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President Trump’s ‘Arms for Cops’ Program is Just More Militarization of the Police


President Trump’s pandering executive order reversing an Obama decision to scale back the dumping of surplus military equipment on the nation’s already over-armed police departments includes word that his new “toys (arms)-for-cops” benefit program will include Army and Marine surplus bayonets.

Let’s ponder that for a moment.

The Army gave up bayonets for combat use after the Korean War (the last recorded US bayonet charge was in 1951 in that war). Now, while the Marines still train in bayonet use in boot camp in a bow to tradition, the reality is that nobody actually uses them in combat.

So you have to ask: If the military doesn’t think that bayonets are needed or useful in actual combat, why would police in the US need them?”

It’s a good question and gets to the larger question of why American cops need any of the gear that they’re being offered — once again — by the US military: everything from MRAP “tanks” so heavy that if called out for a SWAT raid, a route has to first be carefully plotted and followed that doesn’t cross over any of this country’s worn-out and and crumbling bridges and culverts (an MRAP weighs 14-18 tons, while local street viaducts in many communities frequently have tonnage limits in the single digits).

Before he retired, I had a conversation with the chief of police of my community of Upper Dublin, a quiet middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, about militaried policing. A thoughtful veteran of the Vietnam War himself, he disabused me of an automatic and commonly shared assumption I had made that local police SWAT teams were probably populated by combat veterans looking for more adrenalin-pumping action. Actually, he told me, combat vets who go into police work — and there are many who do, thanks to the extra points awarded to veterans by most communities in their hiring — don’t want to be playing soldier when they become police officers. “They’ve had enough of war and killing,” he told me. “It’s the ones who have never been in the military who volunteer for SWAT teams.” He explained that such officers are “wannabe soldiers.”

Maybe if police and sheriff’s departments get old Korean War-era bayonets from the Pentagon to put on their semi-automatic rifles, they’ll try launching bayonet charges next time they bust into a house to deliver a bench warrant for a bald tire or missed family court appearance or to look for pot plants, instead of just walking up to the front door in the early morning and bashing it in with a battering ram, as my son witnessed the Savannah Police SWAT unit do trying to arrest a pot dealer who lived next door to him and his schoolmates (the suspect wasn’t home, but his little kids were).

Next we’ll be reading about police stabbings of innocent civilians, instead of their being shot.

Maybe that would be a a good thing. A stabbing victim, I should think, would have a much better chance of survival than someone who is the victim of a barrage of bullets fired by an over-excited cop in the heat of urban, suburban or rural “battle.” That is unless the cop wielding the bayonet decides to engage in multiple piercing of his victim.

Really, this whole thing is getting seriously out of hand.

I was just in England, where I had to spend some time in a National Health Service hospital waiting room, and among other things, I got to see an English version of a reality cop show, where the camera was following a couple of bobbies around on their night patrol. I don’t know what city it was but judging by the size of the railroad station where the portion of the program I watched took place, it must have been a big one.

At any rate, the two bobbies drove up to the train station in response to a call about an apparently deranged man attacking a locked station door and shattering its glass pane. The cops exited their squad car and walked up to the perp. He tried to leave but they gently took him by the arms and restrained him. They kept their voices low and calm and did not draw any weapons (I’m not sure they were carrying guns at all).

“Why did you break that glass?” one cop asked him.

The man had no answer. The other cop asked him where he lived. When he replied that he didn’t have a home, he was told they could take him to social services, which could find him a place.

They told him he had destroyed public property and might have to pay for it. The man said he had no money, so they said they had to bring him in to the station. They then walked him — no handcuffs needed — to the squad car, and helped him gently into the back seat, which is walled off from the front seats, and drove off.

I didn’t get to see the rest of the show as I was called away for some tests, but what struck me was that the cops remained calm at all times through this incident, and that they did not rough the man up. He was not thrown to the ground and piled on by the arresting officers, which is now pretty much standard practice for arrests in the US. And he didn’t have his arms wrenched behind him and cuffed — another US standard police practice that frequently results in injured hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders, and that can also result in more serious injuries if the cuffed person, unale to protect his head, “happens” to fall over, or down some stairs.

The same retiring police chief also told me, back during our conversation about militarized police, that when he first got hired as chief in our town, he found that the department had earlier been supplied by the Pentagon, under the arms-for-cops program of handing out surplus military equipment, enough fully automatic M16 rifles for every cop on the force. This in a town where the biggest violent crime in two decades was whatever the largest barroom brawl was during that period. We did have a restaurant owner murdered in what appears to have been a mob hit, but that is a kind of unique thing that hardly required use of a SWAT team or M16’s to handle. The guy was found shot dead, and it became a job for detectives, including the FBI.

Anyhow, the chief said one of the first things he did was send back the automatic weapons to the Pentagon. He said “We didn’t need police running around with fully automatic weapons.”

True enough, though they still all have semi-automatid AR-15s racked in their SUV patrol vehicles. These weapons only get used, though, for putting injured deer out of their misery. There are no other types of crimes calling for such guns to be unracked in Upper Dublin.

Truth is, most SWAT raids across the US — and there are over 20,000 of them a year across the country, mostly to serve warrents that could be served by a knock on the door, or to search for drugs, which could be done without breaking down doors and terrorizing families — are clearly unjustified, and in fact they have resulted in numerous killings of innocent citizens, sometimes because police raid the wrong address, and other times because the cops don’t do good pre-raid intelligence to see whether their are children in the targeted home. Babies have been killed when police toss flash-bang grenades into windows as part of a raid.

The whole thing should sicken decent people of all political stripes, but we seem to have accepted the idea of cops behaving like occupying troops in a foreign land as normal policing in the United States of 2017.

Trump is catering to that mentality by reactivating the arms-for-cops conveyor belt.

How long will it be before we have the first baby stabbed by a bayonet-wielding cop who will predictably claim he couldn’t see because his visor was fogged up from the tear gas cannister police launched, or smoke from the stun grenade they tossed into the house before rushing in?

It’s time to back this whole thing up. Most of this up-arming of police, and the adoption of brutal and aggressive tactics in arrests is justified as necessary to protect officers from perceived risk of harm. But that’s outrageous and wrong.

Firefighters, are also uniformed public servants — many of them volunteers! — and we expect them to be ready and willing to run into burning buildings if they think there’s any chance that a person might be trapped inside. They do this knowing that they could be running to their deaths. I actually watched two New York City cops do this, kicking open the door of a burning apartmenting in my building and, without a second’s pause rushing in as smoke and flame burst out of the broken-in doorway. It’s almost hard to imagine a firefighter, confronted with a burning building and cries from someone inside the conflagration, just standing there with a hose and doing nothing because he or she was afraid of injury or death. It’s just not what firefighters do.

Yet all a police officer has to do to get off the hook for slaughtering an unarmed person during an arrest is to say, “I feared for my life.” The cop doesn’t have to offer any serious evidence of a threat. It could be a person reaching, in response to an order from the cop, for his wallet (all too common a situation). If the cop says that he or she thought the wallet might have been a gun, that would be enough, and often is, to convince a district attorney not to prosecute, or in the rare instance where there is a prosecution, to convince a jury not to convict.

That’s wrong. When someone becomes what should be called a “peace officer” (now an anachronistic term), that person is hired to “protect and serve” the public, and given the nature of the job, that should entail a assuming a considerable amount of risk, just as becoming a firefighter entails assuming a certain amount of risk. Part of that risk shuould incude not shooting first and asking questions later, and trying to de-escalate conflict situations instead of amping them up by yelling, swearing and trying to “disorient” the subject facing arrest.

We’re going in the opposite direction by offering cops military arms and equipment, as President Trump is doing, which just encourages police to think of themselves as soldiers in a war zone instead of as peace officers in a community.

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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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