“Isn’t it funny how red, white, and blue represent freedom until they are flashing in your rear-view mirror?” – Unknown
Many times the military and civilian law enforcement are grouped together. Sure, there are some similarities. They both carry guns and have a duty to protect the country, just the “enemy” tends to be different. The military, particularly the infantry, has a job to seek and destroy while the police are here to serve and protect. Both are legitimate duties of the government to provide (unless you are an anarchist) and both come with special responsibilities and power. But in a lot of ways they are very different.
I spent four years in the military with the 82nd Airborne Division but I’ve spent no time in a police department (except for a couple years in high school as a police explorer), just to give you an idea of where I am coming from. During that time in the military I got in trouble once for a fairly minor infraction, though I saw many others get in more trouble. The response to soldiers that misbehave seems very different than the response to law enforcement when they misbehave.
The military is very concerned with honor, integrity, and keeping the image of the unit positive in the eyes of other units and the public. This acts as a sort of check on bad behavior. If you do something wrong or illegal, especially if it becomes public knowledge, the military doesn’t circle the wagons. Quite the opposite, they come down on you hard as an example to other soldiers. The mission comes before the individual and if you fuck you then you harm the mission.
I have mentioned before that when I was in Afghanistan and Iraq we had a more strict Rules of Engagement than many civilian law enforcement agencies. If I had used a strictly unauthorized technique on an unarmed subject whom we were trying to detain and it was caught on video I would have been locked up and found myself facing a court martial in front of some Generals. This would just be to punish me, it would be to keep the American people confident in my unit. To disgrace the nearly 100 years of service the 82nd Airborne has done was one of the greatest sins of all. This applied to things much lesser than the death of an innocent person. I saw soldiers sit in jail cells over the weekend because we were ordered not to bail them out. I had half my pay taken away, my rank stripped, and placed on extra duty for 30 days (basically banned from leaving work or base) because I gave another soldier my ID card so he could buy beer. Mercy was not something allowed for those who gave the Blue Devils a bad name. I just don’t see that type of concern for image or honor in civilian law enforcement, instead I see a focus on covering up and maintaining the blue line of silence above all else.
Policing in the US has many problems that vary across departments. Some departments, like Ferguson, are small and seem to be staffed by officers that are not really part of the community. The average police officer salary in the town is 1/3 higher than the average income of non-officers, and 67% of the city is African-American while only 5% of the police department is African-American. With most police department requiring a Bachelor degree and only 22% of adults in Ferguson holding one it seems very likely that the police come from outside the community. Ideally I’d have access to the personal biographies of every officer but that really won’t happen, though we do know that Wilson was born in Texas but grew up in St. Peters, Missouri which has three times the average income of Ferguson.
This outsider status was not something I really saw in the Army. First, the Army allows you to get in with just a GED. The lack of educational requirement means it can be a stepping stone to financial and social stability. Also, my unit also had an incredible mix of ethnicities, home states, and socio-economic backgrounds (the nickname “All American” for the 82nd Airborne actually come from the fact the original group had someone from every state). Just looking at some of the members of my squad in Afghanistan shows you how diverse it could be… my team leader was an African-American from Kansas who was raised Muslim, our grenadier was an Irish-Catholic from New Jersey, one of the SAW gunners was a big country boy from North Carolina, I was a protestant Christian from the Northwest, one of our riflemen was from Chicago, and another member was from Maine. This diversity meant we had a loyalty to America as a whole and not any place in particular, and because of my connections to those men each of those places felt a little bit like home.
I think the situation in New York is a bit different, though I know nothing about the economic and racial makeup of different neighborhoods so the same “outsider” issue may apply. New York, particularly since 9/11, has had a culture that doesn’t tolerate criticism of the police very well. Elevating humans to a sort of god-like status is a guarantee that rights will be abused, humans are not angels and police should be held to a higher standard. They should not be able to just violate rights through random searches and racial profiling, but that is allowed daily in New York. And clearly, you can do something that even George W. Bush thinks was out of line and the civilian population will tolerate it because of the badge.
Of course, the general public is to blame also. We have become a country that turns to police for every little problem. Neighbor being loud? Call the police. Kid playing at the park alone? Call the police. There isn’t even an attempt to correct the problem without calling someone with a gun to escalate the situation. I saw that first hand here when someone called the police on our neighbor because the dog was barking… no note on the door, no asking the apartment complex manager to talk with them, just straight to the cops. It used to be the police were more like the Fire Department, they were around but you only dealt with them when things were really bad. That just isn’t the case anymore, they are revenue generators for an out of control government, they are sent after peaceful people for victimless “crimes”, and they are supposed to solve every inconvenience that comes from living in a society. We have given military weapons to people who are not properly trained, told them to solve all our problems, and then said they won’t be held accountable if they kill someone… of course this leads to a sick institution, there is no way of avoiding it, and there will continue to be dead, unarmed civilians (most likely men of color) until accountability and transparency are brought to police departments and they return to their primary duty of protecting and serving the community in which they are a part of.
Disclaimer: Clearly this is a complex issue. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to cover all the details and nuances. Also, I’m just a random blogger so this stuff isn’t an academic study. It is just my thoughts that developed from a conversation on my Facebook page (be my friend!)). Many of the points were made by my friends, like a lot of things in the world value is created through a communal effort and discussion.