Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"...The abyss will also gaze into thee."*


              While the streets still smolder in Ferguson, and the context and content of the Grand Jury’s decision remain objects of debate, the act of violence itself, the misunderstood shots that led to the media coverage and subsequent outrage, exist as an axis of sorts. Do cultural and institutional layers factor into the (apparent) rise of law enforcement mishaps in the U.S.? Have the hardware and software of war made their way onto a different operation system? The militarization of the U.S. policing has come into its own as a public policy issue in recent years, and the class discussion on Monday has prompted this abbreviated attempt at a basic understanding of the issue, in the context of public and foreign policy.

                There is a minimal, but constructive, dialogue on the relationship between civilian and military cultures during and after wartime but there is sparse, non-academic discussion with regard to the how war has affected the American polity and how the past decade’s military operations will integrate themselves into governmental structures at all levels and manifest in the expression of state power. This might be why shock dominates the tone of the majority of articles addressing the militarization of American law enforcement.

              Training is one aspect of the issue.  After World War II,  the research of Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall found that only 15 % of riflemen fired their weapons during combat. In terms of pure analysis of resource input versus desired output, these types of returns on investment were undesirable. The solution was to change the mental machinery that was activated in combat, to reprogram a soldier’s software in such a way that the hardware would be utilized more effectively. Firing range targets were changed from bull’s-eyes to human silhouettes.  The change was so effective that the firing rate among soldiers in the field increased to 95 % by the Vietnam War. Impressed with the results, Federal and then State law enforcement adopted the training modifications. As the military added faces and other realistic accouterments to targets, the law enforcement community followed suit. This modification in the training regimen of security forces, operating in both foreign and domestic environments, has saved lives, but it has also led to accidents that are the result of split second decisions in a chaotic environment. Training also influences operating culture and institutional protocols. How do tactics that inform combat operations, and by extension institutions that make war, effect civilian policing institutions?

                The connections between military and policing systems are not only present in shared training practices, but also in equipment acquisition. The “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” have injected an enormous amount of money into the defense industry and, directly and indirectly, into the law enforcement community. The winding down of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have also opened up avenues for surplus military equipment to enter the civilian market. The first major instance of this phenomenon appears towards the end of the Vietnam War which, consequently, saw the first SWAT teams form in major cities. Today, even small departments clamor for equipment and weapons that are often not needed given their current mission parameters. An example from my own experience comes from an interview that I conducted with my local police chief for an undergraduate public policy paper on the functioning of local government institutions. When the interview moved to matters of budget, the chief was open about the federal funding the department gets for qualifying as an exceptional program under certain guidelines. The grant that the department would receive could be reapplied for the following year, but the success of that application was contingent on the utilization of the previous year’s allotment. The chief was in the market for an armored vehicle. The community he serves is growing, albeit with retirees who have escaped the crime and heat of Florida (they are referred to, semi-pejoratively, as “half-backers”). The utility of an armored vehicle in this instance is questionable unless, of course, Wheel of Fortune is cancelled. What effect does military grade equipment have on a local, small-town police organization? It won’t sit idle in the department’s motor pool. Its mere existence necessitates it inclusion in operational planning.

                The War on Terror has produced a large number of combat veterans and highly trained security personnel that also happen to be exiting the services during a time of budgetary cutback and defense restructuring. These veterans represent a pool of highly desirable law enforcement recruits. They deserve goods jobs that take their unique experiences and skill sets into account. How should their integration into civilian police forces be mutually beneficial for both the departments and veterans? How can we prevent the tactical and operational mindsets of asymmetric warfare from permeating the vernacular of community policing?

                The issue is complicated but a conversation towards a resolution is about protecting some of the most courageous members of our society from becoming victims of convenience (in training techniques and equipment) and avoiding the creation of a military-policing industrial complex feedback loop. In thinking about these issues, we can move towards extending measured and adequate protection to both the civilian population and members of the law enforcement community.  Laying the blame on the national security state for the problem is counterproductive because those institutions and cultures serve their purpose in the operational environment they were tuned to. Creating scapegoats out of police departments ignores the real strains that these organizations have endured over the course of the “War on Drugs”, as well as neglects to take into account the powerful incentives that exist for militarization. A resolution will require targeted public policy at the local, state, and federal levels. The foreign policy community should also take note that the policy decisions that are necessary and essential for national security reverberate at the periphery of the public sphere for generations.

*Good Ol' Friedrich Nietzsche 

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