Police militarization

Norm Stamper used to be police chief in Seattle when he unleashed police in full riot gear onto demonstrators at the 1999 World Trade Organization. He greatly regretted that action and now has become a critic of paramilitary gear for police and for using harsh tactics when dealing with the general public.

He appeared recently on The Colbert Report to talk about the events in Ferguson.

(This clip aired on September 2, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. says

    Apoligizing is easy when you don’t face any consequences for what you’re admitting to, when you’re not going to have to make amends or face jail time for it.

  2. lorn says

    There are a whole lot of factors leading to militarization of police and their tactics.

    The waves of violent crime in the 70s and the War on Drugs have a lot to do with it. The Southern Strategy, essentially a coded vilification of urban blacks, with the terms urban and crime being used as code for black, was used to scared the white folks into voting for ‘tough on crime’ Republicans. Fear was magnified by a constant drumbeat of references to a moderately rising crime rate, mostly black on black violence, and a relatively few dramatic events of black-on-white violence. The fear was then used to justify harsher laws, longer sentences for minor crimes, and, of course, the use of military style weapons and tactics.

    As an aside it is useful to note that the alienation of police from the population was well underway long before the 70s when it markedly accelerated. The, by turns, displacement of the middle class to the suburbs and deterioration of the tax base of urban areas meant that inner city administrations were forced to cut budgets and make do with fewer police, at the same time suburban police forces were trying to deal with a population spread out across municipalities the size of counties. The answer was to put all of the police in cars and link them up with radios.

    This changed things in several ways. The obvious observation is that a cop sealed up in a air conditioned car, windows up, is psychologically isolated from the population. It goes farther than just that. It means that police are largely, just traveling through. People in a high crime area really need help but they know that while the criminals are permanent residents, the police are visitors and cooperation with the visitors makes them a target for the home team. They also know that the police don’t live there so there is some detachment. No matte how much they may care, at the end of their shift the police are going home to less violent neighborhoods.

    The less obvious change has to do with what happens when you shift from beat cops dedicated to one neighborhood to individual police shifting from one neighborhood to another hour-to-hour, as needed. A beat cop by design or default gets to know the neighborhood and the people. They are specialists who can use a nuanced understanding to deal with complex situation. By comparison police patrolling wide and ever changing areas are generalists. They have no great understanding of the people involved. This increases the attitude that non-police are interchangeable caricatures. It also means that the police operated less by nuanced understanding of social dynamics and more by a set of hard-fast, often ham-fisted, policy rules designed to contain situations and allow few police to handle more calls in one shift. Most of the guidelines and rules come down to demanding that police clear calls quickly. They are encouraged to avoid spending a lot of time figuring situations out and listening. The default is to arrest pretty much everyone involved and let the judge sort it out. Sadly the judge is also under pressure to settle cases quickly and is often restrained by sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums.

    The alienation of police from the population has set the stage for what we see in the 70s. Police cruise around in sealed metal containers where they have no natural contact with the people. Design the system so that police are simply visitors everywhere the go. Add budget constraints, the need for fewer police to handle more calls. Shift from two policemen per car to one so they are all alone and justified in feeling paranoid and defensive. Have the police spend most of their time answering calls so that the job, already a matter of seeing people at their worse, is now focused on people at their worse. Conversely, the citizens only see police at their most punitive and violent because they only get called once things go really wrong. Calling the police is usually the last desperate step before ‘run for your life’ or ‘kill it with fire’.

    In the 70s we have a police force disconnected from the people they protect and dominated by military veterans coming from the deescalating wars, men with a military mindset that categorizes people as law-enforcement and ‘suspects’ and encouraged to ‘carry out policy’ and not get involved. An inner city population living on crumbling streets and threatened by daily violence but justifiable afraid to turn to drive-by police presence. And then people start shooting at police. Veterans of combat reflexively escalate. If you bring a gun they bring five bigger guns, and an armored vehicle. This is what a soldier would do. It is a persuasive argument and the easy answer that satisfies many of the parties concerned.

    This self-reinforcing cycle of alienation and stronger and less nuanced response went into high gear when there were a relatively few, but well publicized, cases of people shooting at police. Which opens the door for S.W.A.T. :


    It was seemingly inevitable. The suburban white population, the majority of voters and campaign contributors, are screaming for strong action and protection against the ginned up and largely imaginary threat of urban black invading their all-white neighborhoods. The police see SWAT as a way of making more money and getting out of being robots jerked around from call to call and mechanically enforcing policy. In SWAT they see a team, not having to be defensive because they are all alone out there, training and dignity, and a sense of control. Pretty much everyone on a police force wants their department to have a team and to be on that team. Policy makers see SWAT teams as a response to police complaints and suburban cries for strong action and protection on a shrinking budget. SWAT teams are actually cheaper than hiring more police. You use existing police, the military gives you the weapons (armored vehicles come in the 80s and 90s but are not widespread until recently), and the federal government subsidizes training and other equipment. The white suburbanites know they are not the target and see the SWAT teams as strong medicine protecting them from the others. Everyone is happy.

    Except the urban poor, and more recently, the suburban poor, and the rural poor … pretty much all the poor people who get to see what it is like to be on the receiving end of a military assault, complete with collateral damage.

    Anyone looking for more than cosmetic change will be disappointed. The people with money and power are not dissatisfied. They may put a little extra wear on the feinting couch and clutch their pearls a little more tightly but most, what I see, is a bunch of people posturing. The bitter political calculus is that nothing will change because poor people don’t vote or contribute to political campaigns.

    Of course there will be scapegoats. The police, who have no control of the system they work under will get blamed. Racism will be the battle cry. There will be sensitivity classes and minority quotas and moves to subdue the military look of the police. It will all be window dressing.

    There are things that would, IMHO, work: Hire more police. Get them out into the neighborhoods on foot. To the extent possible have the police live where they work. (If the neighborhoods are unsuitable for a middle class civil servant that says a lot about the neighborhood and the need to improve it.) Use mobile police to support the local beat cops but keep the locals in charge. Change the system so that both police and the citizens around them see each other in normal life. Work to reduce the visual differences. Have the police work in pairs so they can be more relaxed. The typical police ‘bat belt’ is really unnecessary. More options doesn’t automatically lead to better choices.

    Keep the response proportional the the threat and people you are dealing with. Superheroes only make sense in relation to super villains. Military weapons and tactics only make sense when fighting a militarized threat. Most criminals are unarmed amateurs. Some though might be given to unarmed, but well trained, part time law enforcement using violence only for self defense. Talking, listening and observing are still the biggest party of police work. Even in this militarized environment the majority of police go their entire career without shooting or killing anyone.

  3. says

    The police, who have no control of the system they work under will get blamed.

    Utter bullshit. It’s amazing how you can blow all your credibility with one simple sentence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *