A lot of talk is going on right now about not needing the police, but it’s just not true. We need police. There will always be robberies, rape, assault, murder, crazy people with a gun, and other crime.
It’s true we don’t need police in areas of our lives where they have been unnecessarily and destructively assigned duty by lawmakers eager to appease public sentiment or to garner support for re-election. The drug war has been one of those areas.
But it’s also true that law enforcement in the United States has always been armed. Shoot-outs in dusty frontier towns of the Old West come to mind. Those encounters were minor compared to what happened when do-gooders decided the American people shouldn’t have alcoholic drink.
Organized crime got its first foothold in American life thanks to the lucrative black market in liquor. This was also the golden age of bank robbery with figures like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger becoming folk heroes. The Thompson sub-machine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle were increasingly used by these crime “stars.”
…the Prohibition Era saw domestic police departments using automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and ammo developed with the express purpose of being able to penetrate the early bulletproof vests worn by gangsters of the era.
The first transfer of military weapons to civilian law enforcement occurred in the years immediately after World War II when surplus military supplies were made available to various civilian entities. With the rise of activism for African-American rights in the 1950s and 1960s, then the increasing public protests over the Vietnam War in the late ‘60s and early 1970s, police forces felt emboldened to use force.
…police militarization was escalated in the 1950s and 1960s, an era in which race riots and anti-war protests were common in many U.S. cities. Some believe that the seeming success of officers armed with military-style weapons and deployed to curtail the 1965 Watts riots, a six-day race riot sparked by conflicts with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) that killed 34 people, gave way to the trend of arming and equipping law enforcement officers with battlefield weapons. Joy Rohde, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, has published research indicating that “militarization is a mindset … is a tendency to see the world through the lens of national security, a tendency to exaggerate existing threats.” Rohde traces “the origins of modern militarized policing” to the Cold War-era anti-communist paranoia, and the idea that domestic civil rights activists were similar to foreign enemies, as manifested in activities such as the CIA’s Operation CHAOS.
…The 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act allows the U.S. military to cooperate with domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies. Operations in support of law enforcement include assistance in counter-drug operations, assistance for civil disturbances, special security operations, counter-terrorism, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), and similar activities. Constitutional and statutory restrictions and corresponding directives and regulations limit the type of support provided in this area. This allows the U.S. military to give law enforcement agencies access to its military bases and its military equipment. [Emphasis mine.] The legislation was promoted during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the context of the War on Drugs, and is considered a part of a general trend towards the militarization of police.
The process becomes circular. Tougher drug laws under Reagan meant police were legally empowered to invade private residences, stop and search vehicles, and frisk people on the street. In response, civilians trafficking in drugs or only using drugs became more likely to arm themselves. Which in turn led police to seek more protection and greater fire power like SWAT which are essentially militarized police squads.
Begun in 1965 in Philadelphia, SWAT teams were conceived as a way to restrain urban unrest, deal with hostage situations, or handle barricaded marksmen. The number of SWAT raids in the US grew dramatically from about 3,000 in 1980, to a whopping 50,000 SWAT raids in 2014.
Unfortunately, too much of a potentially good thing has meant that 62 percent of all SWAT deployments were for drug raids, 79 percent of these were done on private residences, and only 7 percent of all raids were done for situations SWAT was invented for—namely barricades or hostage situations.
The result has been an increasingly armed and embattled police at war with the population whether white right-wing fanatics or inner city drug gangs. One begets the other. It’s hard to imagine sending disarmed police officers out on calls and equally hard to contemplate any attempt to disarm the public. Communities of color have become disproportionately impact by the war on drugs not only because they are disproportionately impoverished and therefore seeking any means of income, but also and most importantly because ALL LAWS are policed selectively. Officers would rarely if ever stop a white well-dressed man driving a late model Lexus but would not hesitate to stop a black or Hispanic man with any profiling features like certain hairstyles, jewelry, clothing, shoes, or automobile.
We have get smart about this. Yes, communities and the nation as a whole must do a better job of intervening in the preconditions of ‘crime’ by improving all forms of social support: better early childhood education, far more generous funding for public schools, and intensive efforts to improve health care and nutritional support to impoverished communities. Better job opportunities will require dedicated effort. It’s a long list of what might help and a very short list of funding to enable those programs.
It also makes sense to look at what drives much of the police violence, and the drug war is first in line. Young men in impoverished neighborhoods earn money by selling drugs. With their profits and to protect themselves from theft, they buy weapons. Shoot-outs with police are inevitable.
We need to face reality as a nation and legalize all drugs. People who want drugs are getting them now, so it’s a fantasy to think that prohibition is succeeding in its stated goal. We only need to look at what occurred as a result of alcohol prohibition to see the parallel to our current situation. More violence, more crime, and no real impact on the use or abuse of alcohol.
The money we spend on enforcing drug laws and punishing drug law violators could easily supply the funds needed for the social reforms mentioned above. “Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion. In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people charged with drug-related offenses—that’s more than $3.3 billion annually.”
The fact is that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem and treatment alone is not the answer. As shown on the adjacent chart, funding for ‘prevention’ is a slim portion of the overall budget. What we need to get at is WHY people abuse drugs, and in order to make meaningful headway on that question, we must first accept the reality that drug USE is not the same as drug ABUSE. Just as a beer or two isn’t alcoholism, neither does casual smoking of marijuana or exploring LSD on a weekend adventure constitute substance abuse.
If drugs were legal, labeled for purity and potency, and taxed like alcohol, our tax dollars could be concentrated on the true sources of substance abuse problems including:
– Genetic predisposition to addiction or abuse
– History of mental illness and lack of access to mental health care
– Neglect, abuse, or other childhood trauma
– Poor social skills or lack of social support structure
– Poor health and lack of access to health care
Data collected over recent decades shows a consistent 8-10% of the population are predisposed to addiction, the greatest percentage of which are alcoholics. In 2011, of persons meeting criteria for substance abuse, “2.9 million were classified with a substance use disorder of both alcohol and illicit drugs. 4.2 million were classified with a substance use disorder for illicit drugs but not alcohol. 15.0 million were classified with a substance use disorder for alcohol but not illicit drugs.”
Obviously neither military weaponry nor SWAT teams have any real impact on addiction. By now we as a society should recognize that drug prohibition has almost singlehandedly pushed our police forces into armed combat on our city streets and given birth to gang warfare. This is one specific target upon which concerned citizens can and must take action – educate our elected representatives on the facts, advocate in support of change, and never rest until this arena of community conflict has been removed.
Police only enforce the laws. Voters are in control of who make laws. Let the healing begin.