Imagine your neighborhood under a heavily policed lockdown with an imposed curfew, dozens of arrests each day made by camouflage-wearing, rifle-toting police, and snipers on the roofs of buildings pointing their weapons at you and your kids. Before the events in Ferguson, Missouri, many Americans would have considered such a scenario unimaginable. But now the irony of the situation — police using brutal and disproportionate tactics to quell protests about police brutality — has been become clear.
As a result, it's revived the decades-long debate over militarized police. Members of the radical movements of the 1960s were the first targets of the government's intelligence and enforcement apparatus. From the FBI down to local police departments, increasingly militarized strategies were rolled out at home. Programs like COINTELPRO had a well-documented and devastating impact on many organizations, and as the focus shifted to the tactics of mass incarceration during the War on Drugs, local police took on a larger role. The SWAT team took shape in the '60s after Daryl Gates — a Los Angeles Police Department commander during the Watts riots — observed with admiration the way counterinsurgency strategies from foreign wars could be used to pacify a domestic urban population.
As various federal programs were created to provide surplus military equipment to local police forces, the cities receiving the equipment found more frequent justification to use it. SWAT teams — portrayed in movies as saving hostages, busting human traffickers and engaging in shootouts with terrorists — are more often searching the homes of suspects facing nonviolent drug charges. According to a 2014 ACLU study on SWAT deployment, only seven percent of SWAT raids were for "hostage, barricade, and active shooter scenarios."
It isn't just the weaponry and money spent that's the problem with militarized police. It's the attitude of officers who operate as though they're engaged in a war with people they are traditionally expected to serve and protect. In 2007, when the Spokane Police Department began a large purchase of AR-15s (the civilian M-16) rifles for patrol officers, Sgt. John Roys told KREM that the purpose was to "defeat" an increasingly armed element in Spokane. So, serve, protect and ... defeat?
Spokane activists and citizens have long fought for basic accountability and oversight of their police department. For decades, this process has been thwarted by the Police Guild, often with help from the city administration as a whole. As work on these issues continues, those seeking reform should keep these issues of militarization — both in terms of equipment and psychology — at the forefront. As the Inlander and other sources reported recently, draft policy for police body cameras leaves recording mostly up to officer discretion. Until police departments like ours can turn around their records and rebuild community trust, we cannot allow those same departments to set the terms of their own oversight.
Does the SPD need an armored personnel carrier or a team of chemical weapons specialists? Do we need more surveillance for citizens and less for the police entrusted with law enforcement? Unquestioned obedience to authority, particularly to illegitimate and corrupt authority, can't lead to anything promising. In times like these, the least we can do is ask questions about the policies and direction of local police. ♦
Taylor Weech, who hosts the weekly public affairs program Praxis on KYRS-FM, is a Spokane writer and activist. She shares writing, photography and her podcast at truthscout.net.