Police Militarization – Contd.

Reader Dan Newberry, in the course of offering a thoughtful response to my recent post on the militarization of police says:

[T]hese names [like “interceptor”] are made up by the people who make and market the items…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….it is hard to reason that an Interceptor-logo emblazoned trike, rolling past a player at the golf course, would make that player… 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….Police forces…are by their very nature…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….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…that the name of a vehicle will change the disposition of its routine occupant (and by extension, eventually the culture of policing).

The reason it is not a “surprise” that this nomenclature is part of a marketing strategy directed at the police is that, as is pointed out by Dan, police view themselves as a “paramilitary organization.” And it is that self-view that I suggest is problematic.

Importing such militarized language, has had, in my opinion, a reconfiguration of how police view their work and the community they service. I would suggest that thinking of the police as a paramilitary organization breeds an adversarial attitude that is conducive to the kind of aggressive behavior, which all too sadly is associated with policing (paramilitaries, for what it is worth, have a horrific human rights record when it comes to patrolling and controlling domestic populations). When viewed as a paramilitary force, police resemble nothing so much as an occupying force, perhaps a counter-insurgency force, dealing with a hostile population in a hostile territory. And we all know how beloved those forces are in the territories they seek to “control.” The problem isn’t that this language has a simple, direct, causal relationship with police behavior; the problem is that this sort of language is part of a certain packaging of police activity that causes police to reconceive themselves in a manner bound to create the problems I was complaining about.

In hostile territory: one kills or is killed; everyone is to be suspected; it is us-against-them. There is no community here, no fellow-citizens. That is the problem. The folks that make the trikes and market them to police in the manner they do, do so because they are directing their efforts to a particular culture, one bred in the academy and reinforced by daily operations and modes of interaction. (This culture then seeps down into security guards on campuses as well, who love pulling out their wireless radios and acting like a trench-bound sergeant calling in an airstrike when all they are asking for is a spare set of keys to open a chemistry lab.) A police “force” that thinks it is a basically a paramilitary organization is off to a bad start; as it continues to deploy the language associated with the military it is setting itself further down the road to an essentially adversarial, hostile relationship with its community. Thus, witness: the “thin blue line”; “it’s a jungle out there”; and so on. Buildings in which people live cease to be “homes;” they become “territory” to be controlled. It makes a difference to how the police approach a task, how they gear themselves up for it.

Words and descriptions find their applicability in networks of meanings that trigger particular associations. So, self-conception by the choice of language we use to describe ourselves does make a difference to our eventual activity. That is why we choose to tell particular stories about ourselves and that is why we insist people describe us in certain ways and not others. (Remember the old joke about the kid who worked at a gas station and told everyone he was a “petroleum transfer engineer”?)

There is plenty more to be said here, of course, and I thank Dan for having triggered this chain of thought.

One thought on “Police Militarization – Contd.

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