Don't militarize America's police

Keep grenade launchers out of police departments

A Virginia State Police officer in riot gear keeps watch from the top of an armored vehicle in Charlottesville, Virginia.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

I grew up in an unincorporated community on the outskirts of a village with one policeman. Officer K was a nice guy. He didn't do much during the day (I suspect he slept a lot), but at night he would drive up to the bar and follow people home to make sure that they didn't hurt themselves, especially in the winter. Everybody liked him, even our small criminal class. His kids went to school with us; one of them played basketball and got caught with marijuana. We knew his home phone number. I don't think I ever saw him carrying a weapon.

America needs more Officer Ks.

It goes without saying that people in counties with a population of less than 6,500 yet more acreage than some East Coast states want different things from law enforcement than those living in, say, Philadelphia. But if you think the Obama administration was wrong and that police officers need tanks, .50-caliber rifles, grenade launchers, explosives, pyrotechnics, and fighter aircraft, you have a curious idea of what police work is.

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But you're certainly not alone. This was thrown into rather sharp relief when The Washington Post reported Sunday that President Trump has decided to revive a program, canceled by his predecessor, in which police departments across the country were given surplus military equipment for officers to use as they saw fit. (In one of the most politely worded reports in the history of the federal government, Obama administration officials noted that the "use and misuse" of grenade launchers "can be detrimental to maintaining public trust in law enforcement." You don't say.)

President Obama was right when he said in 2015 that for too long in this country police have given people the impression that they are "an occupying force as opposed to a part of the community there to protect them." Officers should not dress like lieutenants of the Galactic Empire or carry weapons better suited for the Siege of Mosul. No one, least of all children, should associate cops with the explicit threat of violence.

I think it's pretty clear that most of them do. Glancing through the racks of Halloween costumes already for sale at CostCo last week, I thought I had stumbled upon some kind of hideous new Star Wars villain. In between the rows of firefighters and cowboys was a character who wore a sinister black helmet and a dark uniform emblazoned with a silver crest; across his chest was strapped some kind of space-age communications device. It was only when I read the tag that I realized what I was looking at was supposed to be a police officer. Whatever happened to blue hats and whistles?

Like opposition to so-called "assault" weapons that are lacking in fully automatic capability, arguments against the militarization of the police are mostly grounded in aesthetics. But aesthetics matter. The way that police officers dress and the gear they choose to carry contribute far more to their image than their interactions with the vast majority of the American people who they actually interact with (less than 17 percent of Americans have had face-to-face encounters with police officers). What we observe casually tells us what we are supposed to think.

Announcing the change in policy during remarks given before a meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed such concerns as "superficial." They are not. When police officers carry weapons of war and wear the uniforms of soldiers, they are acting not as representative of justice meant to break off irruptions of lawlessness. They are suggesting that they do not work to preserve the peace, but are an army engaged in a struggle for order. America is not a war zone, and the police are not an extension of the Army or the Air Force or a substitute for the National Guard. Their equipment should reflect this.

This is not an argument against police work. If anything, I think we should do more, for example, to curtail the distribution of drugs in this country; penalties should be harsher, even in some cases capital. It is an argument against a vicious Hobbesian conception of politics in which the representatives of the state descend upon the wicked, lawless populace in order to beat rationality and love of peace into them. This is not an accurate representation of human nature; all of creation is oriented ultimately towards peace, not barbarity, and the longing for peace is innate in every human heart. The coercive power of the state exists to preserve a peace that is natural, not to instill it upon a swirling heart of darkness.

Cops should not fear those whom they serve any more than the people should be afraid of cops.

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