Police Brutality and its Effect on Communities

With racial tensions at a high and a galvanized public seeking change, the national attention holds its gaze on the epidemic of police brutality brought to light this past year in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. The widespread riots that took place in both cities following the deaths of unarmed black men were characterized by a cycle of violence: police harming community members, the community fighting back, and police using still more violence to quell violence. Both innocent citizens and innocent officers have lost their lives, collateral damage of this unfortunate cycle..

On May 18, 2015, President Obama stood before residents of Camden, New Jersey, to announce an executive order restricting the federal government from giving certain types of military-grade equipment to local police departments, taking an important step in attempting to move away from the destructive cycle of violence and hatred between police and many members of our society.

The thread that ties together the disparate situations in Ferguson and Baltimore is the trend of increasing police militarization, a trend that was developing long before the media made people unaffected by it take notice. And local police departments wouldn’t have had access to the banned equipment, which includes tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, and camouflage uniforms, without the federal government supplying it. (Other types of gear, such as tactical vehicles, explosives and riot equipment, are now considered “controlled equipment”; they may still be supplied, but only if the local department provides substantial evidence that it’s necessary.)

Executive Action – De-Militarization of Police Departments

President Obama, with this executive order, made a statement: police militarization stops here. While the order won’t do anything to reverse the damage that has been done, it does prevent local police departments from continuing to gain access to weaponry far more powerful than what they need to keep the peace. Equally important, it stops the police from appearing to be an oppressive, occupying force. How would you feel if you encountered police clad in military gear every day as you walked down the streets of your own neighborhood? Psychologically, it has a terrible effect on the people that live in those types of conditions. Inexorably this behavior simply breeds contempt for and resentment of police authority. I am aware of many law-abiding people that now believe they need weapons such as assault rifles, just in case they face police or government repression. It is imperative that this problem be solved now before we lose more innocent lives in the rain of bullets falling between citizens and the authorities meant to serve and protect

While this order is an important step, one caveat is that it doesn’t stop local departments from using city funds to purchase the equipment directly from manufacturers. But the simple fact of withdrawing government support and funding – publicly – makes a powerful contribution to the national dialogue about police abuse of power.

Police departments should not be an occupying force, treating their cities like war zones; they should follow the lead of Camden’s police department. For decades, Camden held one of the nation’s highest crime rates, but in recent years it has started transitioning to “community policing,” integrating police into the community and instilling trust in the citizenry. Murders in Camden have dropped from a high of 67 in 2012 to 33 in 2014. Camden was a fitting location for the announcement, as it’s reforming its style of policing and seeing real impacts in the community. Hopefully, making it more difficult for police to obtain military-grade gear and getting law enforcement to interact more closely with the people they’re serving will increase accountability and prevent the inappropriate use of equipment in situations that don’t call for grenades, .50-caliber machine guns, and tanks.

As an executive order, this change has the potential to be reversed by the next president. Will Congress move to make the new rule a law? Will police departments quit acting like armies and using wartime equipment against civilians? Only time will tell, but for now, kudos to President Obama.

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