A clearinghouse for information, analysis, and resources related to state sanctioned violence in the United States
Reuters reports that President Obama has issued new regulations limiting police departments’ access to military equipment (see also: New York Times, Washington Post & NPR). The limitations will affect the availability of high-caliber ammunition, tracked armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and a variety of other gear that is deemed inappropriate for normal police work.
These stories have weighed on me since the issue became prominent during the Ferguson riots. Residents of Ferguson, and people across the nation who watched on t.v., were shocked to see police engage residents with assault rifles, riot gear, tanks, and military grade tear gas. This was an overblown response to mild unrest (property destruction, stone-throwing, etc.), to say nothing of the many protesters who were engaged in “non-violent” demonstrations. It is heartening – good news – to see President Obama step in and set limits, especially since the new regulations are part of a broader program to improve relations between police and communities.
At the same time, when you consider the longer history of police brutality and race riots, the reforms proposed by Obama are much less satisfying. He is not the first politician to convene a post-riot task force, and his task force is not the first to spell out recommendations for reform. And let’s be honest here – the recommendations are obvious and simple. Not “simple” as in easy to carry out, simple as in easy to come up with. Yes, let’s train officers better. Let’s have more transparency and accountability. Let’s address the underlying social causes – poverty, inequality, fractured community relations. A whole century’s worth of post-riot task forces have made much the same recommendations. But, despite how simple (obvious) these are, carrying them out has never been simple. It doesn’t take many resources to put out a “tool kit” for implementing body cams, or to revise the list of military equipment available to police. It definitely doesn’t take any resources to shame and blame the black community for the damage caused by centuries of institutionalized racism. These solutions don’t require much capital ($$ or politically), and that is precisely why they won’t work.
Many have already started to point out the problems with this new round of “taskforce” politics:
– It’s fine to limit super-lethal weapons, but police officers routinely kill citizens with their batons, or even their bare hands, and enjoy legal impunity. The right to kill with impunity is the problem – whether the killing is done with a choke-hold, a “rough ride,” or an automatic weapon.
– Race riots are not “equally” the fault of police and black residents. The blame and shame game has already started, with politicians calling for citizens to be “non-violent” without making any such calls against government or police forces.
– Placing “limitations” on “some” kinds of military weapons ignores (and normalizes) all the weapons and surveillance technologies police are still allowed to use. We need a wholesale inventory of why policing relies on so much violence in the first place, not just a revised equipment list.
Update – for more analysis of the limitations of “demilitarization,” check out this story from Newsweek
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