More than simply increasing the likelihood of abuse or disaster, such militarization tends to change the psyche of the American police officer -- the more he is equipped like a soldier, the more he begins to act like one. This, coupled with today’s crime-speak that treats all crimes as if they were acts of terrorism, puts police officers mentally on the offensive; changing their perspective from “serve and protect,” to “find and prosecute.”
Perhaps this is why earlier this year, Virginia Alcohol Control Board agents pulled their guns on a frightened, 20-year-old college student. After mistaking her purchase of bottled water for alcohol, plainclothes officers surrounded her vehicle, and one agent jumped on her hood. Understandably frightened after being ambushed in a dark parking lot, the student tried to drive away as agents drew their guns and tried breaking her windows. Fortunately, the student was not shot. She was, however, forced to spend the night in jail and charged with three felony offenses. The District Attorney decided not to prosecute the case, but stood by officers’ decision to file charges against the student.
In a country where buying a bottle of water can escalate quickly into a potential five-year prison term, the once-common refrain of “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide,” has become esoteric. Reports emerge daily about new details of the Obama Administration’s domestic spying programs. Recent court documents reveal the FBI’s ability to activate computer cameras without alerting users. Government agencies at all levels share our personal data with each other -- even data illegally stolen from commercial sites.
The entire attitude of the criminal justice system is shifting towards treating all citizens -- regardless of guilt -- as suspects. There is no more burden of proof. There is no more assumption of innocence. Your only “right” is to obey; just try to board an airline with a two-inch toy gun in a child’s back pack.
The best hope we have to undoing this statutory and regulatory nightmare created in recent years is to fight back through the ballot box and in court. Fortunately, organizations from across the ideological spectrum -- from the Institute for Justice to the American Civil Liberties Union, and many others – are actively helping to protect citizens from government abuse in all its forms.
All this is not to say there are not very real and very serious threats in communities across the country. Adam Lanza reminded us of that a year ago in Newtown, CT. These threats and incidents must be dealt with using a sound combination of good policing and new technology. But militarizing police forces in communities large and small, and treating all citizens as enemies, is not reasonable, necessary or American.