It is the height of absurdity to suggest that we do away with our police forces. There isn’t a country or a major city in the world that doesn’t have a police force. Even the Vatican City has a police force.
Like it or not, there are violent criminals in the world — murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters, home invaders — and a whole host of less violent offenders who must be apprehended, investigated, and charged with the crimes they have committed. We need well-trained law enforcement officers and detectives to accomplish those objectives.
However, what we do NOT need is a militarized police force that functions like an army of occupation in low-income communities and among people of color.
How the Militarization of Our Police Forces Began
The militarization of the police departments of America began in June of 1971 when then-President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and then declared the War on Drugs.
Make no mistake, there were terrible abuses of police power, most of them against people of color, long before Richard Nixon declared his war on drugs. While we would like to believe that those abuses were limited to the benighted states of the old Confederacy below the Mason Dixon Line, the truth is that those abuses took place wherever there were people of color from Boston to Miami to Texas (all of it) and on to California, up the West Coast and across the Northern Tier.
However, it wasn’t until Richard Nixon declared his War on Drugs that the arrest and incarceration of people of color became a growth industry.
The War On Drugs Is Really A War on Us
The War on Drugs was really a war on poor people, black people, Hispanics, hippies, and everyone else who was in any way connected to the drug culture.
Even if you never used drugs, never bought them, or sold them, if anyone you knew, if anyone you were related to, used drugs, bought them, or sold them, you ended up as a target for political oppression by the police.
The War on Drugs became the excuse for the militarization of American police departments. The sizes of the departments grew larger and larger, their budgets increased year after year, their tools became more and more frightening, and it was all justified because we were at war with drugs.
There were — and there are — vicious drug gangs here in the United States and around the world that are constantly at war with each other over territories and distribution rights. They are well-armed, well-trained and completely unshackled by any moral compunctions. So, of course, we needed armed police force with equal weapons and equal training, but what we ended up with is a police force that is as well-armed, as well-trained and as equally unshackled by any moral compunctions.
The Outcome of the War On Drugs
Well, we lost the war on drugs. Drugs are more prevalent and more dangerous today than they have ever been before…but the dealers are just as likely to be the doctor you’re seeing or the pharmacy that fills your prescriptions. In fact, the drugs sold on the street are often less dangerous than the drugs sold from behind the pharmacist’s counter.
We did manage to put several million Americans — most of them people of color — behind bars for various lengths of time, while building for-profit private prisons and while using cheap prison labor to provide the workforces for a dozen different industries. Those telemarketing calls you keep getting may be coming from Mumbai, but they might also be coming from a private prison in Montana.
The 9/11 Effect
Then, in 2001, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center, the Patriot Act further militarized municipal and state police forces of the United States, giving them additional powers, and offering them greater leniency, including even more immunity from prosecution from crimes committed in the course of doing their duty, or rather from behaviors that would have been crimes had they been done by anyone other than a police officer.
In terms of the actual number of incidents, American police officers have injured or killed only a very small percentage of the people of color they arrest each year…but the number of innocent people who should be injured or killed by police officers each year should be ZERO regardless of their race or creed. Come to think of it, even if they are guilty as sin, they should still be delivered to the lockup alive and kicking, unless they attempted to use deadly force to avoid capture.
Cops Are Victims Too
It is important to realize that a great many police officers have been members of the military and that many are still members of the National Guard or Reserve Units. A large percentage of them have seen combat in places where anyone — or everyone — might attempt to kill them at any time.
As a result, they come home and go to work as cops with a “siege mentality” characterized by the largely unconscious belief that they are in grave danger whenever they are out on the streets doing their jobs. They are constantly in a heightened state of alertness, keyed up and ready to go off like a pistol with a hair-trigger at the slightest provocation….and this is the reason that cops do the insane things we have seen them doing….because they are insane and their jobs make them even crazier.
Let’s face it. Anyone who wants to be a cop was crazy to begin with. The hours suck, the working conditions are horrendous. The stress leads to unhealthy lifestyles. They eat at odd hours, have trouble sleep, drink excessively, and, yes, use drugs. Cops have one of the highest divorce rates of any profession…and one of the highest suicide rates…and it just gets worse as they get older.
So what do we do about it?
The only people who should be cops are people who don’t want to be cops. Being a policeman should not be a lifetime occupation. After six years on the street, most cops are just as institutionalized as if they had spent six years in prison.
They should be drafted in the same manner in which we used to draft soldiers as one of the conditions of citizenship by lottery. Those people who qualify should serve no more than three two-year terms, at the end of which they should receive a 15% — 20% pension for the rest of their lives as they go onto other occupations.
Qualifications should include at least a bachelor’s degree in the humanities or social sciences and no one who has served in the military should be eligible. Among their fringe benefits, they should also get a percentage of their student loans paid off for them. If they have no student loans, they should get a similar amount of scholarship funds to further pursue their future educational goals.
It should go without saying that any applicant for the police department should be screened for membership in racist and fascist organizations, both through lie detector tests and reviews of their activities on social media. You cannot be a white supremacist and a police officer. You cannot be the member of a disorganized militia (a technical term referring to a militia that is not under the authority of a duly elected governor) and a police officer. I don’t even think you can be a Republican and a police officer.
That’s a nice benefits package, but it requires that you do your six years without ever having been cited and found at fault for conduct unbecoming of a police officer.
Of course, the only way to staff up the senior ranks of a police force is from the junior ranks and therefore the six-year limit would only apply to officers who have not made rank (sergeant, detective, or better) within those six years. (Just for the record, cops who don’t make rank after six years are usually on the street for the duration of their careers, which is very bad for them and very bad for us.)
The objective here is to ensure that armed officers spend no more than six years among the rank and file and that they not have had adverse military experience that makes them unable to handle the work of a police officer in a civilian environment.
End the Drug War = An End to Police Brutality
There’s one more step in this policing plan: decriminalize all drugs. Immediately. The single biggest reason for police brutality is that they spend much of their time arresting violent offenders who are high on drugs.
Decriminalization would mean the end to the illicit drug trade. Drug abusers would simply get prescriptions for what they need — just like a diabetic who needs insulin — that would be filled at the local pharmacy.
This step, alone, would reduce the number of incarcerated individuals by fifty percent. It would reduce the costs of the entire Justice establishment by a similar figure, and it would help to end the friction between police departments and communities of color which are, unjustly, seen as co-conspirators in the drug epidemic.
It is time to stop allowing this ridiculous obsession with substance abuse to continue to destroy the fabric of our society.
Poet and Essayist Alan M. Milner spent twenty years running drug rehabilitation programs in Boston, and ten years as the Director of the Massachusetts Drug and Alcohol Hotline