkable state of affairs that most front-line officers do not carry guns.”
In Northern Ireland, the British police would be more like an occupying army, making unarmed policing a bit awkward, you might say. Here in the USA, the police tradition is rooted in the control of “enemy” populations, having its origins, as historians have pointed out, in Southern slave patrols, New England and Midwestern “Indian constables” and other armed squads with a mission to suppress non-citizen (and generally non-white) populations within our borders.
Such history is terrifyingly apparent in every video of a police officer shooting a black man in the back that gets posted on YouTube. It’s the scenario of an army of occupation in us-vs.-them mode, utterly separate from the community it’s “protecting,” maintaining a semblance of order through sheer armed domination. This is militarized policing, combined with racism; it’s the opposite of community policing.
Complicating these historical roots is modern-day militarism and the war metaphor that acts as a substitute for thought among so many powerful people. For instance: “In 1934,” Auandaru Nirhani writes, “FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, would attach the concept of war to policing when he declared the first ‘war against crime.’”
Other pretend wars, including the Reagan-era “war on drugs,” along with a bellicose foreign policy, have further militarized domestic policing, especially in recent years, as the Defense Department has begun dumping its excess military hardware on local police departments at bargain-basement prices. And police officers turn more and more into soldiers in an occupying army.
“I see the police conducting themselves in a highly militaristic fashion on routine patrol activities — and I know that’s what they’re doing because I come from that world,” Thomas Nolan, a criminology professor and former senior policy analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, told Travis Gettys, writing for Raw Story. “What I experience and what people on the street experience is a palpable, tangible sense of fear, and that is that we are unsafe if police need semiautomatic rifles to protect us and to keep us safe.”
Indeed, when police carry semiautomatic rifles, no one is safe. When we wage endless war at home, especially when we wage war entwined with historical racism, no one is safe. Video surveillance and an overabundance of cellphones are no substitute for a national embrace of community policing, gradual disarmament and a reverence for every life.