The transfer of used military equipment from the armed forces to police departments around the country has been accompanied, at least to a certain extent, by a shift in public thinking. The news media have played a critical part in that shift, both in its coverage and in what it chooses not to cover. How often do we hear, for example, do we hear statistics like these?
- From 1993 to 2012, overall violent victimization declined from a rate of 79.8 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older to 26.1 per 1,000.
- From 1993 to 2011, the rate of homicide declined 48%, from 9.9 to 5.1 homicides per 100,000 persons.
These figures are from the most recent Justice Department report on “criminal victimization,” but we seldom hear them. Instead, news coverage reinforces frightening perceptions which are reinforced by a seemingly endless stream of violent imagery in popular culture and political rhetoric.
The weapons are coming.
As several reports this past week have indicated, the transfer of weapons from the Pentagon to domestic police departments has been a driving force in the militarization of America's streets. As Zaid Jilani reports, Congress had a chance to stop that process when a bill co-sponsored by Dem. Alan Grayson, with the support of Republican Justin Amash, was introduced in the House. (The Democratic and Republican leadership voted against it, and it failed.)
The post-9/11 spike in national security spending has also added significantly to the militarization trend, as the Department of Homeland Security continues to dispense weaponry, eavesdropping equipment, and training to police departments around the country.
Who benefits from all of this? Defense contractors certainly do, since they can now argue that their products are useful to the nation both abroad and then at home. It also gives them new markets - for direct sales to police forces, and for the sale of replacement parts, ammunition, and other supplies. There is a political benefit to be had for politicians whose ideology is based on fear.
This police-military complex moved into action during the heyday of the Occupy movement. A number of elected officials undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when the police's efforts against them finally splintered that movement (or drove it underground).
There's also benefit for the media. Sensationalism is good for business. In a disturbing segment which we first reviewed last year, 60 Minutes offered what amounted to an infomercial for the militarization of American police, in a segment entitled “Counterinsurgency Cops.” What follows is adapted from our initial review:
The 60 Minutes "Cops" episode featured footage of urban police in full military gear, carrying rifles with night scopes and kicking down the door of an American home. Lesley Stahl led the audience through a manipulative exercise which began with her telling the audience that foreign counterinsurgency casts soldiers as "warriors and community builders, going village to village driving out insurgents while winning the hearts and minds of the population" with 'mixed results at best."
And, Stahl continues, "we met a Green Beret who is finding out -- in his job as a police officer -- that the strategy might actually have a better chance of working, right here at home, in the USA."
The next paragraph in the official CBS script reads as follows:
"Call him and his fellow officers counterinsurgency cops! They're not fighting al Qaeda or the Taliban, but street gangs and drug dealers in one of the most crime ridden cities in New England."
That chirpy exclamation point is CBS's, by the way, not ours. CBS finds nothing controversial about fighting suspected gang members or drug dealers (legally they're only suspects, although the word is never used by Stahl) with the same techniques used to fight those who are presumably enemy combatants in a foreign field of battle.
An ‘aha moment’?
The Green Beret in question - actually he’s a former Green Beret, although this goes curiously unsaid - is a charming and affable state trooper named Mike Cutone. We're told that, in Stahl's words,
"... after returning from Iraq (Cutone) had an ’aha moment’ when he was talking to a gas station manager in Springfield ... The similarities to the Iraqi town he had lived in and defended were so striking, that he sat down and wrote out an action plan for Springfield ... He proposed his plan, a counterinsurgency program, to Springfield's deputy police chief, John Barbieri."
After being reassured that the plan wouldn't involve "helicopters" and "checkpoints," we're told that Barbieri gave the young former Green Beret the green light to proceed with his 'counterinsurgency" program.
The long war at home.
Except that Mike Cutone didn't think of it all by himself. The American Civil Liberties Union has been studying the militarization of American police forces for years. So has author Radley Balko, whose book Rise of the Warrior Cop tracks this militarization process from Reagan's war on drugs, through Clinton's COPS programs, and into the present. Among other things, this process has given defense contractors billions in domestic sales they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
To hear 60 Minutes tell the story, the use of counterinsurgency tactics by US police forces began with an "aha moment" in Cutone's head. His program was initiated in 2009. But military scholars were writing about the topic as far back as January 2007, in papers with titles like "Using Counter Insurgency Tactics, Techniques and Procedures to Defeat Gangs in U.S. Cities." They were published while Cutone appears to still have been overseas.
The American people saw the "militarized" police force at work this week on the streets of Ferguson. Let's hope that the violence which followed becomes our nation's real "aha moment."