In response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of discussion in recent days about the “militarization” of U.S. policing. Much of the talk lays the blame for this as rooted in the Pentagon’s casting off since 1997 of military surplus that is scooped up eagerly by police departments across the country. But the issue isn’t really that “new,” though: it has been evolving for decades.
For example, I recall how, in the early 1980s (I believe), a New York City police officer involved in a shootout with a suspect, was killed when his NYPD-issue six-shooter emptied and he was caught reloading. The killer possessed a stronger weapon with more bullets than the police officer’s. Subsequently, the NYPD “upgunned” and vowed no officer would ever be “outgunned” by a criminal ever again.
More recently, Newtown police responding to the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 approached that building as if they were trying to take an enemy position in Normandy in 1944. Indeed, the shooter had enough weaponry – bought legally by his mother, whom he had already killed – on him that he might well have been able to have held Omaha Beach singlehandedly for some time.
It’s no secret that firearms saturate the U.S. As a consequence, a police officer approaches you warily. If he so much as stops someone for speeding, he never knows if at the car window he will be staring down the barrel of a gun. With much of the U.S. populace owning ever more powerful weaponry, police forces have responded by more heavily arming in the face of that public they in many respects greatly fear.
In Britain, routine interaction with police is far less tense than in the U.S. If you encounter a U.K. police officer, he is probably “armed” with a night stick and a radio. Because of the country’s incredibly strict gun control laws, in return he knows you probably aren’t carrying a gun either.
What’s the solution in the U.S.? There probably isn’t one. U.S. police will always feel (not without reason, as Sandy Hook, for one, proved) that they need heavy weaponry as long as much of the populace is armed to the teeth. In turn, much of the populace has no desire not to be armed to the teeth…. because, after all, the police are.
UPDATE: From the New Yorker:
Of course, the militarization of the police is not entirely new. SWAT teams date back at least to the late sixties in Los Angeles. During the eighties and nineties, many big police forces armed their officers with automatic weapons, and, partly to prosecute the war on drugs, some police departments acquired some pretty heavy weaponry. But it was 9/11 that really changed things. Under the guise of beefing up their anti-terrorist operations, police forces across the country acquired all sorts of military uniforms and hardware, sometimes using federal grants to pay for them.
Quite true. We can’t forget 9/11’s aftermath as contributing as well. Worth bearing in mind also, though, is that Britain has also invested a great deal in its own domestic post-9/11 anti-terror policing efforts, and it has done so without the overt military-style approach one sees in U.S. policing.