What’s going on with the police in this country? If, like me, you’ve been alternately shocked and deeply saddened by the actions of police against protestors, journalists, and residents in Ferguson, MO, then this is a question that demands an answer.
The current series of demonstrations and strong police reactions began when a police officer in Ferguson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. There are many black voices out there talking about the racial aspect of this awful tragedy, and I strongly suggest you read some of them. Greg Howard’s powerful shot dead in an Ohio Wal-Mart because he was holding a toy air rifle. In South Dakota, an 8-year-old Rosebud Sioux girl was shot with a stun gun because police couldn’t convince her to put down a paring knife. In New York, a black man named Eric Garner was shot him with a Taser. In Enfield, charges against a man who was accusing the police of brutality were quietly dropped after video emerged of the incident. And lastly, preliminary analysis of Connecticut traffic-stop data suggests that there’s a higher chance police will stop you if you are black or Latino.
The police themselves seem to be acting more like military than ever before, as well. “I’m A Cop: If You Don’t Want to Get Hurt, Don’t Challenge Me,” the title of a recent essay in the Washington Post, sounds like the arrogant attitude of an occupying force. The scenes of police in Missouri wearing military-style desert camouflage gear and confronting protestors with heavy military vehicles have been seared into the national consciousness over the past few weeks, but thanks to programs that sell military surplus to police for pennies on the dollar, departments all over the country now have access to this sort of gear.
The Courant found that plenty of Connecticut police departments have picked up cheap weapons and vehicles. Stratford, Fairfield, Windsor, and Windsor Locks have picked up M-16s, for example, while Meriden, West Hartford, and Woodbridge now own grenade launchers. Eleven departments, including Madison and Windsor, possess mine resistant vehicles, and Stratford owns a Huey helicopter. I can’t imagine what they’re planning on doing with them, especially in an era where violent crime has been falling for two decades.
Unfortunately, none of this will be easy to undo. It’s like this country figured out the recipe to make the perfect bomb: take longstanding institutional racism and historic attitudes of the police toward nonwhite people, and mix in the toxic effects of white paranoia, white supremacy, bulging prisons, gun culture, sensationalist media, and cheap military surplus, and you get something that is going to explode. And it has, again and again.
Look, I know that there are fantastic cops out there. I’ve met a lot of them, and I’m grateful for the work they all do every day. It’s a tough, dangerous job, and it doesn’t come with a lot of rewards. Many officers risk their lives on a regular basis to keep us safe.
But that doesn’t change any of the facts above. The police are in this gray area, where on the one hand they’re doing great things and making the country a better place to live, but on the other hand they’re engaging in oppressive behaviors: racially profiling people, becoming more militarized, and using firearms when they don’t need to.
If that gray area seems familiar, it’s because the U.S. military has lived there since 2001. I do have to wonder if we’re seeing yet another effect of the long war, this twitchy nervousness, and this sorting of everyone — without exceptions — into camps labeled “friends” or “enemies.”
Whatever the underlying causes, this road we’re on is a dangerous one, and we must do what we can to turn around. Examining racial profiling here in Connecticut is a good start, but the next governor and the next session of the legislature must do more to heal the chasm that’s opened up between police and community.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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