4 Reasons the Police Are Suddenly Terrifying
Despite a continuing lack of rich vigilante superheroes, crime in America has been dropping for decades. Among other things, this means that police officers now have it easier: It's safer to be a cop today than it has been in over 50 years. In fact, the number of police officers killed by guns in 2012 was the lowest since 1887, and I'm pretty sure guns back then were steam powered and required 10 minutes of hand cranking.
And yet, as we've written about before, police departments all over America are going mad with power. SWAT teams are everywhere, doing stuff like storming art galleries for serving alcohol without the right permit and raiding Tibetan monks who overstayed their visas. In general, American cops are projecting less "friendly face of public order" and more "bad guys who just stumbled out of a young-adult dystopian movie."
Add in an angsty love triangle between the drone and those two SWAT guys, and you've got 2015's big summer blockbuster.
Why has this happened? Why are so many of America's police, who I'd like to assume are mostly normal, decent human beings, acting like they're policing a futuristic war zone instead of crime-lite America? Well, for a start ...
Local Police Keep Getting Anti-Terrorism Money
After 9/11, a lot of us thought that America was on a fast descent into a terrorist apocalypse. Soon we'd all be wrestling armed extremists on top of airplanes and blowing up trains before they plowed into nuclear power plants full of Ebola. It was our responsibility to deal with this inevitable future, and part of that responsibility was equipping America's police. So the Department of Homeland Security started giving terrorism grants to police departments to help them deal with the wave of Osama clones that was soon to wash across the nation.
This came up in the stock image search for "terrorist," so I guess they would look like this.
Almost 13 years later, it turns out we're not all punching terrorists to death on our way to the bathroom every morning, but that anti-terrorist money is still spewing into the faces of police budgets like blood in an Evil Dead movie. Since 9/11, police departments have received $34 billion in anti-terrorism bonuses, and cops have used that money to buy stuff more suitable for Imaginary Fighting Terrorists on Airplanes Land than today's relatively peaceful America. I'm talking gear like armored personnel carriers, which are now owned by police departments in terrorist hotspots such as the ninth-largest city in Wisconsin.
"Hey, someone might target Wisconsin." -Wisconsin
And that's just the start of the "Let's arm our cops like they're in Future Stalingrad" bonanza. For the past decade or so, companies that produce intelligence and surveillance technology have been making bank selling it to the U.S. military. Now that America's war spending is winding down, it's much harder to use military contracts to build your own gold-coin swimming pools. When you're a defense contractor, potential new customers are limited: The federal government is not exactly big on American companies selling spy equipment to China. So, these companies are now actively targeting one of the only markets left to them: local police departments dripping with grant money.
In other words, a bunch of shit that was specifically developed to fight terrorists, like a radar system that allows users to see through walls into buildings, is now being marketed to cops near you. So, like, try not to take many showers. And that's just the start, because ...
Police Are Also Getting Free Ex-Military Gear
It's not just federal grants and defense companies that are putting shady supervillain equipment in the hands of local police. Around 20 years ago, the Defense Department started the 1033 program, which hands out free surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. When everyone started getting their war on after 9/11, the program exploded, and since then $5 billion worth of military equipment designed to blow up foreign enemies has been given out to police departments in towns and counties across America. Among the gear transferred out of the hands of soldiers and into the possession of Constable Smith down the road: tanks, aircraft, and machine guns, as well as 181 grenade launchers, for all those times when cops just have to launch a grenade at someone.
Sure, let's let those jaywalkers just walk away.
Like the terrorism grants, the 1033 program chooses not to dwell on the unhandy fact that no one in America really needs this shit. For example, last year the sheriff's department of a rural county in New York State accepted a 19-ton armored military vehicle worth $600,000 as part of the program. The vehicle seats six people and a gunner, and I'm sure everyone in the department let out a deep breath when they realized they'd finally be able to travel the savage, IED-laced byways of upstate New York in peace and safety. A sheriff's department in Indiana received a mine-resistant vehicle, and then argued that they needed it to handle the bomb-making capacities of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, because terrorism is ... contagious, I guess? You get hit by shrapnel and it's like a werewolf bite?
Above: a veteran, shown here during the full moon.
That excuse is dumb, but it's also predictable. Everyone loves getting free stuff, and no one wants to be the boss who tells their men that they turned down an awesome tank. And of course there's never any 100 percent guarantee that terrorists (or a huge swarm of bears, or Canada) won't attack a certain place, so anyone who asks "Does Wisconsin really need another tank?" just ends up looking like they're on the side of the bad guys. And hey, speaking of veterans ...
The American Military Keeps Being Ridiculously Popular
We're now over a decade into a string of unpopular war sequels, and this country still likes the military as much as we like American flag pie made entirely out of freedom. A poll conducted in 2013 found that 78 percent of adult Americans thought people in the military contributed "a lot" to society; servicemen and women outscored all the professions the poll asked about, including teachers, scientists, and the clergy. The trust we used to put into teachers and priests now goes into guys in uniforms holding guns.
You just know at least one of those pockets is holding delicious candy.
So on one level, it's horrible and kind of ridiculous that police departments in backwoods Idaho are dressing up like they're storming houses in Fallujah, rather than giving a stern warning to Duckshooting Joe for hunting ducks out of season again. But on the other hand, it's clear that both police and civilians are playing on some kind of subconscious association in order to grab a piece of that Military Love Pie. After all, the FTC had to ban actors from wearing white coats in some health product commercials, because people tend to subconsciously associate the coats with doctors. And the military beat out doctors on that poll, so associating yourself with soldiers is pretty much like having a grenade launcher that shoots unharmed kittens into the laps of passersby.
Once you take this into account, it's no surprise that some police departments have abandoned the traditional uniform for a more military-style look, or that a lot of police recruiting videos now feature clips of cops throwing flash grenades, riding in armored vehicles, and running around outdoors in camouflage gear (presumably the Tibetan monks with their hands up are just off camera).
This guy is carrying so much meth.
And if at any point someone steps back and looks at the tanks and the body armor and the grenades and says: "Hey, you guys are starting to look more like soldiers than cops," then who cares? Wow, we're starting to resemble something that 4 out of 5 Americans think is fucking awesome? Oh, darn.
And of course, the ultimate problem here is ...
Soon Everyone Starts to Look Like a Terrorist
Say you buy a top-of-the-range marshmallow shooter to ambush your roommate who keeps stealing your cat food. You have to hide out in the pantry for hours in a ghillie suit, but the ambush is successful, and your roommate promises to go to counseling over his cat food problem and to never do it again. But wait: You just spent $500 on the shooter and $200 on special tactical marshmallows, and you only got to use it once. Now it's just sitting there gathering dust. Pretty soon, you're going to start looking for reasons to shoot marshmallows at another target.
He probably deserves it.
Similarly, say your police department has a heavily armed and militarized SWAT team, and you're spending amazing amounts of time and effort every month training that same SWAT team. But you live in a hamlet in Idaho, and the biggest crime of 2013 was a tractor joyride that damaged several fence posts. Who can blame you if, after a while, you start to look at your tractor-filled hamlet differently? If reality isn't providing you with enough dangerous, sophisticated, SWAT-worthy crime to keep everyone occupied, well, you can always adjust your definition of what "SWAT-worthy" means.
So America now has about 150 SWAT raids every day, and most of them are for non-violent crimes like drug possession. And the problem is that unlike the marshmallow shooting spree, crazy over-the-top SWAT tactics hurt people. They hurt small people. In April, a SWAT team badly burned a toddler when they dropped a flash grenade into his crib while searching for a relative they thought might be carrying drugs. And in 2010, a SWAT team shot and killed a 7-year-old girl when they accidentally raided the wrong house. Even when innocent humans don't die, it's common for police in these raids to shoot pet dogs on sight. All this is a pretty high price to pay for the "those bullets would have just sat around and gone to waste" defense.
Everyone knows that soldiers in wars often dehumanize their enemies. It's what happens when you're trained to see every person as a potential enemy, rather than a human with dreams and a favorite taco recipe and a Mario Kart high score. In war, this is probably inevitable. But when cops are dehumanizing their own communities -- when they're interacting with the people they're meant to serve and protect from inside armored vehicles and at the other end of machine guns -- things get really fucked up. I'll finish up by saying that as far as my research tells me, American police have never shot or injured a single otter. Here is a picture of some.
C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here, and you should visit them if you are not in favor of harming otters.