Liberty, Racism and Police Militarization

An important duty of any law enforcement professional is to prioritize the safety of the public over that of his or her self, which is precisely the sacrifice for which we owe our officers immense respect and gratitude. Their selfless commitment to protect and serve our communities warrants praise and commendation, without question.

Unfortunately, it is becoming evident that police agencies are instead implicitly prioritizing their own safety over that of the public, and they justify this trend by citing heightened threat levels on the job. This reorganization of priorities is implied by a passive but evident willingness to increase their protection and firepower at the cost of civil liberty and comfort.

Police militarization is in and of itself an escalation of sorts; when confronted by a police force that is armed with and protected by military grade equipment, a reasonable person will likely perceive himself to be under immediate threat of physical violence. Therefore he will be more likely to reciprocate, resulting in increased aggression by both parties whether that manifests passively (police intimidation) or physically (hurling rocks at a line of police). It is by no means an imaginative stretch to say that the chances of a peaceful protest becoming violent increase dramatically if the assembly is approached or contained by an intimidating and imposing police presence.

Unnecessarily subjecting our police to harm is also ill-advised, but we should pay careful attention to the balance between their safety and the degree to which their presence hinders individual and collective liberty. Even if any perceived assault on liberty is wholly unintended, it is nonetheless unwarranted and unjust.

My critique of police convention is not to trivialize the issue of the structural racism evident in Ferguson and which is pervasive across our justice system. Contrarily, the issue of the militarization of law enforcement directly contributes to and perpetuates this unfair system since the burden of militarization most often rests on the shoulders of underprivileged minority groups. For comparison, consider this year's Pumpkin Festival at Keene State, which largely devolved into a destructive riot, and how the police response was relatively subdued.

In the aforementioned example, it could be argued that a reduced perception of threat could have driven the relatively amicable police response. This line of thinking alone is indicative of the inequality prevalent in our society. It suggests that those we have entrusted with the safekeeping of our communities have themselves become agents of racial and class division, and that their understanding of institutionalized privilege and oppressive power structures is largely nonexistent.

Though it is easy to believe that such subjectivity is warranted and possibly even a best practice for the protection of our law enforcement officers, placing the safety of a police force over the safety of the community is a dangerous line to cross in the context of a supposedly free and progressive nation. How can we expect subjective law enforcement conventions to establish and maintain an objective peace in our marginalized communities if they themselves perpetuate the structural violence that affects these communities?

Furthermore, we cannot readily expect communities that receive privileged treatment from law enforcement agencies to denounce, acknowledge, or even understand the impacts of inherently racist police practices, their ignorance a result of their own advantaged realities. Such existential distance diminishes the power of compassion to rally our ally communities in support of the less fortunate.

Will a less intimidating police presence fix our problems? No. But it will be a lot easier to support our officers when we don't see them as being catalysts of the very violence they are employed to suppress.