To understand what's been happening in Ferguson, Mo., where protests and violence following a cop's shooting of an unarmed teenager summoned up a police response that looked more like a military invasion, it helps to flash back to the heyday of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
The SLA, one of the loopiest and most dangerous of the home-grown terrorist groups that flourished in the madhouse of the early 1970s, was already famous for kidnapping and "converting" Patty Hearst when its members engaged in a nationally televised shootout in Los Angeles in the spring of 1974.
The fire fight, in which six terrorists died without injury to police or bystanders, helped publicise the innovations of a small group of Angeleno police officers. Eight years earlier, after the Watts riots, they began to develop the combat-ready police unit that played a central role in taking down the SLA That unit was America's first special weapons and tactics team, or SWAT.
In an era of riots and hijackings, the SWAT model understandably spread nationwide. But as the riots died away and the threat of domestic terror receded, SWAT tactics — helicopters, heavy weaponry, the works — became increasingly integrated into normal crime-fighting, and especially into the war on drugs.
This was phase one in the militarization of America's police forces, as described in Radley Balko's essential 2013 book on the subject, The Rise of the Warrior Cop. Phase two, in which the federal government began supplying local police with military hardware, began in the 1990s and accelerated after 9/11, under the theory that terrorists could strike anywhere, and that it might take a cop with a grenade launcher to stop them.
In the name of local preparedness, Washington has been bestowing anti-terror grants and Pentagon surplus on communities barely touched by major crime, let alone by terrorism.
Tanks and aircraft, helmets and armour, guns and grenade launchers have flowed to police departments.
And it's a path to potential disaster, for cops and citizens alike. The "S" in SWAT was there for a reason: Militarised tactics that are potentially useful in specialised circumstances — like fire fights with suicidal terrorist groups — can be counterproductive when employed for crowd-control purposes by rank-
To many critics of police militarisation, of course, the helmets and heavy weaponry are just symptoms. The disease is the entire range of aggressive police tactics, the racial disparities they help perpetuate and American society's drug laws and extraordinary incarceration rate.
Well before Ferguson, this broad critique — long pressed by a mix of libertarians like Balko and left-wingers — was gaining traction in the political mainstream. This is why sentencing reform has a growing number of Republican champions, and why Rand Paul's critique of the Ferguson police was more
pointed and sweeping than President Obama's.
The argument for broad reform is appealing; it might also be overly optimistic. To be clear: I cheered Paul's comments, I support most of the reforms under consideration, I want lower incarceration rates and fewer people dying when a no-knock raid goes wrong. But there may be trade-offs here: In an era of atomisation, distrust and economic stress, our punitive system may be a big part of what's keeping crime rates as low as they are now, making criminal justice reform more complicated than a simple pro-liberty free lunch.
But the military hardware issue, the BearCats and grenade launchers and what we've seen unfold in Ferguson — that does seem easy, uncomplicated, clear.
Crime rates rise and fall, but crime-fighting is a constant for police; dealing with terrorism and insurrection, however, decidedly is not.
Yet for decades we've been equipping our cops as though the Symbionese Liberation Army were about to come out of retirement, as if every burst of opportunistic lawlessness could become another Watts, as though the Qaeda sleeper cells we feared after 9/11 were as pervasive in life as they are on "24" or "Homeland."
And this is where it's ended: with a bunch of tomfool police playing soldier, tear-gassing protesters, arresting journalists and turning Ferguson into a watchword for policing at its worst.
Time to take their toys away.
The New York Times News Service