Danger of a Paramilitary Police Force
Glenn Reynolds has an interesting essay in Popular Mechanics about the proliferation of SWAT teams and the transformation of police forces into paramilitaries.
The trend toward militarizing police began in the ’60s and ’70s when standoffs with the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the University of Texas bell tower gunman Charles Whitman convinced many police departments that they needed more than .38 specials to deal with unusual, high-intensity threats. In 1965 Los Angeles inspector Daryl Gates, who later became police chief, signed off on the formation of a specially trained and equipped unit that he wanted to call the Special Weapons Attack Team. (The name was changed to the more palatable Special Weapons and Tactics). SWAT programs soon expanded beyond big cities with gang problems.
This approach, though, has led to problems both obvious and subtle. The obvious problem should be especially apparent to readers of this magazine: Once you’ve got a cool tool, you kind of want to use it. That’s true whether it’s a pneumatic drill, a laser level or an armored fighting vehicle. SWAT teams, designed to deal with rare events, wound up doing routine police work, like serving drug warrants.
The subtle effect is also real: Dress like a soldier and you think you’re at war. And, in wartime, civil liberties—or possible innocence—of the people on “the other side” don’t come up much. But the police aren’t at war with the citizens they serve, or at least they’re not supposed to be.
Reynolds observes that the difference between soldiers and policemen is “the difference between Audie Murphy and Andy Griffith.” Interestingly, even cops on television have changed over the last twenty yers or so. We’ve gone from the calm professionalism of Joe Friday (“Dragnet”) and Pete Malloy (“Adam-12”) to the thuggish behavior of Mick Belker (“Hill Street Blues”) and Vic Mackey (“The Shield”). Even the real-life officers on shows like “Cops” are often distinguishable from the criminals they arrest only by their uniforms.
It’s true that Andy Taylor and Joe Friday never faced street gangs armed with Uzis. Then again, neither do 99% of today’s police officers. But by adopting the attitude and accouterments of an occupying military, they have lost far more in community goodwill than they have gained in effectiveness. Many if not most law abiding citizens are wary of cops, nowadays, viewing them as a necessary evil rather than heroic public servants. That’s truly a shame.