Joseph D. McNamara reflects in the Wall Street Journal, in connection with those 50 shots fired in the Sean Bell affair, on an increasing dangerous phenomenon in American life: the militarization of our police.
Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on “officer safety” and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.
There have been a lot of police in my family, and I grew up around the older school police culture and mentality.
When I was a boy, I once complained to my father that his injunctions about standing up to bullies were impractical when one was outnumbered, and he assured me that the man who knows that he is in the right has a natural powerful advantage over those in the wrong, which is usually decisive in and of itself. Moreover, he observed, criminals and bullies are basically all cowards anyway, and are generally scared to face anyone willing to stand up to them.
There are some limits to the theory, of course, but my life experience persuades me that my father was perfectly correct.
When I was a boy, I also commonly heard the Pennsylvania equivalent versions of the Texan “one riot, one Ranger” story. Policemen typically believed, like my father, that moral ascendancy and personal courage counted for a lot more than brute force.
And, in the old days, police were trained to shoot only as the last possible resort, and to take good aim and hit what you were intending. The idea that police officers required “firepower” would have been laughed at by the men I knew back then. “Firepower?” they would have said. “For what?”
I knew men who served as policemen for thirty years, who never fired on another man once, but who had taken many an armed criminal into custody. If it had ever come to shooting, none of them would ever likely have needed more than one shot per man.
About ten years ago, when I was still living in Connecticut, you could already see the Barney Fife-ification of small town police work setting in. In Brookfield, one day, I saw a local cop stop at McDonald’s for a meal. He was armed with a 15-round Beretta pistol, and was carrying an extra five loaded magazines on his belt. Was he anticipating an attack by a Zulu impi? I wondered. It seemed like an awful lot of weight to carry around, considering the fact that no police officer in Brookfield’s history had ever previously needed to fire a shot in anger.
In my own Connecticut town, the chief of police was always junketing off to remote locations for special FBI training. The Board of Selectmen rained on his parade a bit, when they declined to fund his proposed sniper team. But the federal government nonetheless graciously provided him with a large variety of expensive toys, running the gamut from full-auto M-16s to night-vision devices.
One day, I needed to drop by the Newtown police station to pick up the form for my gun permit. I found myself talking to a secretary hidden away in a bank teller’s window behind bulletproof glass. The police station was now locked up, and fortified. You never know, some aggrieved citizen offended over a parking ticket might drop in one day and attack the poor cowering Newtown cops. The FBI, you see, had told our chief that security was important. You can’t just let ordinary citizens walk in on you.
And so it goes. We increasingly have a bunch of self-important paranoids, practicing and posing in the latest and most expensive hi-tech military gear, trained by some kind of totalitarian Gestapo to fill the air with lead at the slightest provocation.
And we see the results in cases like those of Amadou Dialolo or Sean Bell. Incompetence and cowardice increase with precise proportionality to the increase in police play-pretend militarization. We need to fire all those FBI blackshirts who disseminate these crazy and un-American paranoid procedures and philosophies of firearms use. And we need to turn police work back over to sensible human beings. We need to end the War on Drugs, which supplies most of the pretext for current undesirable trends. And we should take away all the semiautos, the .40 calibers, the 9mm Parabellums (especially the Glocks), and give those cops back nice old-fashioned six-shot .38 Special revolvers and billy clubs.