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Conversation with a Police Chief

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There was a time when, growing up in a suburban area around Mansfield, a university town in northeastern Connecticut, I could go days without seeing a police car. These days, though, when I go back there to visit my old hometown, I see them everywhere. Where once there was one resident State Trooper for the township of Mansfield, today there’s a fleet of Troopers in squad cars, called “Interceptors.” The university too, which in my youth had a couple of university cops whose only real job was breaking up the occasional dormitory panty raid, now has a full-fledged police department, staffed with beefy cops who would be hard to distinguish from the troopers — or from recently furloughed military vets (which many of them probably are).

In communities and cities across the country, the number of police has soared, rising, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 603,000 in 1992 to 794,000 in 2010. This even as crime has been falling fairly steadily for over 30 years, even in cities that have had to cut back on their police staffing for budget reasons.

But it’s not just a matter of numbers. Police are also much more aggressive in their behavior towards the public. Where “no-knock” forced entries into people’s homes were a rarity 30 years ago, such so-called “breaches” are increasingly the norm in many jurisdictions — they reached over 80,000 last year by one calculation — as police departments adopt an approach that elevates “officer safety” over concerns about the safety of the public, including innocent bystanders. (Consider two recent incidents in New York where bystanders were shot by police who were firing at suspects — in one case [1] an unarmed mentally ill man standing in traffic in midtown Manhattan.)

The same can be said about the use of supposedly “non-lethal” tasers, which have morphed from being alternatives to shooting and killing suspects to tools to enforce docility, or even to punish people who verbally contest the actions of a police officer. A recent report in the New York Times [2] showed that as part of a growing trend to place police officers in public schools, students, including even in elementary schools, are being tasered for what used to be considered an offense meriting a trip to the principal’s office–sometimes with serious and even deadly results.

Making everything a crime requiring police action can get ridiculous. In 2004 I covered one story in Philadelphia where a 10-year-old grade school girl was cuffed and hauled off to jail by two cops called in by the principal because she had innocently brought a pair of “grown-up” scissors from home to class in her school bag in order to finish a project involving pasting magazine clippings on a piece of construction paper (she was actually transported to the precinct lock-up, unaccompanied, in the back of a paddy wagon!). This year, a high school senior in Ohio was arrested and jailed by police who found a knife in his car, even though he explained to them that the car was his father’s and that he hadn’t even known the knife was in the vehicle’s glove compartment.

Over the last decade, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams have also proliferated. Initially developed in Los Angeles as units that could respond with special weapons and tactics to handle hostage situations, hopefully saving lives, these have, in many communities, become the favored units of choice for making minor drug busts and for serving warrants. The feature of a SWAT raid is arrival by military-looking police, often at night, in an armored vehicle, forced entry into a home via battering ram and sometimes with the aid of flash-bang grenades, with heavily armed and armored cops in military garb, often wearing ski masks, rousting and cuffing family members, who are screamed at and held at gunpoint while their home is ransacked.

Not surprisingly, killings of unarmed citizens by police have soared in recent years, while the killing of police officers has fallen sharply. In 2011, only 33 police officers were killed on the job by gunfire nationwide. It was the lowest number killed since 1887, when the US population was 75% smaller and when there were far, far fewer police officers.

Meanwhile, nobody knows how many people have been killed by police. Incredibly, no federal agency bothers to keep track, though the US Justice Department was tasked by Congress with doing so back in 1994. Several sources have scoured the internet, however, and these estimate [4] that the number killed since 2011 tops 5000, making it more likely that an American will be killed by a cop than by a terrorist.

Not all police are happy about these changes.

Terrence Thompson, chief of police in my town of Upper Dublin, PA, said that while he understands the need for officers to have adequate weapons because of the heavier firepower of today’s criminals, and even understands why towns want armored vehicles for their SWAT teams, he is also concerned that SWAT tactics are being over-used, and that overall the militarization of police is a dangerous trend.

“SWAT is a necessary evil — well, I won’t say evil, they’re necessary,” says Thompson. “But SWAT teams shouldn’t be used for serving routine warrants. First of all, if we’re going to serve a warrant at a home, we do a threat assessment. Does the person in the house own a gun, does he have a history of violence? Also, are there other people in the house? Are there children? And you have to make sure you get the address right. When SWAT teams make a mistake about the address, it’s scary.”

Thompson insists that it’s critical for police be part of their community, and that they maintain a polite and professional attitude towards the public. “Someone giving the finger to a cop doesn’t call for a high-speed pursuit,” he says. Nor, he says, is it acceptable for police to be rude or threatening when they are engaged in something like a traffic stop or a minor arrest.

He says, “The scary thing about all the militarization of policing — the M-16s, the camo for the SWAT teams and so on — is that you lose touch with your community, and if the police lose that connection, you’re dead in the water.”

Thompson recalls his department being given, by the Pennsylvania state government, a bunch of free army surplus M-16s — part of a distribution of Pentagon gear to all police departments in the state. “The first thing I did was get rid of the fully automatic capability,” he says. “Then we locked them up and finally we got rid of them all. They weren’t appropriate for police work.” Squad cars now are equipped with semi-automatic AR-4’s which are disassembled so they fit better in the vehicle, to be used only when necessary, he said.

Thompson decries what he calls “camo creep” in policing, a trend he says is at least partly driven by “politicians who don’t see where this is going.”

And where is that?

“I don’t like the idea of a police state, but that’s where we seem to be heading,” he says.

Thompson speaks fondly of two visiting tours he did as a police officer in Ireland — a country that has certainly experienced its share of violence and even terror bombings and attacks over the years. “The officers there continue not to carry weapons because they’re afraid that it will ramp up the violence,” he says wistfully.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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