Police militarization fuels violence
As Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson applied pressure to the trigger of his weapon on Aug. 9, he unknowingly released the catalyst for a crisis that has demanded the public’s undivided attention for more than three weeks.
While the story of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s premature death cannot be recounted with unwavering certainty, one thing remains clear: Wilson’s shooting of Brown, an unarmed black teenager, has heightened racial tensions and sparked violent conflicts between protestors and police across the nation.
The unrest in Ferguson and communities beyond begs the question: Are American police too militarized?
In his article, “The Crooked Ladder,” Malcolm Gladwell points out that over the years, police tactics have grown increasingly forceful, as police no longer turn “a blind eye” to minor crimes. For example, SWAT teams were originally intended to rescue hostages and capture escaped felons. Now, 80 percent of SWAT team raids studied by the American Civil Liberties Union are conducted to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases that specifically target minority communities. The federal government fuels this aggressive behavior by outfitting state and local police departments with military gear, such as armored vehicles, grenade launchers and assault rifles. The presence of weapons alone can increase aggressive tendencies: “The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger,” notes Leonard Berkowitz, an emeritus professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin. Moreover, since military equipment is used to detain an enemy, police officers given this equipment are implicitly encouraged to view the public as the enemy.
Although the national spotlight shines on Ferguson, militarization is a nationwide trend, one that Middlesex County has not evaded. According to a New York Times report, police departments in Middlesex County collectively own 36 assault rifles. In 2011, an allegedly unarmed New Brunswick resident was shot and killed after city police chased him into an alleyway, causing public outcry. Last year, an Edison Township officer was charged for attempting to firebomb of a police supervisor’s house, where he lived with two young children and his elderly mother.
Instead of allotting federal dollars to programs that fuel aggression, the government should look for alternative initiatives that prevent violent conflict. Police must be held accountable for their actions and must learn to respect reactionary protest rather than teargas journalists when police brutality is exposed. Transparency can create a system of checks and balances between the police and the public. In Rialto, California, for example, officers are required to wear body cameras. In the first year of the initiative’s implementation, use of force by officers declined 60 percent and citizen complaints against police fell 88 percent. Perhaps if Wilson wore a body camera, we wouldn’t need to rely on word of mouth to determine if Brown’s civil rights were violated — or perhaps the confrontation between Wilson and Brown would have never happened in the first place.