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Police militarization is not just about lethal weapons; it’s also about too much power and too much data

ferguson policeBy Simon Davies

The recent killing by US police of an unarmed teenager in the act of surrender – and the subsequent slaughter by those same police of a mentally ill man – has sparked widespread disquiet in America and elsewhere about the militarization of law enforcement agencies.

At its most superficial level, this debate is about the transformation of police from romanticized citizen partners into battle-fleet command warriors, festooned with military grade body armor, mine-resistant trucks, silencers and automatic rifles.

Police reform is one of the most complex challenges that any government faces

Police reform is one of the most complex challenges that any government faces

This imagery is stark and compelling, but the police malaise – and the entire militarization question – is far deeper than mere weaponry. The core problem is that police have become increasingly paranoid and risk averse, often crushed between the influences of disintegrated public trust and neurotic, reactionary political masters. This squeeze has helped nurture an escalation of police power that reaches far beyond anything that could have been imagined twenty years ago.

Fueled by rhetoric about an increasingly fragile ”thin blue line” that stands between order and chaos, police across the world have reorganized themselves into quasi-military and security units that are often so paranoid and unstable that the thin blue line has now shifted to within the police forces themselves. The experience of recent police killings in the US has shown that many forces have become so cynical and aggressive that they have lost perspective and balance, mutating into isolated centers of power that defy the normal rules of accountability.

The militarization conversation should be welcomed, but it’s happening too narrowly and too late. Law enforcement agencies in most countries have been moving steadily toward militarization for more than forty years, empowered by lawmakers and courts that are often reluctant to stand in the way of police demands for increased powers and more effective tactical resources.

As a result, modern urban police forces have become highly political structures guided by pragmatic risk assessment and astute PR. Unlike the military, there is rarely either a top-down central command or a cultural anchor. Policing is often devolved to a local level where its administration can become corrupted and isolated. And politicians at state and national levels increasingly apply competitive result-based league tables which – without extreme care – can trigger rank-and-file hostility and bad practice.

Police operate within both a constantly expanding framework of powers and a web of opaque operational relationships with security services and the private sector. Such arrangements operate in darkness, and have contributed to the creation of intelligence-led policing that in some cases approximates total information awareness that escapes public or legislative scrutiny.

In a relatively short period of time, the scale of police use of intelligence and personal data has escalated from extreme to abusive.

In recent times there has been a huge amount of debate over the use by security agencies of personal data, but police authorities have miraculously escaped scrutiny. In a relatively short period of time, the scale of police use of intelligence and personal data has escalated from extreme to abusive. Police in Australia, for example, make over 330,000 requests a year for private communications data, with little meaningful explanation to the public of why such a vast volume of sensitive information is required.

Such statistics indicate a silent shift in the modus operandi of police forces toward that of intelligence agencies, evidenced (pdf doc) by accesses to INTERPOL’s “wanted persons” criminal information system (known as NOMINAL). In 2012 the system was unaccountably interrogated 232 million times by law enforcement agencies – a 230-fold increase from 2007. “Red notices” and “diffusion” notices requesting police cooperation and arrest more than doubled in that period.

As with lethal weapons, greater prevalence of data will lead to a greater amount of failure and abuse.The response, however, by police to legal and reputational threats from both human and data catastrophes is becoming more professional and clinical. Corporate-style lobbying and messaging have moved steadily toward the centre of police management. And, crucially, the institutional massaging of language, imagery and statistics has, for some forces, taken priority over the nurturing of public trust.

Brutality, criminality and robotic inhumanity have always been a prominent feature of policing. What has changed over recent decades, however, is an increased reliance on legal defence and PR-spin response strategies that have more in common with the aftermath of the Bhopal gas disaster than what we might expect from custodians of the Rule of Law.

All the same, no amount of clever PR spin by the police will ever counteract changed perspectives within mass media. Up until the 1980s it was still possible for broadcasters to run popular shows that conveyed a pristine image of police work. Such fake glorification would now be unsustainable. The pendulum has instead swung wildly the other way, with shows like Family Guy emphasizing routine brutality and criminality by police.

What has changed over recent decades is an increased reliance on legal defence and PR-spin response strategies that have more in common with the aftermath of the Bhopal gas disaster than what we might expect from custodians of the Rule of Law. 

Social media, likewise, has also presented a huge PR challenge to police authorities. Countless clips and posts show an ugly side of policing that was previously invisible or unavailable to many people.

Public trust in the integrity of police has consequently plummeted. In Britain – a nation with a historically warm view of law enforcement – forty percent of people now believe that the police institutionally attempt to cover up criminal actions by officers.

As public trust disintegrates, police can easily fall into a siege mentality that increasingly nurtures a closed-ranks culture isolated from the outside world. This dangerous dynamic explains how US police responsible for the killing of Kajieme Powell described video evidence of the event as “exculpatory” in favour of the police, while to many observers it was damning evidence that police can act little better than licenced criminals.

The prevalence of toothless and under-resourced oversight bodies allows this culture to continue – often unchallenged. Few watchdogs have the authority to independently investigate more than a narrow spectrum of misconduct complaints – and outcomes are invariably moderated by negotiation with forces. The result is a disconnect between public and police expectations of  what constitutes fairness and due process.

While police are fond of claiming a “partnership” with the public, this relationship extends primarily to covert collection of tip-offs generated through hot-lines. The most enduring and influential partnerships are those with media, security services and the private sector.

The partnership of police and private companies is particularly striking. In 1998 – more than two decades after the first academic papers on the subject – the European Parliament published research that warned of a dangerous convergence of police, military, security services and private companies:

“A massive Police Industrial Complex has been spawned to service the needs of police, paramilitary and security forces, evidenced by the number of companies now active in the market.”

This growing partnership is important if for no other reason than the private sector is, in theory at least, even less transparent and accountable than are police.

When the topic of police militarization is raised, the quite natural trend of thought is to imagine the growing use of weaponry. The fact that US police are implicated in the shooting deaths of around five hundred people a year adds fuel to this perception. Indeed the use of deadly force by police is a surprisingly common occurrence in many countries. Two days before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson MO, police in Los Angeles had killed an unarmed mentally ill black resident. Four days after the Powell killing, Ottawa police shot dead a mentally ill teenager. In each case, police responded with obfuscation..

The unsettling reality is that the transformation of police into paramilitary and parasecurity forces has largely been completed.

The weaponry dimension, however, understates the dangerous position that police have acquired. The unsettling reality is that the transformation of police into paramilitary and parasecurity forces has largely been completed.

The framework of police power, for example, is rapidly expanding. Police in many countries are acquiring an almost limitless authority to investigate, intervene and arrest. This expansion of power has come about not just through countless new crimes being added to the statutes, but also through new powers to pre-emptively intervene and to act increasingly on the basis of association. Additionally, a maze of international agreements (such as mutual assistance and extradition treaties) empowers police to act on behalf of other jurisdictions – even where there is no dual criminality.

But even the much narrower weaponry discussion often ignores crucial aspects. True, police are now equipped with a vastly increased armory of lethal weapons, but forces are also bloated with a wide spectrum of ”non-lethal” devices. While there has often been public support for technology such as chemical sprays and stun guns, these devices have the effect of increasing the overall extent of police aggression.

This combination of trends spells bad news for police. In an environment of diminishing trust, escalating police power and collapsing accountability, the thin blue line, both inside and outside law enforcement, will disintegrate – with profound consequences for all of us. A way must be found to change the conditions that have created such dangers.