April 11, 2015 / 2014 / November / "To Protect and Serve"

"To Protect and Serve"

submitted November 25, 2014 by Matthew Ellis   |   comments

When Sir Robert Peel developed his plan for the London Metropolitan Police circa 1829—which U.S. policing was loosely patterned after—he borrowed heavily from the military in organization and administrative structure, but he wanted there to be a clear distinction between the police and the military. To achieve that, the uniforms of the London Metropolitan police (Bobbies) were blue, in contrast to the red uniform of the day's British military, and Bobbies were forbidden to carry firearms.

While the military's mission is predicated on the use of force, Peel's principles of policing emphasize crime prevention, public approval, willing cooperation of the public, and a minimal use of physical force.

...While the community policing movement has drawn heavily from Peel's principles of policing, which emphasize the importance of the relationship between the police and the community they serve, the concurrent militarization trend may be undermining those relationships.

Excerpt from "Will the Growing Militarization of Our Police Doom Community Policing?"  
-Community Policing Dispatch

Image Credit: Cleveland.com

The ACLU, in its report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” notes the following:

  1. Policing—particularly through the use of paramilitary teams—in the United States today has become excessively militarized, mainly through federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield. For example, the ACLU documented a total of 15,054 items of battle uniforms or personal protective equipment received by 63 responding agencies during the relevant time period, and it is estimated that 500 law enforcement agencies have received Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles built to withstand armor piercing roadside bombs through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program.

  2. The militarization of policing in the United States has occurred with almost no public oversight. Not a single law enforcement agency in this investigation provided records containing all of the information that the ACLU believes is necessary to undertake a thorough examination of police militarization. Some agencies provided records that were nearly totally lacking in important information. Agencies that monitor and provide oversight over the militarization of policing are virtually nonexistent.

Our neighborhoods and communities are not places that need to be occupied, in any sense of the word. We do not need the military or police to do the type of ‘nation-building’ you hear mentioned so often in the Middle East. Our nation-building should require hiring construction workers to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, such as bridges and sewer systems. Instead, we funnel more and more tax dollars into equipping police in both rural and urban areas with extreme tools for their jobs.

I don’t pretend to completely understand or know what is happening in Ferguson, MO right now. I know many others do claim to know and have strong opinions about it on both sides. They are easy to find, if you’d like to read them.

What I do feel strongly is that every step of the way, the police presence in Ferguson has been poorly handled. Their police force is predominantly white, while the population is primarily African-American. Their immediate response has been to break out the military assault weapons for which they finally have a reason to justify using. At each stage of these protests, police reaction has been to respond with an overwhelming show of force that seems inappropriate for the unrest being displayed.

This culminated in last night’s announcement that the grand jury has declined to indict Officer Wilson for his actions in the death of Michael Brown. It seemed to me (and others) that each aspect of the announcement seemed calculated to provoke a response from protesters:

  • A lengthy wait was required before the results of the grand jury’s investigation were announced. No clear reasoning for the delay was apparent.

  • The announcement was made at 8 pm local time, which provided protesters plenty of time to spend the evening getting increasingly agitated. 

  • It was dark by the time the verdict was announced, providing those inclined to lash out or cause trouble with increased anonymity and cover.

These are just some of the troubling factors in last night’s announcement. Why was the announcement conducted in this way? How did this process promote an appeal to calm volatile emotions? If there was good reasoning behind this timing, why wasn’t it made more clear?

I have been to cities in other countries where men drive around in trucks, pointing assault rifles at you. It is disconcerting at best, and always provocative and challenging. One thing it never is, in my mind: peaceful or calming.

To see this provocation repeatedly happening in America by officers that are often mishandling these weapons and behaving inappropriately is a disturbing sight. Our police officers should not be wearing camouflage and imitating military actions. They are not at war with us or our neighbors. The increasingly disproportionate military response to public demonstration and other activities is disturbing and inappropriate.

I hope that these events in Ferguson, MO remind us of at least one important value: The proper role of police in our society is to protect and serve.

Matthew Ellis is the CEO of Episcopal Health Ministries.