Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ferguson Is The Symptom, Not The Disease

Events in Ferguson, MO this past week have been deeply disturbing, if not downright distressing.  I don't particularly need to recount them in any detail.

Precisely what happened, and who thought what is no longer even relevant.  In the public perception, a white police officer has gunned down an unarmed black youth in cold blood.  Talk about a trifecta of cultural currents that a prominent in the social malaise that is the southern US.  Racism, gun violence, youth crime all rolled into one little ball.

To say that the police and other civic decision makers in Ferguson have handled this entire situation badly is an understatement.  From the changing stories and obvious attempts to justify the officer's actions to the attempt to impose a curfew last night, whoever is "in charge" is either naive, foolish or really, really clueless.

One dimension of this story that is being overlooked, or perhaps even deliberately ignored is the impact of the increasing militarization of police forces in North America.  The US Military is busy shedding gear that it no longer needs from its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and police departments across the country have been picking up heavy and medium armour equipment at bargain basement prices.  Under what circumstances a police force whose job it is to serve and protect the public from criminal activity and random violence needs equipment designed to withstand driving over land mines is a little beyond me.

I found this picture on Facebook the other day, and regardless of the attribution, the statement made is quite correct, and chillingly accurate.

There has been a distinct change in the mentality of police forces in both the United States and Canada in the last fifteen years.  (Unsurprisingly, since Bush II and his gang of thugs came to power, in particular)

I seldom have to interact with the police directly - I lead a pretty quiet life, and its only rarely that something happens like I get pulled over at a traffic stop or something like that, so when it does happen, the differences between interactions are striking to me.

Several years ago, I got stopped after making an illegal turn (the signs had gone up the week before, but I hadn't noticed them).  The officer that stopped me was polite, explained what had happened and why I was being given the ticket.  Not a big deal really.  That was in the late 1990s.

It would be another decade or so before I would have another interaction with the police.  This one was a whole other kettle of fish.  It involved someone falling back from my vehicle in a playground zone.  The officer saw it as "me passing in a playground zone".  However, the officer in that situation was belligerent, officious and generally quite nasty about the whole situation.  When I tried to explain that the other vehicle had pulled back so that he could pull in behind me as there was a car parked in his lane ahead, I got a lecture about how "I was lucky that the police officer didn't have his speed gun on at the time, or I'd be getting a ticket for speeding too".

That was my first direct experience with the shifting attitudes in our police forces.  Something had shifted from enforcing the laws reasonably and being respectful of the people to automatically assuming that the job of the police was to accuse everybody of being guilty of something.

More recently, we have seen police departments switch from the blue-and-white colour scheme that had been predominant since the 1970s back to the 'black-and-white' of the 1930s.  Further, the equipment of a police car now makes them appear much more aggressive, and there is a return to black uniforms.  When, if ever, did it make sense to fill a teenager (or another accused) full of bullets when they have already surrendered, or are otherwise under your control?

Let's put all of this together.  We have police forces arming themselves with military gear.  Have you seen what a tactical team looks like nowadays?  You can't tell the difference between them and a marine unit on maneuvers.  Further, the "new look" for police vehicles is clearly designed to to intimidate the public, and we're dressing our officers in black ... and that's just the outward appearance.  I shudder to think what is being said in briefing rooms and meetings regarding the public.

While there is more to the Ferguson situation than just this one dimension, when you start giving your police heavy weaponry, and tools designed to intimidate the public there can be no doubt that at the end of the day you are creating a powder keg.  You don't make things better by tossing lit matches into powder kegs ... Our police forces in both countries need to be reminded that their role is to enforce the law to the benefit of the public, not to its detriment.

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