America’s Inept Police: A Counter-Intuitive Proposal

I have mostly avoided political posts in this dark summer.  I do, however, want to weigh in on our policing problem with a perspective I think many will find outrageous, but that I think needs articulation.  I have found my thoughts on this topic somewhat anticipated by Fred Kaplan, in this article on Slate.  https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/police-military-tactics-lessons-protests.html

Kaplan draws a stark contrast between the Military and our domestic police forces in terms of fire control. Not only would our trained soldiers be much more unlikely to indulge in the kind of “violence panic” that leads to shooting someone in the back seven times, but the soldier who acted so foolishly would face the contempt of his or her peers as well as being subject to official investigation and (possibly) sanctions. (The notion of “violence panic” comes from sociologist Randall Collins’s very insightful book, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Approach [Princeton UP, 2008]).  Kaplan rightly cautions against over-praising the military, but he is certainly right, I believe, to suggest that something is radically amiss in our training of police officers.  What, even after we factor in racial prejudice, could account for their being so trigger-happy?  It goes against the most elementary principles of any trained military force.

My first reaction is to say we should only allow ex-military to serve as police officers.  Before reacting in horror, my readers should consider a few basic facts about the military.  For starters, it is among the most fully integrated, most fully diverse institutions in American society.  The chances that a veteran would have had long-lasting and substantial interactions with a wide range of different people are much higher than in almost any other walk of life.  The military has also generally succeeded in creating a strong ethos of cooperation with and care for one’s fellow soldiers.  Perhaps only a few exceptional sports teams can compare.

This is not to deny that a certain percentage of white soldiers in the military are involved with white nationalist groups.  Or that the majority of members of our right-wing militias are ex-military.  In fact, the generally exemplary fire control of those militias should be noted.  For all their gun-waving, there have been remarkably few actual shooting incidents.  It is no surprise that the Kenosha shooting was done by an untrained 17-year old, not a military vet.  The police, too, have been infiltrated by the white nationalists, so a careful vetting of potential candidates is needed.  But I still think we’d be better off with veterans than with the quite evidently badly trained police we currently have.  And the vetting is required in either case.

Furthermore, the military has an exemplary (again, not perfect, but still pretty good) record of fealty to civilian control.  Certainly a far better record than police unions, who are openly contemptuous of civilian politicians and review boards even when they don’t outright defy them.  The recent rampages of police forces in our cities dramatically show how fully the police currently operate as an unchecked force beholden only to itself.

The simplest way to put this: the military does not, generally, think of itself as an embattled group of men/women at odds with the society they are supposed to serve.  Rather, soldiers generally experience their service as an alignment with that society.  But the police now seem to exist (at least in our largest cities) in a state of permanent aggrievement.  Their response has been to double down on their defiance of anyone outside their own ranks who tries to direct the terms of their service.

Finally, on a somewhat unrelated point, I never see anyone tie our police violence problem to the lack of gun control.  But surely the police are (at least in part) so trigger happy because they have to assume that everyone they encounter is a potential gun holder.  Back when our politics was sane in the 1990s, police departments were (again, not always, but in a fair number of cases) advocates for gun control measures.  They also participated in buy-back programs designed to get guns off the street.  But now that partisanship has overwhelmed sanity, police departments line up for policies that make their jobs more dangerous.

It is worth noting as well that being a police officer is not especially dangerous compared to other occupations.  Here’s a link to the stats on that fact, with the police coming in as the 13th most dangerous job (in terms of fatalities).  https://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-dangerous-jobs-in-america-2018-7#10-first-line-supervisors-of-landscaping-lawn-service-and-grounds-keeping-workers-25

It is also astounding how many people our police forces kill.  I wish this number would get cited in news stories about the police. On average, about 80 people a month are killed by the police.  As of August 30th, 2020, 661 people have died at the hands of the police this year.  Here’s the stats for the last three and a half years: https://www.statista.com/statistics/585159/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-month/

The failure to make these numbers known just goes hand-in-hand with the bad job our journalists do on just about every story—never asking the probing question, and never digging even slightly below the surface of any story to give readers/listeners the facts necessary to even begin to understand it.

What I have to say here does not override, but exists in a complementary relation, to other proposals about police reform.  The relation of the police to civilian control and to the communities they serve requires a drastic overhaul, while some of the duties currently handled by the police need to be taken out of their hands.  But so long as we are going to have armed police officers on our streets, we need a drastic improvement of the training we give those officers in the handling and use of those weapons.

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