The Militarization of the Police: Is It a Battle of Equipment or Mentality? (Part 1 of 3)

The culture of police departments in America today is far too often one that encourages aggressive responses to quell discontent. That culture may be allowed or encouraged because of the militarization of police forces, which the Obama administration is now trying to correct.
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Coauthored by J. Berkeley Bentley and Arthur Rizer

On Monday, President Obama announced that the federal government will no longer be providing some overly militaristic weaponry and equipment to police forces throughout the United States. That announcement was made following a task force's report recommending specific ways to demilitarize the police and encourage "community policing." That report and the President's announcement are the culmination of recent, highly publicized tensions between America's police forces and the citizens they are supposed to protect and serve.

Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and Baltimore: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray. Such is the state of police/community relations in the U.S. today that each of those cities and each of those names resonate, evoking images of police overreacting and doing so seemingly without thought or care as to the life or liberties of the suspect or the public at large.

It is against that backdrop that the President's announcement of demilitarization comes out. In each case, the show of force intended by police to make citizens think twice about carrying on in ways the police didn't like resulted in public outcry. The media then gave voice to that outcry, carrying the stories nationally and internationally. Because of the attention focused on these instances and their back-to-back-to-back-to-back timing, "political will" was forced to do something -- a report was issued, an announcement was made.

Demilitarization of the police is surely a good thing for police/community relations. There are, of course, arguments against taking things like tanks, grenade launchers and camouflage uniforms from urban police forces. This article, however, is not primarily concerned with whether militarization is the right thing to do or not. Rather, this article, and the two companion pieces to follow, takes the position that demilitarization is but one step in a fight to correct a police culture that reinforces an "us against them" mindset that results in the overreaction, brutality and bullying we've seen so much of recently.

In late April, Officer Jesse Kidder was hailed as a hero after a body cam video showed the rookie officer refusing to shoot a murder suspect despite the suspect charging Kidder, yelling "Shoot me!" This incident stands in stark contrast to most police involved stories recently. The incident reminds us of the other side of the issue: The video clearly shows us the snap judgments officers of the law are forced to make in dangerous life and death circumstances. Yet, it should also make us wonder... why is not shooting someone an act of heroism? Why is it not the norm?

Why is it, rather, that what we've come to expect from police in reacting to protest is camouflage, flak jackets, assault rifles and machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers? Why is it that what we see is an overreaction intended to intimidate?

Police in America have tremendous power over the day-to-day lives of citizens. But, as Voltaire (and Spiderman's Uncle Ben) said, "With great power comes great responsibility." Yet we all know someone, usually someone from high school, who said, "When I grow up, I want to be a cop," to which we all thought, "Oh God, I hope not." Maybe they were a bully in high school; maybe they were bullied in high school and seem like they would take revenge if given the chance; or maybe they just stood by while others bullied, complicit through inaction. Then, years later, we remember that someone from high school when we see reports and video of police going too far, using force as a first response and patrolling our streets with equipment designed for a military equipped and trained to kill.

The culture of police departments in America today is far too often one that encourages aggressive responses to quell discontent. That culture may be allowed or encouraged because of the militarization of police forces, which the Obama administration is now trying to correct. But that is not the end of the conversation America needs to keep having.

No, the conversation, although given impetus by such egregious shows of militarization, really needs to start with who gets hired.

A lot has been said over the years about the lack of minorities and females in the ranks of America's police forces -- diversity that needs to be in place. Less has been said about other types of diversity, though, diversity which would give police more and different ways of looking at peaceful protests and violent riots alike.

One significant area where increased diversity should pay dividends is in the intelligence of police officers. Many police departments currently cap "acceptable" general intelligence test scores to reduce turnover, fearing smarter candidates would quickly get bored with day-to-day policing.

An unintended consequence of this hiring practice, though, is that it also limits the "emotional intelligence" of the applicant pool -- the applicants' ability to perceive, use, manage and understand their emotions and the emotions of those around them -- as recent research has shown that general and emotional intelligence are more strongly correlated than previously thought.

Research has also shown that those with lower emotional intelligence scores are more likely to bully. By limiting the general intelligence of the applicant pool, then, police departments are also limiting the emotional intelligence of the applicant pool, increasing the likelihood that applicants will be bullies.

The danger, of course, is that these bullies will be given guns and uniforms and authority over others. This power imbalance is something bullies seek to create, reinforce, and exploit in their victims and their audience -- the public around them. The practical effect of this power imbalance is something we've seen too much of. The military equipment, attire, and weaponry only give these bullies more implements to strike fear into their captive audience, the public they are charged to protect and serve.

The demilitarization announced on Monday, then, is but a step toward creating the type of police force America wishes to see in its communities, a force engaged with the community rather than one that is merely reactionary, unsure of their environment and hostile to all those who happen to be in the way.

Over the coming days, we will run two companion articles expanding on this first piece. This rise of the bully cop will be explored in more detail and, more importantly, recommendations for action will be outlined.

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