In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff’s department has just bought a remote-controlled drone with money from the federal government. The sheriff is vague about exactly why it’s needed, but if you look at his men posing with it, above, you get the idea that these are people going to war, not protecting and serving everyday people.
The militarization of civilian police forces is a worrisome thing to me. With the change in tactics has come a change in attitude. Although police work could always attract an arrogant element who were interested in “showing who’s boss,” it seems that the culture is getting more arrogant and more aggressive.
Radley Balko wrote what I consider to be the definitive paper about police militarization five years ago when he was at the Cato Institute. “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America” is still very much worth reading five years later. It’s even more chilling when you realize that the trend has gotten even more serious since then.
Look at the guns and gear of the soldiers — I mean, deputies — in the pictures above. Is this what we want our police to be? Is the police culture today so excited about this sort of “playing soldier” mentality that it doesn’t care as much about the more mundane things that matter most to everyday people?
So what does the sheriff of Montgomery County say his boys’ new toy will be used for? In various articles, he mentioned hostage situations, wildfires, drug investigations and hunting criminals fleeing from police. (Did you ever read “Fahrenheit 451“? Doesn’t that remind you of the Mechanical Hound? If you haven’t read the book, read it. Immediately. Seriously.) It sounds to me as though he’s throwing out everything the manufacturer’s marketing people could think of. Who knows what it will really be used for — other than for deputies to play with, I mean, “train on.”
It’s worth noting that police in nearby Houston were planning to use drones for writing traffic tickets — since the cameras on them are capable of reading tags from afar — until public outcry prompted a new mayor to cancel the project.
A suburb north of Birmingham has some sort of tank that the federal government gave to it. Since it’s not armed, I suppose it’s really just an armored personnel carrier, but it’s been referred to as a tank around the city. So why does a small police department in a sleepy Alabama suburb need an armored personnel carrier? A city official told me that the city had no use for it, but it was “free” — from the feds, of course — so why not take it? It just stays parked except for parades, as far as I can tell. (The picture here is from a similar vehicle used by police in Charleston, S.C.)
The job of actual community policing isn’t easy. I have respect for the officers who do it well and have the right attitudes about who they’re supposed to be serving. I don’t have any respect for this trend in law enforcement to build little armies for sheriffs and police chiefs to play with. It’s a distraction from what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s a ridiculously expensive game they’re playing. And it drives them all in a direction that’s damaging the civil rights of all of us — because if you have these toys, you’re going to find reasons to use them. (Making excuses to raid homes — and blaming the “war on (some) drugs” is the leading excuse.)
Support for police has been sacrosanct among most voters in this country, especially in more conservative areas. It’s time for those people to wake up to what they’re allowing to be build under their noses. It’s time to quit spending massive amounts of our money on toys for police that ultimately don’t make us any safer.