President Barack Obama’s announcement on Monday to ban the transfer of some types of military-style weaponry to local police departments has been hailed as a step forward in addressing the crisis in American policing. The images from Ferguson, Missouri, of warrior cops with army equipment confronting protesters shocked Americans of all political stripes: How did a suburb of St. Louis come to look like the occupation of Afghanistan? The use of armored vehicles, full combat gear and automatic weapons simply made people skeptical of law enforcement.
The militarization of police is only part of the controversy, but it’s the one Americans can actually see and thus becomes one of the major touchstones of public discussion. But it’s important not to overlook the circumstances that flared tensions in the first place.
Michael Brown of Ferguson and Walter Scott of North Charleston, South Carolina, died by simple pistol fire. A cop killed Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, with his bare hands. Baltimore’s Freddie Gray died in a police van. And in the cases of non-lethal police violence that tend to go viral on YouTube or end up as the subject of lawsuits, many of them don’t involve fancy equipment. Instead we see a punch, a kick or mace sprayed in the face.
A confluence of problems has allowed these types of outrages to occur at the hands of cops in the ideal civilian image. In many of these cases the victims of police excess were wanted on petty allegations; Garner, for example, was accused of selling individual cigarettes. But as Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale explains, these incidents that inspire protests, which in turn force cops to bring out their heavy equipment, are a product of policy, not weaponry.
“That’s driven by the war on drugs, broken windows policing and the war on crime mentality,” he said.
Vitale cited New York City as an example that isn’t particularly militarized, in spite of news from around the country that militarized vehicles are being used to serve warrants. NYPD does have military-style equipment but doesn’t use it for patrol, and only brings it out when there’s a major security reason (for example, during the United Nations General Assembly when the city has to protect more than 100 world leaders). But the tension between the cops and low-income, communities of color have to do with the oversaturation of policemen in their neighborhoods taking action on low-grade crime.
Solving that issue is trickier than cutting off departments from some of their weapons. But it’s hardly impossible, said Vitale. “They could start by ending the war on drugs,” he said.
And New York City is making some progress on its own to reduce the amount of policing for petty infractions. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he is looking to grant amnesty to 1.2 million outstanding warrants for low-level offenses, although details remain to be seen how this can be implemented.
But a great degree of the problem rests not with police equipment but with police being rarely held accountable for their actions. While victims of police violence can get relief through the courts, it’s usually through settlements that draw money out of general budgets, not police budgets, so there’s no disincentive for police commanders. Case in point: In 2014, it was reported that over the past five years New York City paid out nearly half a billion dollars in police-related settlements. Yet that financial pain isn’t pinching the department.
We also need to rethink the role of police and what should be considered a crime. So much of broken-windows policing and the idea of combating criminogenic behavior is identifying breeding grounds of criminal activity, which usually are places where economic and educational opportunities are few and services for those in need are lacking. Instead of targeting these problems with police, we should reduce the headcount in police forces through attrition, use fewer officers to focus on violent crime and spend the extra money to address lower-level problems with social services.
This requires changing a national mindset, something that’s a bit more difficult than a president using his authority keep certain weapons from going to small-town police departments. But it’s a conversation the nation needs to have. In a presidential election in which Baltimore and Ferguson are surely going to be topics in debates, it’s important to keep the chronic problem of overpolicing at the forefront. The president’s ban on military weapons won’t fix everything, but if it keeps the debate going that can get our philosophy on policing, then we might see real progress.