the role and image of the police
one thing that’s unsettling to me about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri as a non-American is just how militarised many of the police units look. When I hear of Americans talking about police brutality, and how the power relations between the police and the public is often one of intimidation, it strikes me as very unhealthy. Speaking from a different context, the relationship between the police and the public SHOULD NOT be like that.
It seems the trend in the US is that you see less of this:
But more of this:
Firstly, police deal with civilians, not enemy soldiers or insurgents. That is a very important difference, and is the reason why most developed countries have a clear delineation between the police and the military. You need a completely different skill set as a police officer- how you react, when you should err on the side of caution, what to look for. A soldier’s instincts that might save his life in a firefight may instead hurt an innocent civilian back home. That’s the reason the equipment police use is different- the main gear of choice is usually the baton and shield for riot police in a melee. Yes, batons can cause severe injuries if you hit people hard enough, but that is likely to be much less severe than a soldier carrying military rifles and shooting into a crowd.
These are British police at a protest in London. They don’t go there in riot gear because the general idea is that the police are not there to take sides or intimidate protesters, but to simply keep both sides separated and deter any violence before it starts. it also reassures the public that they’re there watching in case things start escalating. Now, far be it for me to say the UK police are perfect- they have certainly made mistakes and have hurt people when they overreacted.
But the overall way the police look and behave is very different from what you see in Missouri. In the UK, the policeman isn’t just someone who wrestles thugs to the ground, but the guy or lady you go to ask for directions if you’re lost. Those on normal duty never carry guns- because the culture there is that officers police by consent- that they owe their permission from the public- and rather than the state (i.e by possessing intimidatory force, which a gun represents). Even in a case where two officers were shot dead, most British police officers said they preferred to not to carry guns save for exceptional circumstances. (This is an excellent BBC article that discusses more) While I recognise in the US, the 2nd Amendment means that it may be a practical necessity for all your officers to have guns, it is striking what an utterly different police culture exists there. It is a fallacy to think that the more armed and intimidating your officers are, the safer you will be. London is a major, populated city as crowded as any major US city, and the UK police do not need to cultivate an unhealthy culture of intimidation to keep order.
How riot police should look like if things start escalating:
Notice one thing too? The colour of their uniforms. It’s a navy or deep blue like their normal uniforms, to reinforce the fact that they ARE NOT the military. Now remember those policemen in Ferguson dressed in ARMY CAMOS? (why the hell are they wearing camos, which are completely useless in the urban environment, which is where they always operate?) It projects to the public a far more militarised image, and in my opinion, is extremely unhealthy. It also conditions the officers themselves to view themselves as soldiers in a conflict zone when they see the gear they use and the uniforms they wear. EXACTLY the kind of thing that leads to overreaction and police brutality that probably caused Michael Brown’s death, where it all began.
Just so you can really see how ridiculous this is:
US Navy SEALs during a training exercise- Navy SEALs are amongst the most elite of US special forces, and they operate in conflict zones around the world. The unit that launched the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is SEAL Team 6.
Why do you even have these quasi-military police at the site of a protest? A protest, not an armed insurgency or a manhunt for an armed and dangerous terrorist? Intimidation often breeds escalation, because people don’t trust the police, the police overreact and things spin out of control. Don’t buy into the idea that police need to be like this because America is more dangerous. The best armour police have is the trust and cooperation of the public- something I sense to be missing in many places in the US because of this culture of intimidation.
I am not an expert on guns, so I can’t tell you if the guns the Missouri police have are sniper rifles, or contain just rubber bullets or if they’re for firing tear gas. But the point is that overall, they look practically indistinguishable from US military units. Even those American soldiers with the Afghan man in that photo actually looked less threatening than the Ferguson police. And that is a sign of something, very, very wrong.
As an annotation to the post: that particular sniper rifle fires rubber bullets; note the peculiar end of the muzzle and lack of silencer.