Paul Edwards is a Criminology PhD Researcher based at Liverpool John Moores Universities Faculty of Arts Professional and Social Studies & School of Justice Studies. Research interests include: Popular and cultural criminology, illicit markets, organised crime and critical criminological theory.
“These streets will speak for themselves”
The murder of George Floyd shocked the world and again put the reality of living in the United States, especially as a BAME citizen on the global stage. During a global pandemic, millions around the country bravely marched, protested for justice and declared their message ‘Black Lives Matter’. In response the US government deployed its heavily militarised police to face them and later, National Guard units lined city streets: rifles, batons and shields in hand.
This also inspired protests globally: in the UK, France and Belgium people came out in support of the BLM movement. Nations woke to populations whose anger was clear to see and statues of former slave traders (representing the historical roots of black oppression) were ripped down. So, in light of recent events this blog will focus on the current state of policing in the United States and seek to address the questions: Where has policing gone wrong? How policing relates to concerns about racial tensions? and How might policing change?
To answer the first question, it is not hard to see that the trust in the police and the wider justice system is seriously eroded in large sections of the US. Thus, this section will focus on the loss faith in policing in the US and how it adds racial inequality and oppression.
This subject is ‘Militarisation’, which Kraska (2007) notes as the traditional distinctions between military/police, war/law enforcement and when internal/external security becomes blurred. Additionally, Kraska states that Militarism in its most basic sense, is an ideology focused on the best means to solve problems. It is a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions that stress the use of force and threat of violence. This direction towards militarisation has been tracked down to its beginnings most impactfully with the terrorist event of 9/11 (Dunlap, 2001). However they have also been documented as early as the US involvement, both abroad and domestically, in drug control efforts in the mid-to-late 1980s (Kraska, 1993) .
The consequences of militarisation are vast, including hyper-violent, no-knock raids. Debates have been raised to question if these are unconstitutional and breach local police powers. In the US, these types of raids go head to head with the second amendment, as cases have come to light where officers and citizens have been shot as a result, see example here: Breonna-Taylor-shooting. These usually result in expensive litigation judgments but they still exist as a result of militarisation, with questions being raised on the targeting of innocent individuals (like the case above) because of their race (Balko, 2006).
Opinions voiced in online platforms, suggest the policing community see their job as an ‘us vs. them’ scenario. This is best described by youtuber Wraglerstar who shares his opinions about the change in the policing, specifically from the 80’s to the present day. In this he describes the beginnings of the militarisation of police and the change (notably in the city) where police officers seem to become more ‘special forces operator looking’ as well as describing this changed mentality. For Wraglerstar, this changed mentality in policing was experienced after being pulled over aggressively by heavily armed officers, assaulted and even being harassed by the same officers after the incident. Going further he points out that ‘no one is inviting these guys to the local barbeque’ because their aggressive nature is not welcome. This is unlike the past, where police and other services would be invited to ‘birthdays’ and ‘thanksgiving’ get togethers to tighten community bonds, morals and trust. Therefore, this demonstrates that community policing is, as stated above, seriously eroded.
In short this change in mentality can be said to be due to militarisation as Kraska (2007) noted that it causes a cultural shift to martial language, appearance, beliefs, and values. An example of the culture can be seen in the Punisher Skull used by police in the US specifically, even though the use of this in the Marvel comics represents the failure of the police and justice system. What this has caused, is a complete failure of the purpose of the policing model in the US with the community aspect of policing being totally thrown out of the window. Regardless of how many community outreach teams departments police have, the community they serve is fearful and disconnected.
Turning to the second question, it is obvious that the militarisation of the police only serves to widen the racial tensions in communities and enables those officers who have a racist mindset to exercise their views in a more hyper-violent way. Policing as a whole depends on communities trusting those who are there to protect and serve. However, if the police themselves are not part of the community, they have no vested interest in that community. This is not helped by officers who are drafted in from other parts of the country and do not understand the cultures and traditions of the neighborhood.
Thirdly, the militarisation of the police needs to be rethought and stripped back. The communities they serve are not the enemy, they are citizens who expect to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. They are people who want to welcome in officers to their shop, chat to them on the street and invite them to cookouts. But they will not invite people they see as a threat, who are violent to them and kill people on the street through excessive force. Extensive training is needed and when an officer is seen to be using excessive force, officers around need be equipped to challenge without fear of backlash.
Perhaps the time has come to question more deeply how to police a predominantly armed nation? It is necessary to question why patrol officers need to be seen in neighborhoods patrolling in camouflage pants and why at a peaceful protest is there armored SWAT trucks and officers with rifles at the ready. This only harbors a culture that looks at everything like a battle to be fought.
To conclude, it is obvious how the militarization enables an overuse of power and potentially allows those with a racist mindset to fulfil their prejudice and this needs to change. Policing needs to change, whether this is stripping departments back to people who come from the communities, or other solutions, it is critical-community style policing restored to maintain civilian oversight. Other solutions like defunding the police may be a slippery and dangerous slope however and may lead to private security solutions (as seen in the UK and some US states) and this needs to be avoided, as this may lead to the loss of trust and vulnerability as demonstrated in South Africa. With this it is critical solutions are looked for, debated and critical thought is needed from all sides. This blog ends on one thought, that the police (and the incredibly difficult job they do) are needed but the senseless deaths need to end.
Below are links to recommended viewing:
The Future of Policing in America – Understanding & Changing Police Training: Gracie-Breakdown
Racial oppression and community by Kimberly Jones
Netflix 8:46 – Police brutality and lived experience by Dave Chappelle
Netflix Collection – ‘Black Storytelling’ Including Ava DuVernays ‘When They See Us’
Paul Edwards, Liverpool John Moores University
Images: courtesy of the author