The Militarization of Law Enforcement - “We’re Not in Mayberry Anymore”

Bob Barr

12/11/2013 11:55:00 AM - Bob Barr

The University of the Incarnate Word is a highly-rated Catholic college in San Antonio, Texas. It is hardly a hot bed of campus violence. When senior Robert Cameron Redus was pulled-over last Friday by campus police for “erratically speeding,” it is unlikely he had any clue of how tragically the stop would end. The campus police department contends Redus, an honors student set to graduate in May, grabbed the officer’s steel baton during a struggle. Not in dispute, however, is that Redus was shot five times by the officer, at close range, leaving him dead and the University scrambling to explain why lethal force was needed to subdue a single college student.

Police-involved shootings are on the rise from New York City to Anaheim, California and crime data suggests incidents involving questionable use of police force -- once a problem primarily limited to large, inner-city areas -- are occurring with greater frequency in smaller towns across the country. For civil liberties watchdogs, this disturbing trend should come as no surprise; much like their federal counterparts, local police and prosecutors are demanding greater power to “pursue criminals,” even if such power may overstep constitutional limitation; and regardless of whether such an approach makes practical sense in low-crime communities or in many non-violent situations in which police officers are involved.

A major factor accounting for this trend is the massive infusion of federal “anti-terrorism” money being funneled from the Department of Homeland Security to local police departments. These billions are turning many neighborhood cops into paramilitary personnel -- equipped with vehicles and weapons intended for use in the world’s most violent warzones. The over- militarization of small-town America is turning Mayberry into the Middle East; with Andy Griffith monitoring a license plate camera while Don Knotts patrols the streets carrying an MP5. Officers now have military-style armored vehicles parked in their lots along side their Crown Victoria patrol cars. This has created such unusual scenarios as Ohio State University’s 40,000-pound, armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle, and sophisticated license plate readers in a town of 333 people.

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.