As a reporter, I’ve dealt with a lot of small town cops. With rare exceptions, I got along with them. Reading the coverage of the protests and police riots, I’ve struggled in vain to recognize anything resembling my personal experience.
My impression is that being a small town cop is most often like being a hall monitor with a gun. There’s a lot of sitting around in cars, directing traffic and filling out forms. It’s kind of boring, but a good gig overall. The perks are great. You get uniform stipends and generous time off. Then it’s pension city after a quick 30 years or so.
In general, I found small town cops to be friendly and genuinely concerned about their communities. They were mellow, upbeat guys. With notable exceptions, we got along.
Despite that sunny outlook, I wouldn’t trust any of them with military grade weapons.
My disagreements with cops occurred happened during interruptions to their routine. When bad stuff goes down, cops get heated and feel they have to assert order. Ordinary places become crime scenes, holy land upon which infidel reporters can’t tread. That’s when they start screaming at rookie reporters crossing police tape. They grab for cameras and invoke their right to take 24 hours to make a statement.
No matter how good a person you are, no matter how well trained you are, breaking from a comfortable, quiet routine will make your emotions run how. Being outfitted with twice your normal complement of weapons, armor and vehicles will only make it worse.
These weapons are designed for soldiers to suppress large groups of enemy combatants. Active duty soldiers could encounter situations like that everyday; they get a lot of practice with the gear. A cop might have to put it on once, maybe twice in a career. Even if they’ve been trained to use it, it will be disorienting and foreign.
The presence alone of scopes, the armor and the vehicles create a hostile environment. They are meant to be aimed at an enemy. When police take them out, they are no longer protecting and serving their community. They’re threatening to fight it.
Besides, small town cop would never have a real need for military equipment. Regular police gear will suffice for everything except extreme situations, and those only require swat gear. It isn’t like ISIS is coming to the suburbs anytime soon.
Once the armor and the sniper rifles are in play, a cop’s ability to exude calming authority is ruined. They can’t direct traffic out of the elementary school after parents have seen them pointing a high-powered sniper rifle at their neighbors?
While the long term effects of using military weapons are likely to be corrosive for community relations, according to one security expert interviewed this week by the news website Vox, they’re not even helpful in the moment.
There’s a couple levels on which what the Ferguson police are doing, compared to the phalanx, is ineffective. They’re not near the protestors, and they’re not pushing them off the ground they want to push them off of. They’re not doing what they want to do. They’re standing back, using this show of force — I guess that’s the best way to describe it — and it doesn’t work.
I don’t know how to turn back the clock on the militarization of America’s police departments. But maybe the thing for a good cop to do is to send the gear back.