Monday, July 11, 2016

Entering a New Era of American Law

Like countless Americans this week, I was profoundly saddened by events in Dallas. The shooting that killed five police officers, and wounded six others, besides two civilians, was a senseless loss of human life for no purpose. It reduced any possible discussion of peaceful solutions for a violent problem to duck-and-cover paranoia. And it gave lovers of peace and justice reason to fear protesting for their cause.

However, hours later, when word came down that Dallas police had killed suspect—suspect—Micah Xavier Johnson with a remote-controlled robot, new questions arose. There’s simply no precedent for deliberately strapping a bomb to the bastard offspring of a moon buggy and a Roomba, and deliberately wheeling it into position to blow up a human being. Not in peacetime anyway; this is clearly battlefield technology.

This is merely the latest example of civilian police departments stockpiling military weapons to “keep the peace” in America’s streets. The proliferation of IED-resistant vehicles, high-yield weapons, and SWAT teams, all represent translations of wartime technology into civilian law enforcement. As we’ve seen, such attempts generally end with civilians dead or wounded. They certainly don’t leave residents of embattled neighborhoods feel safer.

We associate these tactics with Cold War-era military dictatorships, with Peronistas opening fire into crowded plazas, or with Tiananmen Square. These aren’t law enforcement tactics. After all, when suspects are blown to smithereens, that precludes the possibility of arrest or trial. Micah Xavier Johnson will never get to mount a defense or face his accusers. No alternative theories will ever be contemplated. Johnson’s guilt enters history as a foregone conclusion.

Radley Balko writes, in Rise of the Warrior Cop, that such active militarization of American police is both cause and symptom of the shoot-first attitudes we’ve seen in recent news. Not only are those police detailed to Special Weapons and Tactics Teams more likely to answer insignificant challenges with violence, but those police detailed to more mundane tasks, like traffic stops, see violence as their first option. Which apparently happened with Philando Castile last week.

Defenders of the status quo will assert that police have a right to defend themselves—which only a churl will deny. Philando Castile admitted having a firearm on the same hip as the identification he was reaching for. Castile’s shooter has already asserted through his lawyer that the weapon, not race, colored his reaction. And supporters of the police love name-checking bereft families to defend lawkeepers’ right to forceful self-defense.

These fears aren’t entirely without justification. As journalist Paul Barrett writes in Glock: the Rise of America’s Gun, American police departments embraced the Glock, with its light weight and large magazine, following a handful of highly publicized battles where civilians, armed with arsenals worthy of Hezbollah, pinned responding officers into helpless positions. These gun battles often resulted in significant loss of life.

But Barrett, in the same book, acknowledges that such battles were outliers even when they had the benefit of high publicity. Most armed battles with police involve exchanges of three or fewer bullets. Rains of lead, like in the Amadou Diallo case, are very rare. Even on those occasions when police are on the scene quickly, as we learned in Columbine and Sandy Hook, they mostly form a perimeter.

Imagine if police, in confronting Micah Xavier Johnson, attempted some commando gun battle. On-scene reports indicate that witnesses couldn’t initially pinpoint where the fatal shots originated. Any attempt to utilize military technology would’ve created a free-fire situation that inevitably would’ve cost civilian lives, for which the police would’ve been liable. Military technology only works on a clearly delineated front line, as between opposing armies, or between police and protesters.

Police forces cannot justify maintaining their military-grade arsenals, which are very expensive and require constant servicing, without proving they’re necessary. Having an army requires using an army. That’s why Balko’s book involves some pretty horrifying descriptions of SWAT teams breaking up neighborhood poker games, and of police throwing flash grenades into private homes. The deliberate killing of Johnson, who should’ve been arrested and charged, now joins that list.

The Dallas shooting crippled the Black Lives Matter movement: no longer, when an obvious crank like George Zimmerman claims to fight the violence of the BLM movement can anyone claim to be baffled. But it also crippled police credibility when they claim to be protecting the people. Who is helped when the police can remotely detonate bombs on suspects just because “negotiations have stalled”? After last week, America’s police mentality is permanently tainted.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post, Kevin. I was beginning to think I'm a minority of one in feeling absolute revulsion for police robotically (sp?) blowing up a SUSPECT. If negotiations had broken down, why couldn't the police have used the same robot to deliver tear gas. How can we ever claim we're a country that believes in the rule of law?