What's Happened to Policing in the U.S.?

Another day, another black man killed by police. One newspaper lists the overall total so far this year as 532: people of color, people unarmed, people with mental disabilities. The number may even be higher.

Endemic racism is of course one component, but there's also a larger context: the juggernaut militarization of police forces around the country, and an unconscious change of mission. Too many cops see themselves as soldiers fighting enemies rather than protecting and defending us citizens. They're bristling with military weapons and the attitude that goes with them--as if the war in Iraq were about to break out on the streets of our "homeland."

It's not their fault--it's how they're trained and armed. As The Forward notes:

In many places, cops are not adequately trained to balance protecting safety (their own and others') with defusing conflict. They respond, routinely, with overwhelming and often deadly force to situations that could be resolved without it. They are often scared kids, put into stressful situations with inadequate mental resources.

Here in my own state of Michigan, many police forces have put themselves on a list to get Mine Resistant Ambush Proof (MRAP) vehicles from the Defense Department. Don't know what those are? They're vehicles designed to withstand ambushes and attacks from IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Which as we know, have been long-term threats in every state of the Union.

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These Michigan agencies are eager to defend against war-like violence:

Saginaw Police Department
Highland Park Police Department
Oakland County Sheriff
Wayne County Sheriff
Niles Police Department
Macomb County Sheriff
East Lansing Police Department
Genesee County Sheriff
Westland Police Department
Kalamazoo County Sheriff
St. Clair Shores Police Department
Battle Creek Police Department
Wyoming Police Department
Novi Police Department
Sterling Heights Police Department
Mt. Morris Township Police Department

If you're in Michigan and don't recall ever reading or hearing a news story about mines, IEDs, or ambushes in any of these locales, don't blame your memory. Blame the facts. Blame the Pentagon. Blame the Patriot Act. Blame the overuse of SWAT teams for things as simple as serving warrants. Blame our government officials at any level who think military weapons and equipment should be in the hands of over-zealous police.

President Obama is right to say that the shootings of innocent black men are symptomatic of disparities in our criminal justice department. But if we only talk about race, we'll be ignoring a truth just as ugly: that we've let our police forces become small armies, with everything that means.

None of that justifies targeting police as they just were in Dallas or in any way, but we have to do serious soul-searching about how we've gotten to this place, and how and why so many people fear the police now when they should be looking to them for protection.

Now more than ever we need what the New York Times calls for: "cultural and attitudinal change."

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Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a crime novel about militarized police which was a finalist for The Midwest Book Award. His 24 other books can also be found on Amazon.

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