Good Cops Don’t Need Grenade Launchers
The militarization of our police goes hand in hand with the collapse of civil society

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 5 June 2020

By day, the officers appear highly empathetic, kneeling and praying alongside members of the community. By night, they drive armored vehicles, don riot gear, shoot rubber bullets, and resort to tear gas as they corral and trample generally peaceful protestors who have opted to exercise their constitutional right to assembly.

It’s well known in sociology and criminology circles, alike, that it’s the first style of policing — the protect and serve kind — which works to stem violence by opening channels of communication and even undermining institutional racism. The second, more militaristic style of policing leads to more injuries and deaths on both sides. The argument that police need to be better armed to protect themselves and the rest of us has been thoroughly debunked; we know that the more military gear cops have, the worse the outcomes. Yet there they are, using military-style maneuvers to trap peaceful demonstrators in parks or on bridges, then pelting them with flash bombs and pepper balls.

The militarization of police began during Reagan’s War on Drugs, when a bill was passed allowing the National Guard to aid local police in interdiction. That accustomed lawmakers to the idea of military gear on domestic streets, and by the mid-’90s, Congress had passed a series of bills authorizing the Pentagon to distribute surplus military equipment to local police departments. Thousands of M-16s, personnel carriers and, yes, grenade launchers made their way into local police arsenals.

Then came 9/11, which gave defense contractors an excuse to lobby for the funding of yet more military gear, SWAT teams, armored vehicles, and military tactical training for even small-town police departments. Today, weapons manufacturers looking to compensate for the wind-down of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are successfully lobbying for Department of Homeland Security Grant programs that repurpose their weaponry for the domestic market. As a result, America’s police departments are becoming more like the tactical security forces of Israel and apartheid South Africa (whose security experts have often served as advisors to police forces around the country).

But more militarized police do not make for a more secure or peaceful society. On the contrary, the more gear police have, the more deaths they cause. One study, published in the journal Research Politics in 2017, showed that receiving a full supply of military equipment increases civilian deaths in a given county by 129%. And it’s not just during demonstrations. The militarization of departments engenders a different approach to policing, including more racial profiling and an emphasis on “engaging and defeating” over protecting and serving.

So why do we keep doubling down on this approach if it only leads to more civilian deaths? Tradition. The job of the very first police in this country was not to serve people, but to round them up. The first formally paid police force in United States was founded in the Carolina colonies in 1704, in the form of “slave patrols” that chased down runaways and quelled revolts. Even in the north, police were mostly thugs hired by merchants to protect shipments from vandals like those involved in the Boston Tea Party. It took over a century before American municipalities employed police for the purpose of actually protecting people, and eventually serving them. By the 20th century, they finally became civil servants.

Unfortunately, our focus on militarization has come at the expense of true civil service — an approach that does lead to declines in violence and death rates. Until we stop replacing civil servants with grenade launchers, we are doomed to even more unrest.

Campaign Zero, a project initiated by some of the activists associated with Black Lives Matter and born out of civilian protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York, has been advocating for a comprehensive package of policy solutions for more civil policing, and documenting the associated reductions in violence. Research shows, for example that police effectiveness is directly dependent on their ability to demonstrate “procedural justice”—impartial and consistently applied legal principles. Such basic civics helps create “strong and positive relationships between officers and the people they serve.” Another study demonstrated that proactive targeting and questioning of young men (better known as stop-and-frisk) leads to higher rates of psychological distress and criminal activity than non-confrontational community policing practices, such as collective problem-solving, forging personal relationships, or engendering public trust through school visits and community projects.

President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, set up after the Ferguson debacle, concluded that to de-escalate potentially violent protests, police should employ tactics “designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.”

It works. According to one of many such studies, for every 10 organizations other than the police focusing on crime and community life in a city there is a 9% reduction in the murder rate, a 6% reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4% reduction in the property crime rate. Community organizations reduce crime more than the police.

That’s because calling guys with guns isn’t the best solution for most problems, anyway. In fact, newer studies are showing that the more alternative civil servants are called to solve problems instead of cops, the better and less violent the outcomes. Dallas has reimagined its 911 system, sending social workers instead of police to mental health crisis calls, resulting in fewer people going to the ER and, worse, jail. Intervening instead of police, the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention works with young, mostly black men after they have been wounded or assaulted, breaking the cycle of violence and preventing many new deaths.

It’s easy to tell police to act more like civil servants, but they can only do so in the context of a greater civil society. They need the support of other civil servants — experts in drug abuse, domestic disputes, youth counseling, truancy, homelessness, and so on. By the time someone calls the cops for a problem, it is usually too late. You may as well be calling in the National Guard.

But where are those alternative civil servants? Largely eliminated or underfunded by budget cuts — money that’s being spent on military gear for the inevitable crises that befall members of a society without civic institutions or the sensibilities they engender. This just puts more burden on police officers, whose military hardware just isn’t up to the challenge. So the cycle of violence, othering, protest, and militarization continues. Our current trajectory is analogous to America’s chronic underfunding of preventive medical care, which ends up sending millions of people to the emergency room for more expensive crisis services later on. Only when a young man denied social services eventually reaches a point of crisis, he ends up facing a cop — and if he’s black, that can mean death.

There is federal money, but social workers don’t have the same post-9/11 lobbying force on K street as the corporations making grenades launchers and armored vehicles for cops, or the ones that own the prisons in which to incarcerate the survivors. The market sees civics the way Margaret Thatcher saw society itself: There is no such thing.

Civil servants can only exist in a civil society. And a civil society requires servants trained in civility.