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Tomgram: Matthew Harwood, Welcome to Cop Land

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Sometime in late November, after the Paris terror attacks but before the one in San Bernardino, I was walking to New York's Grand Central Station to catch the subway home. In front of one of its main entrances, the police had set up shop, blocking off part of an avenue. The crew I stumbled upon may, in fact, have been part of the new counterterrorism unit that the New York Police Department had just rolled out. Whatever the case, the cops were up-armored in a purely military fashion (even if their togs were fashionably black and blue) and carrying weaponry the likes of which I had never seen before on the streets of my hometown. Amid flashing lights, they stood there with dogs on leashes looking not like "the police" but figures from some dystopian, futuristic sci-fi flick. Nothing in particular seemed to be happening so, after a few minutes, I entered the vast terminal, passing scattered pistol-packing soldiers in camo, evidently guarding the just-before-rush-hour crowds. It was certainly a spectacle, but also just part of the new American normal.

So consider what I'm about to mention less than newsworthy amid all the reports on the militarization of the country's police and their brutal behavior. And yet it's the sort of tiny news story that once upon a time would have been striking. Now, few will even notice. Policing headlines these days, after all, gravitate to graphic videos of cold-blooded police killings in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. (There were 70 fatal shootings by the Chicago Police Department alone between 2010 and 2014. As Margaret Talbot pointed out in the New Yorker, only Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Dallas "had a higher number per capita.")

When it comes to the arming of the police in a country in which rural sheriffs proudly sport battlefield-grade mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, and new militarized urban police units like that one in New York City are being outfitted with Colt M4 semiautomatic assault rifles and machine guns, a report that 20 campus cops at Boston's Northeastern University are going to be armed with semiautomatic rifles qualifies as distinctly ho-hum news. Or thought of another way, it catches the everyday reality of a country whose police have been up-arming with a kind of passion since 9/11. I can, of course, remember the unarmed campus cops of my own college days and, believe me, we've traveled a long road from policing "panty raids" to facing on-campus mass shootings in a country now so over-weaponized that it seems as if both the police and the citizenry are in an undeclared arms race.

In these years, the militarization of the police has taken place amid a striking upsurge of protest over police brutality, abuses, and in particular the endless killing of young black men, as well as a parallel growth in both the powers of and the protections afforded to police officers. As TomDispatch regular Matthew Harwood, who has been covering the militarization of the police for this site, reports today, all of this could easily add up to the building blocks for a developing police-state frame of mind. If you've been watching the national news dominated by panic and hysteria over domestic terrorism, including the shutting down of a major urban school system over an outlandish hoax threat of a terror attack, or the recent Republican debate over "national security," which turned out to mean only "ISIS" and immigration, can there be any question that the way is being paved for institutionalizing a new kind of policing in this country in the name of American security and fear? Tom

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The Logic of the Police State
People Are Waking Up to the Darkness in American Policing, and the Police Don't Like It One Bit
By Matthew Harwood

If you've been listening to various police agencies and their supporters, then you know what the future holds: anarchy is coming -- and it's all the fault of activists.

In May, a Wall Street Journal op-ed warned of a "new nationwide crime wave" thanks to "intense agitation against American police departments" over the previous year. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went further. Talking recently with the host of CBS's Face the Nation, the Republican presidential hopeful asserted that the Black Lives Matter movement wasn't about reform but something far more sinister. "They've been chanting in the streets for the murder of police officers," he insisted. Even the nation's top cop, FBI Director James Comey, weighed in at the University of Chicago Law School, speaking of "a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year."

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According to these figures and others like them, lawlessness has been sweeping the nation as the so-called Ferguson effect spreads. Criminals have been emboldened as police officers are forced to think twice about doing their jobs for fear of the infamy of starring in the next viral video. The police have supposedly become the targets of assassins intoxicated by "anti-cop rhetoric," just as departments are being stripped of the kind of high-powered equipment they need to protect officers and communities. Even their funding streams have, it's claimed, come under attack as anti-cop bias has infected Washington, D.C. Senator Ted Cruz caught the spirit of that critique by convening a Senate subcommittee hearing to which he gave the title, "The War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement." According to him, the federal government, including the president and attorney general, has been vilifying the police, who are now being treated as if they, not the criminals, were the enemy.

Beyond the storm of commentary and criticism, however, quite a different reality presents itself. In the simplest terms, there is no war on the police. Violent attacks against police officers remain at historic lows, even though approximately 1,000 people have been killed by the police this year nationwide. In just the past few weeks, videos have been released of problematic fatal police shootings in San Francisco and Chicago.

While it's too soon to tell whether there has been an uptick in violent crime in the post-Ferguson period, no evidence connects any possible increase to the phenomenon of police violence being exposed to the nation. What is taking place and what the police and their supporters are largely reacting to is a modest push for sensible law enforcement reforms from groups as diverse as Campaign Zero, Koch Industries, the Cato Institute, The Leadership Conference, and the ACLU (my employer). Unfortunately, as the rhetoric ratchets up, many police agencies and organizations are increasingly resistant to any reforms, forgetting whom they serve and ignoring constitutional limits on what they can do.

Indeed, a closer look at law enforcement arguments against commonsense reforms like independently investigating police violence, demilitarizing police forces, or ending "for-profit policing" reveals a striking disregard for concerns of just about any sort when it comes to brutality and abuse. What this "debate" has revealed, in fact, is a mainstream policing mindset ready to manufacture fear without evidence and promote the belief that American civil rights and liberties are actually an impediment to public safety. In the end, such law enforcement arguments subvert the very idea that the police are there to serve the community and should be under civilian control.

And that, when you come right down to it, is the logic of the police state.

Due Process Plus

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It's no mystery why so few police officers are investigated and prosecuted for using excessive force and violating someone's rights. "Local prosecutors rely on local police departments to gather the evidence and testimony they need to successfully prosecute criminals," according to Campaign Zero . "This makes it hard for them to investigate and prosecute the same police officers in cases of police violence."

Since 2005, according to an analysis by the Washington Post and Bowling Green State University, only 54 officers have been prosecuted nationwide, despite the thousands of fatal shootings by police. As Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green, puts it, "To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way. It also has to be a case that prosecutors are willing to hang their reputation on."

For many in law enforcement, however, none of this should concern any of us. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order appointing a special prosecutor to investigate police killings, for instance, Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, insisted: "Given the many levels of oversight that already exist, both internally in the NYPD [New York Police Department] and externally in many forms, the appointment of a special prosecutor is unnecessary." Even before Cuomo's decision, the chairman of New York's District Attorneys Association called plans to appoint a special prosecutor for police killings "deeply insulting."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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