This week has been filled with headlines about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. I’m not going to focus here on that event specifically, there are ongoing investigations and debates among the local population and millions of words will be written before it’s all done.
Instead, I’m going to focus on the deeper problem and how to prevent incidents like it from happening in the future. Sadly, the killing of Michael Brown is not an isolated incident. While there are no official statistics, police shootings and other stories of abuse make the news with alarming frequency.
The police response to the protest over Brown’s death is also nothing new. In the wake of events in Ferguson, there have been calls to stop providing military hardware to the police. The problem is that it is not just the hardware. Police throughout the western world seem to be developing a military mindset.
If you look at any large protest the police, from the G20 to Occupy to peace, environmental, pro-democracy and economic protests, police are behaving more and more like a military trying to stave off an invading force. The result is the trampling of civil rights and human rights and in some cases, behaviors that would violate international law if those behaviors were repeated in war with a foreign power.
Taking away the military hardware is a good idea, but we also have to get the police to stop behaving like a military force.
First of all, I think that most police departments have demonstrated that the police are not good at running the police. In developed, democratic countries the military is not in charge of the military. In the United States, for example, the president is commander in chief of the military and congress sets its budget. Since the police have decided to become a paramilitary force, they should be treated like one.
I’m not talking about civilian oversight committees. That has been tried with extremely mixed results. Chiefs of police, the people directly in charge of police departments, should not be current or former police officers. Instead they should be attorneys or other individual with significant experience in civil rights law, ideally with a background in the public defenders office.
This would not mean a police force that didn’t arrest or prosecute people, but it would go a long way to restoring the ‘presumption of innocence’. The truth is that, in many places, there are currently more people in prison than is necessary anyway. Qualified attorneys with civil rights experience would be less likely to take an us vs. them attitude toward the public and less likely to authorize massive civil and human rights violations.
Many police departments would buck at the idea of having someone in charge who isn’t part of the club, but that only enhances the argument. As outsiders the new chiefs of police would be in a better position to provide oversight.
Next, although this isn’t directly related to the militarization of the police. I would create an office of victims advocates. Under the court system, defense attorneys represent the accused, prosecutors represent the state but not one really represents the victim.
Police officers and attorneys are, out of necessity, trained to be intimidating. Unfortunately this often results in the intimidation of the victims of crime. For serious crimes, victims advocates would be there to ensure that victims were treated professionally, respectfully and that they are aware of their rights. They would also monitor the police investigation of the crime and provide updates to the victim. In addition to helping the the families of murder victims and the victims of assault, rape, child abuse, fraud or theft they would also represent the interests of individuals filing complaints against the police.
Finally, there has been a great deal of discussion about equipping police with wearable cameras. In the coming years, as the ‘internet of things’ is put in place, this is going to get much easier to do that. In fact, to prevent tampering and to provide the maximum possible evidence, it will become fairly easy to equip police with multiple tiny cameras. Individuals who are confronted by the police will, more and more frequently have some type of wearable camera themselves and surveillance cameras will become more and more ubiquitous.
The internet of things will make it much more difficult for anyone, including police, to get away with crimes but by itself it is not enough. It does not impact the militarized culture that has developed in many police departments. It does not address the adversarial relationship which is developing between police departments and the public they are supposed to ‘protect and serve’.
Cultures cannot be changed overnight, but safeguards can and should be put into place to make the system work for people more often than it currently does.