Traffic “Interceptors” and the Militarization of Police

Yesterday, as I strolled down my neighborhood’s main street, I noticed two rather portly New York City police checking parked cars for traffic violations. I deliberately use the word “portly” to describe their appearance because I never cease to be amazed by how patently unfit for their duties our local guardians of law and order appear to be. (This unfitness, given the unceasing litany of corruption scandals associated with New York’s ‘Finest,’ clearly extends to more dimensions than just the physical.)

But of more immediate interest to me was what lay just ahead: the ubiquitous traffic police three-wheeled automobile in blue and white, marked with NYPD regalia, parked on the street, waiting to transport its riders to the next scene of parking misdemeanor. On its back it proudly and aggressively sported the title “Interceptor.”

“Interceptors” in military parlance can be used to refer to any vehicle that is used to, well, intercept, disrupt, and destroy enemy vehicles and forces making attacks on defended territory. It is most commonly used in military aviation to designate aircraft that attack other aircraft carrying out offensive bombing or raids on high-value targets. Those Spitfires shooting down German bombers during the Battle of Britain? They were interceptors. Aerial encounters in the old days took place between interceptors and aircraft designated to defend the bombers; that is why Spitfires and Me-109s tangled in the skies above England during that same battle. Interceptors versus Escorts, you see.

So, of course, it would make perfect sense to designate a traffic police automobile an “interceptor.” Because, in keeping with the constant militarization of everything associated with policing, we should think of the brave police as defending us against hostiles armed to the teeth, coming to hurt us. The police are operating in hostile territory, in an area where the slightest wrong move could cost them their lives. It’s kill or be killed in a war zone and an aggressive posture needs to be adopted, right down to the nomenclature associated with the vehicles they use.

Calling police vehicles “interceptors” would be amusingly juvenile and self-indulgent of the schoolboy fantasies that clearly still seem to animate the police, were it not for the fact that this sort of militarized language puts the police in precisely the wrong frame of mind, one that has cost the lives of many innocents over the years (especially in this great city of ours). The police are supposed to be policing “communities,” not war zones; the people they police are supposed to be their fellow community members, not armed hostiles.

8 thoughts on “Traffic “Interceptors” and the Militarization of Police

  1. In reading your blog I am starting to get an occasional glimpse into your views on the militarized nature of the police, or at least the language of policing. Given your unkind reaction to the name of a trike, I think you would be horrified if you stumbled into a police equipment convention, what with all the Vipers, Stingers, Dominator, and Interrogator labels that are applied to the tools of the police trade. But I think it is important to acknowledge that these names are made up by the people who make and market the items, not necessarily the organization, or individual, that purchases and deploys them.

    It is no surprise to anyone that companies which market to police forces routinely do so with names that suggest offense, attack, and so one. Similarly, the NYPD’s Interceptor trikes were not named by the NYPD – they were named by the manufacturer – and sold to the NYPD and other organizations of various flavors (including I suspect golf courses, large manufacturing facilities, oil fields, etc). It is hard to reason that an Interceptor-logo emblazoned trike, rolling past a player at the golf course, would make that player cheat on a lie, or take a more aggressive swing when that logo rolls past. It is equally unlikely that riding in the Interceptor all day is going to make a good police suddenly want to wield the baton to solve a problem better served by the summons book.

    Police forces, especially large ones, are by their very nature (if not their actual charter) paramilitary organizations. They recruit, they are organized by rank, they patrol, they arrest and detain, go on offensive missions to disrupt other organizations, on so on. They use and employ a language system that has been commensurate with that type of organizational structure.

    So my question is does the name of a product influence the actions of the person using it? If one could prove that if the trike was called the “Sunflower” the police riding in it would adopt a brighter disposition toward their duties, or that calling it the Community Patrol Cart would make its occupants somewhat more blase about ticketing we would be all for renaming almost everything. Unfortunately it is difficult to follow, for me at least, that the name of a vehicle will change the disposition of its routine occupant (and by extension, eventually the culture of policing).

    As an aside, Ford has been selling and marketing the “Police Interceptor” platform full-size vehicle to law enforcement agencies for a few decades now. So the usage of the term Interceptor in relation to law enforcement vehicles has a relatively long history. And they are purpose-built to intercept, chase, respond, attack, defend, etcetera. They are aptly named. In light of that, calling a three-wheeler used to give parking tickets an Interceptor…well, it kinda has the makings of an inside joke.

  2. The irony of the “Interceptor,” is that these traffic “police” do nothing of the sort. They don’t even have the power to make an arrest much less zoom around intercepting bad guys. They’re just clerks with uniforms who hand out computer generated tickets.

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