Media Coverage of the “Militarization of the American Police”
By RU Pablo
The events in Ferguson, Missouri have captured the attention of the American public in recent weeks. One of the many topics in the public forum has been the increasing militarization of local police forces. It is an important topic and one that merits public debate and scrutiny, but the con-versation we are having today as a nation is filled with misinformation, conjecture, and a sense that two sides of the debate are circling their wagons to defend their positions.
Author’s note: My purpose here is not to address the situation in Ferguson – there is a place for that, but this is not it; especially since we do not have all the facts yet. Kind of an important part of passing judgement. I am also not here to condemn or defend the media, the Ferguson Police Department, the residents of Ferguson, or anyone else.
Words are Important
There is probably nothing that twists the brain of a cop or veteran more than technical inaccuracies. It’s the reason our wives and girlfriends dread (or outright refuse) to watch cop/military movies with us…we spend the entire 120 minutes pointing out procedural/technical/ballistic/his-toric inaccuracies.
When journalist or pundit refers to an armored truck as a “tank”, they automatically lose all credibility with people who know the difference. It’s the same thing that happens in the gun control debate when a semi-automatic rifle is referred to as an automatic weapon or a machine gun.
Journalists have a responsibility to fact check and to present accurate information. While the difference between an armored truck and a tank may seem inconsequential to some, it is not. It brings in to question the credibility of the writer or speaker. The logical next step is to question what else they are getting wrong about the story. Recently, Huffington Post correspondent Ryan Reilly experienced public backlash while covering the civil unrest in Ferguson when he when he tweeted a photo of several discarded foam ear plugs lying on the ground and stated, quite publicly, that he suspected they were rubber bullets and asking for confirmation. To his credit, Mr. Reilly a) was asking the question rather than erroneously stating it as fact, and b) issued a public retraction after learning of his mistake.
A recent article by Newsweek’s Taylor Wofford alleges public safety officials in Missouri have denied purchasing MRAPs despite a Reuters photo showing Ferguson cops in an MRAP…except the photo is clearly NOT an MRAP. Again, a simple Google search would have completed the fact checking on this.
Safety versus Perception
Having served in uniform as both a police officer and a soldier, I know that the vast majority of police officers in America don their protective gear in an effort to go home alive and uninjured at the end of their shift. Allegations that I have read that American police departments are becoming occupying armies in disenfranchised neighborhoods are frankly false or an oversimplification of the importance of good community-police relations.
It appears that some are trying to create the appearance that the average beat cop in Smallville, USA is driving around in an armored patrol vehicle and dressed in SWAT gear 24/7. The reality is that with a few exceptions, most cops are in marked patrol cars wearing the standard police uniform we are all familiar with. Some specialty units – K-9, street crimes units, and fugitive warrant units will wear a more tactical uniform during their day-to-day operations, but even then there is usually a tactical reason for doing so. Most of what we’ve seen lately, however, are cops in riot/crowd control gear and SWAT units serving high-risk warrants.
An unfortunate consequence to civil disobedience is that oftentimes peaceful protesters gathering to assert their First Amendment rights find their message usurped by cowardly people skulking in the shadows to throw rocks and bottles at the police. Additionally, police presence is a critical part of maintaining order at large gatherings. Whether it is a protest or a concert festival, there needs to be an adequate police presence to respond and ensure peace is maintained. Those cops need to be protected from unnecessary injury.
Follow the Money
The reality of the police using military equipment primarily comes down to fiscal responsibility, not some conspiracy theory of turning our disenfranchised communities into occupied war zones.
One can easily make the argument that the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, is not the most appropriate vehicle for a local police department. This is correct. The MRAP is designed for use in a combat zone riddled with roadside bombs. There are other vehicles, specifically designed for SWAT operations, that are probably better choices. Currently, however, the MRAP makes more fiscal sense for local taxpayers.
Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, local governments can purchase surplus military equipment from the government for pennies on the dollar. In June of this year, the Fort Myers Police Department in Fort Myers, Florida purchased a $750,000.00 MRAP for a mere $3,400.00. They are not alone. Other agencies have seen similar savings in purchasing surplus equipment including MRAPs, aviation equipment, desks, rifles, and binoculars.
Given the economy of the last few years, it is any surprise local government bean counters would be enthusiastic to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by purchasing surplus equipment?
The origins of the 1033 program (and the 1208 program before it) lie in the federal government’s efforts to assist local law enforcement in fighting the “War on Drugs” in the early 90s. The September 11th attacks subsequently added a homeland defense/counter-terror aspect to the federal government’s assistance.
Operator Chic – Coyote Tan is the New Black
Are there cops out there who love the opportunity to live out their Delta-CAG-SealTeam6-Wish-I-Was-Blackwater fantasies because they never joined the military or did join but left the service before our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq? Sure. Those guys are out there, but they are a small minority. (Although, I did recently see SWAT officers from an agency in Florida wearing tan desert boots…pretty good choice given the vast expanses of high desert in the Sunshine State).
Just like the military, police departments have their geardos, too. Just like the military, they are not a representation of the organization as a whole.
Much has been written recently about the need for police to deal more effectively with the communities they serve. Many have pointed out that dealing with the citizens of a community from behind military-grade armor as if they were a hostile force is ineffective. This is true, but not a very accurate portrayal of modern American policing.
Comparatively little has been written about other aspects of law enforcement training. A case in point is the Crisis Intervention Team training, or CIT. CIT is a program that provides specialized training to law enforcement officers in dealing with people suffering from mental illness – especially when a person is in crisis. The program, established in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988 following the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man by Memphis police officers, has been growing for a quarter century with exceptional results. Miami-Dade County alone has trained over 4100 officers in CIT in just over a decade.
(Author’s Disclosure Statement: I have been involved in CIT since 2003 and have taught portions of the curriculum since 2006)
See the Whole Picture
The debates over the militarization of the police, police-minority relations, the war on drugs, the war on crime, and other topics are important and need to constantly be addressed, evaluated, and assessed. A free and independent media coupled with transparency in government are important tools in ensuring that what works continues and what does not work is revised.
The media plays a critical role in ensuring this process works. Whether it is news coverage from a major news powerhouse, independent reporting from freelance journalists, or grass roots coverage through social media sites, media coverage is often the eyes and ears of the nation. For this to work, however, there needs to be a high level of journalistic integrity. Factual reporting is critical.
Lazy reporting and sloppy fact checking does little more than obscure the real picture and fan the flames of discontent. Journalists, you are better than that.