In Missouri this week law enforcement officers lobbed tear gas canisters and shot rubber bullets at enraged protesters after police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in suburban St. Louis.
Witnesses say the boy was “shot like an animal” for no reason at all. The resulting conflagration in St. Louis resembles – more than anything else – the Deep South in the late 50s and early 60s.
This is not the first recent case of questionable actions by police officers across the country. It seems to occur in almost epidemic proportions.
Closer to home a local television station recently aired footage of a Montgomery County Police exhibiting questionable behavior on a traffic stop – albeit after a driver ran over his foot. This week another news station filmed more questionable activity by local police and the county police promised an investigation into the matter.
So, what is going on across the country with our police departments? Are we in fact – as some civil libertarians and social historians maintain – living in a new “Police State?” Is there a cure to the problem? What is the problem?
We ask our police departments to do some pretty nasty things for the rest of society. Spending five years working and reporting on a television show (America’s Most Wanted) that chronicled some of the more chillingly disgusting acts of humanity put me in first hand touch with the most despicable people police handle. I do not envy any police department the task with which we give them.
For the most part police carry out the hardest duties with little fanfare and few thanks. When they do get news coverage it is usually because someone believes their civil rights have been infringed upon and they howl and scream.
That aside, there are many politicians, historians and civil libertarians who maintain the Patriot Act and the post 911 world in which we live has given rise to a new militarization of local police departments which in turn has led to increased violence against the populace – and often certain segments of society are targeted as police engage in racial profiling and act out violently for little or no reason.
There is overwhelming evidence local police departments have been the beneficiary of more and better technology including heavily armed urban assault vehicles, helicopters, and other assorted weapons because of increased funding due to the fallout from 911.
So there is little room to argue against an increased militarization of local police departments. They go through extensive and rigorous military training while the daily non-confrontational interaction with the general public has decreased dramatically since the days of “walking a beat.”
Chances are if you see a police officer today, you don’t say “Hello. How’s it going officer? How are you today?” You are mostly likely saying, “Is there a problem?” Or as Richard Pryor used to joke, “I am reaching for my wallet. Please don’t shoot.”
When police were removed from daily non-arrest interaction with the average citizen, we lost something. In many jurisdictions the police don’t even have an office in the heart of the city where people can enter or interact with police officers. Today’s police stations most closely resemble military bases where the average citizen cannot enter without passing through metal detectors and then are limited in their ability to move throughout the building and interact with police.
Part of this, of course, is due to the violent times and the terroristic threats under which we live today.
But there is little doubt people fear more than respect police and many young adults and teens look upon the police as the enemy and not a friend to turn to when help is needed.
I’ve seen this first hand also. I had a park police officer draw his gun on me during a routine traffic stop for absolutely no reason as he pulled over my mini-van with three young children, two dogs and my wife inside. “I’m going home at the end of my shift,” he declared to me as I asked him why I was staring at a loaded gun. “Put the gun away,” I said, “And we can all go home safely.”
Fear is the greatest motivator in young officers and old alike. But fear does not excuse excessive violence or shooting unarmed teens or anyone else.
The problem cannot be understated when the people we pay to help, serve and protect us are looked upon as the problem and not the solution. When people – as some have said across the country - fear burglars and robbers less than they fear the police then we’ve crossed a line.
The question is, how do we get back?