Mayberry Meets Gotham (1/2): Is America Changing, or Are We More Afraid?

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This is the first part of a two-part series | Part two can be found HERE

 

THE WISDOM OF SOLOMON; THE PATIENCE OF JOB

We ask a lot of law enforcement. And for a litigious country, the standard is higher than ever before – usually too high. Since New York City formed the first public police department in 1845 the role of peace officer has been radically changed. But the quality of leadership determines if that’s a good or bad thing.

As a resident of Racine County, I support our Sheriff Christopher Schmaling. I believe in his character and level-headedness. I trust his adherence to the constitution he swore to uphold, and if all hell broke loose, I would turn to his office for protection if my own failed. We are fortunate to have Sheriff David Clarke in neighboring Milwaukee as well. These two men support the conservative ideas I hold dear, and appreciate a well-armed society making their job easier. Not only do I trust them, but I deeply respect all law enforcement for the job they do each day. There is perhaps no other civil service job of higher honor than one willing to lay their life down for the community.

In 1936, Criminal Justice pioneer and former police chief August Vollmer said:

We expect our police “…to have the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of David, the patience of Job and the leadership of Moses, the kindness of the Good Samaritan, the strategy of Alexander, the faith of Daniel, the diplomacy of Lincoln, the tolerance of the Carpenter of Nazareth, and, finally, an intimate knowledge of every branch of the natural, biological, and social sciences. If he had all these, he might be a good policeman.”

It’s far from an easy role, and is increasingly becoming a more difficult one. America’s Mayberry is less passive than the 60’s were. And a more nationalized one. But why? There are currently about 18,000 local agencies with 480,000 sworn officers. The federal government has an additional 120,000 officers. Frankly, between trusting the federal government or local police forces with our protection – everything short of a full-on foreign invasion – I choose the latter. They are better equipped to handle community crime and are accountable to our laws – they are close to the people they serve. It’s dispersed, rather than centralized power.

A quadrocopter drone equipped with a camera stands on display at the Zeiss stand on the first day of the CeBIT 2012 technology trade fair on March 6, 2012 in Hanover, Germany. (credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A quadrocopter drone equipped with a camera stands on display at the Zeiss stand on the first day of the CeBIT 2012 technology trade fair on March 6, 2012 in Hanover, Germany. (credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

That being said, I have developed an aversion to a recent trend in law enforcement, and for me it’s based more on principle than an imminent threat.

I believe one of the great concerns this century is not just terrorism, fiat currencies crashing, or natural disasters, but what our governments will do when they occur – will it be too much, too fast? And it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when.” Defenders of this trend say we must be ready for anything. They speak dauntingly of terrorism or criminal gangs one day coming to their town. It needs to be available, they say.

Sure, my concerns are based on worst case scenarios, but so are theirs. What makes theirs more legitimate than mine?

What if the federal government responded to a terrible tragedy with a national crackdown? What if they began violating the fourth amendment with domestic rendition programs on a large scale? What if they decided to nationalize police forces in an effort to weed out “terrorists” with a modern McCarthyism? In the absence of an existing threat, many dismiss these concerns as pure imagination. But are they?

Why would America be the one developed civilization in history that did not turn on its own people by force? It’s not that far-fetched. The Romans, Rashidun Caliphate, Greeks, England, Germany, Russia, Ottomans, Italians, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and many others succumbed to tyrannical pressure – usually in the name of “defense” or “stability.” If our Founders were so brilliant, were they mistaken to believe the second amendment was needed to ensure that tyranny couldn’t thrive? In a well-armed, self-preserving society they were confident it could not.

But we seem to be allowing the capacity for malfeasance to step into our city squares.

Law enforcement has a clear duty to protect the public and uphold citizen safety as much as possible. But not at all costs. Where is the line, and at what point is it crossed? There are peace keepers and there are soldiers. They each should be trained to do their jobs well, but some are being asked to be both. Instead of asking whether police officers can be well-equipped soldiers when needed, I believe we should ask if soldiers can be mere peace keepers, because soldiers are what they’re becoming. We’ve changed as a nation, but more in complacence than danger. Criminals have more guns, but so do we. Criminals have more tactical knowledge, but so do our officers. Crime prevention and prosecution is needed, but not synonymous to urban warfare. There is a balance that must be sought, found and implemented that brings both comfort to everyday citizens, but also trusts them to govern themselves as well. And I will always prefer the latter over the former if need be.

 

-massachusetts-2
Massachusetts police forces after serving a search warrant

CHANGING TIMES

America has changed. Our people have become more polarized as they’ve become more urbanized, making the suburban and rural areas more homogenous and dividing their politics accordingly. The policies between the two reflect a vast philosophical difference, and set of needs. What works in small town America does not work in big cities. And here lies what I believe is the impetus to the change we’ve seen in protective services the last 50 years. What is at question here is whether civil liberties should change between one or the other.

In 1968 the Congress passed a law that authorized the military to share some gear with domestic agencies. In the eight years preceding the law, instances of violent crime more than doubled from 288,000 to nearly 600,000. The primary purchasers were local S.W.A.T. teams. S.W.A.T. stands for Special Weapons and Tactics for a reason. They were intended for “special” circumstances. In the 70’s, the Bureau of Crime Statistics reports that there were an average of 300-400 S.W.A.T. raids per year, nearly all in large cities. In 1987 this transference became a formal process, when Congress passed another law that not only created a new department in the Pentagon dedicated to facilitating these transfers, but instructed the U.S. Attorney General and the Defense Secretary to actively notify local law enforcement of what gear was available. One clause even ordered the General Services Administration to catalogue these items in a book available upon request. Today, it’s one of the most user-friendly websites on government servers. In the 19 years between the law’s passage and then, reported violent crime had increased approximately 150%, far slower than in years past. (Note: Some counter that nearly half of violent crimes are not reported – but this statistic has been fairly consistent over the last 50 years, so the trends are credible.)

By 1996, thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies were included in what’s called the 1033 Program, named after a new amendment of the National Defense Authorization Act to which it was added. This move authorized the government to transfer military surplus property they no longer need, usually for no cost. Billed as a waste-saving program, the program has exploded in recent years (no pun intended) and unloaded tens of billions in equipment to agencies that could otherwise not afford it. The program has strict requirements against personal use, and to not be sold or transferred to any other entity. It has been halted once so far, to evaluate abuses and purpose, but it resumed.

Now, nearly 13,000 of the 18,000 agencies in every state and territory partake in the program that issued over $550 million in equipment last year alone, including bicycles, bed sheets, bowling pins, French horns, dog collars, boats, scuba gear, rescue rafts, life preservers, quarter-million-dollar water decontamination machines, regardless of whether the items are needed or will ever be used.

These items appear harmless enough, but they are just a part of a program overwhelmed with unused equipment from a military that is constantly being used. After the wind down of the Afghan and Iraq wars, billions of dollars in equipment lay at installations, with no war to utilize them.

So the federal government has decided to disburse them to local agencies… with nothing to put them to use. The 1033 program is, essentially a garage sale.

The primary argument for these acquisitions is a good one. In the interest of public safety, we want local law enforcement to have the best tools available with which to protect themselves, and the citizens they protect. But are they always needed?

 

HOW THE NUMBERS ADD UP

According to the Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics site, violent crime had been reduced to 1.21 million in 2012, down from a high of 1.93 million in 1992 – a 37% decrease. Likewise, reported cases of murder hit a high of 24,703 in 1991 but have decreased to 14,827 in 2012 – a 40% decrease. This amounts to the lowest rate per capita in the history of record keeping.

The National Journal in 2000 issued a two year study that noted between 1997 and 1999 the office doled out $727 million worth of equipment via the 1033 program, including 253 aircraft, 7,856 M-16 rifles, and 181 grenade launchers. Today, it includes MRAPs, attack choppers and even actual tanks with 360-degree, .50 cal turrets granted usually through a program now costing in excess of $40 billion. Of course, private corporations have perverted the natural order and purpose of profit-making by helping to fuel programs like this.

If nothing else, the federal program is extremely wasteful, giving away millions to places that can’t use it rather than sell it. In Rising Star, TX, they only have one full-time officer in a town of 835 residents. But they acquired more than $3.2 million worth of property in only 14 months. They acquired nine televisions, 11 computers, three deep-fat fryers, two meet slicers, 22 large space heaters, a pool table, 25 sleeping bags and playground equipment. The former police chief, William Jason Kelcy has just been indicted for multiple charges related to falsifying acquisition claims, stealing of government property, plus aiding and abetting. Pinal County, Arizona discovered similar abuse. You almost have to place equal blame on a system that dangles M14 machine guns and swords in front of local law enforcement like a carrot on a stick.

LEMCO BearCat
LEMCO BearCat

Keene, New Hampshire, a town of 23,000 was approved in 2012 for a $286,000 grant to purchase a Bearcat, an 8-ton Armored Personnel Carrier. Mayor Kendall Lane beamed, “we’re going to have our own tank.” Keene has had only two murders since 1999 and virtually no reportable violent crime. It’s not unreasonable to ask why this is necessary. Local residents certainly did ask that question, and as a result, the town put it on hold.

Many have said that because the APV is covered by a federal grant, Keene would be remiss to accept it. “They try to say it’s ‘free.’ Well it isn’t free,” said Dorrie O’Meara, a Keene resident. “Taxpayers are still paying to put this militaristic thing in our town. And it isn’t about the money, anyway. It’s about what kind of town we want to be.”

 

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