14 August 2014

Ferguson and the Question of What Policing Means

To Serve and Protect

When I was growing up, the above motto summed up what the mission of the police was-- if not in every circumstance, at least in its own intent and in the public's desire.

Dragnet, that wonderfully cardboard propaganda series, and its slightly more dashing spin-off, Adam-12, are the poster children for this paradigm.  Norman Rockwell's famous depiction of the little boy seated at a diner counter with the friendly local cop-on-the-beat comes to mind.

Policing is necessary to ensure order in any society made up of human beings born in original sin.  It is often thankless, often dangerous.  Many fine men and women still take as their mission To Serve and Protect.  They still exist, they are out there, and deserve our thanks.

But this mission has not seemed to prevail in some circumstances and places, those places and circumstances seem to be on the rise.  Instead of the policeman in the blue uniform with the soft-cloth, brimmed, octagonal hat, armed with the authority of his office and a sidearm, we now see the Kevlar-encased, military-helmeted, AR-15 toting pseudo-warrior.

Why?

We are told the threats to the police are more dangerous.  Criminals have more firepower, and thus the police need to have more firepower.  Allowing some truth in this, the question remains.  Why? 

Take Ferguson, for instance.  On the first night of trouble, the police were out in force, dressed for trouble.  They got trouble.  The crowd was angry and things got out of hand.  Many stores were looted.  The police did nothing to interfere with this.  Many citizens' stores and property were destroyed or taken, and their lives were in danger.  Whom were the police protecting that night?

In the following days, the police, even more well-armed and using armored vehicles and tear gas, kept crowds from forming at all.  Looting was prevented.  One person was shot.  A reporter was arrested. Other reporters were made to disperse. 

Why?

After night one, I was appalled at the looters.  Very quickly I became disturbed by the authorities.

Police are supposed to serve and protect the citizenry, to defend lives first, and to ensure law and order.  Your rights, to life, liberty and property, are objects of this protection.  Yet in Ferguson, it seems that the police are seeking to protect the government they serve from the citizens it used to serve and protect.

Because of the racial powder keg that to date has not been in play in other military-style repression ops like Boston or Nevada, more people of influence have noticed:  why do the police look like soldiers? Because if you think about it, get enough soldiers in one place, and there is a term for that:  it's called an army.

Four articles in the press in the past 12 hours are relevant here: 

Gov. Nixon promises 'operational shift' in handling of Ferguson protests

St. Louis police chief says he does not support militarized tactics in Ferguson

Rand Paul: "We must demilitarize the police"

Police Chief rips Obama remarks


I don't pretend to know exact answers.  There is a need for an adequately armed police force.  That type of police force, with a proper mission, requires the support of citizens.  But we need to have a debate and a decision soon:  what is the mission of our police, and what are the appropriate means to effect it?

1 comment:

Pete said...

Now The Hill headline which you copied is misleading. I thought it was the Ferg police chief. I was dismayed b/c frankly I thought O's statements were credit-worthy, especially for him.

But it is a statement by the head of the US FoP. The "chief" of the police officer association.