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Choosing sides: Militarization, murder, and mixed-metaphor in the “War on Crime”

Choosing sides: Militarization, murder, and mixed-metaphor in the “War on Crime”

This is the second in a series of blog entries from Research Operations Director Daniel Stageman, tying current research, upcoming events, and public scholarship from John Jay College faculty and staff to the contemporary conversation around criminal justice reform.

I had an intense sense of operating on the boundary of legitimate and illegitimate behavior. Clearly much of the activity itself was illegal, although reporting it would never have resulted in it being defined as “criminal.” …I felt at ease and in some ways defiant. …I realize that in a sense I am basking in the security of my temporary status as a beneficiary of state-sanctioned use of force.                                                                                                                                                                                                                               (Kraska, 2001)

Radley Balko includes this description, of Peter Kraska’s involuntary response to the experience of participating in informal (and questionably legal) SWAT Team training, in his 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. For Kraska and Balko alike, the excerpt is intended to “illustrate… the expansive and seductive powers … of a deeply embedded ideology of violence.” (Kraska, 2001)

It is no exaggeration to call Kraska the father of academic research on police militarization, his focus since 1989. His description above is an ethnographic one, a firsthand experience of a cultural milieu that he already knew well, certainly from a quantitative perspective. His capacity to be surprised by his own emotional response – essentially to the experience of target-shooting military-grade automatic weaponry, in the company of rural SWAT trainees wearing “Operation Ghetto Storm” t-shirts (Balko, pp 212-13) – gives the reader some sense of the breadth and depth, of cultural specificity and psychological motivation, hidden behind the confident conclusions of any statistical analysis, particularly those focusing on the practices, activities, and behaviors of law enforcement personnel.

Looked at in this context, FBI Director James Comey’s recent comments about the speculative phenomenon that has been labeled (unfortunately) “the Ferguson effect,” carry some disturbing implications: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? …I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is surely a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.” (CNN, Oct 27)

What, exactly, is “the work that controls violent crime?” The evidence base of research designed to answer this question is extensive and constantly expanding; throw a dart at the CVs of our own Law and Police Science orCriminal Justice faculty, and your odds of hitting a useful crime control or crime prevention publication will be pretty good. Much of this literature falls under the “situational crime prevention” umbrella, which relies on disrupting the environmental factors and habitual behaviors that facilitate criminal activity. LPS faculty member (and 2015 Donal EJ MacNamara Award winner) Eric Piza’s 2012 ‘quasi-experiment’ on foot patrols in Newark is a solid example of applying this approach to police work. Its essential take-away: get police, lots of them, on foot, to patrol in geographically defined trouble spots. Studies like Piza’s often show significant reductions in index crimes like homicides, robberies, and assaults, with interventions that are this simple.

Piza’s study is also not unusual, however, in largely eliding the cultural and psychological experiences of the officers assigned to these foot patrols. While this is an issue of context rather than knowledge (Newark PD Lieutenant Brian A. O’Hara is Piza’s co-author) as the piece is a quantitative analysis rather than an ethnography, we can’t tie this simple crime control strategy to Comey’s comments without knowing something about it.

And we do know something about it, even absent direct description. We know what it isn’t. A foot patrol through a high-poverty urban neighborhood is not a no-knock raid patterned after a tactical military assault; it doesn’t involve dressing in helmets and body armor, carrying riot shields or assault rifles; it doesn’t come with backup from military assault vehicles, tear-gas grenade launchers, or ‘pain compliance’ devices – in a word, it is likely a far cry from the vision of police-work implied by the open display of “Operation Ghetto Storm” on the front of a t-shirt. In all likelihood, it involves a unique kind of vulnerability, requiring human interaction, speaking to community members outside of the harsh tones of compliance and arrest, looking neighborhood residents in the eye.

It is not difficult to see how the vocal and well-publicized protest and advocacy of highly-policed communities, who want to correct a perceived power imbalance with the law enforcement agencies that police them, could cause anxiety among those police officers who are primed to see the members of these communities as enemies. For officers who, like Kraska, are to some extent seduced by the exercise of power and the security of state-sanctioned use of force, this public demand for equity, this refusal to defer to superior force, throws into question what may be a visceral, emotional, or even involuntary aspect of their day-to-day motivation.

Why, though, should such a reassessment be described a “chill wind?” Isn’t it, instead, a necessary correction? If public safety is the mission of law enforcement, then enjoyment of the exercise of power is not an appropriate individual motivation – much less a cultural touchpoint – for the professional duties and demeanor necessary to its regular, successful function.

Radley Balko

Officers nationwide may indeed be “avoiding… informal contact” with the communities they serve, preferring the safety and anonymity of the patrol car to the visibility and vulnerability of walking a beat. If so, however – and particularly if this avoidance is correlated with rising crime rates in these communities – law enforcement leaders would do well to dedicate time and energy to the training needs that these avoidance behaviors expose. Equating community advocacy for equity and a fundamental rethink of the ways that law enforcement personnel engage with highly-policed communities to “a chill wind” – or suggesting that Black Lives Matter protesters “advocate for the murder of police officers” – flies in the face of the reality that assaults, murders, and even accidental deaths of law enforcement personnel are down significantly across 2014 and 2015.

In light of the importance of this ongoing conversation, we are lucky to be hosting Radley Balko for a John Jay Research Book Talk on Rise of the Warrior Cop thisThursday, November 5th, at 4.15pm in our main lecture hall (L.63NB). Mr. Balko has of late written consistently and forcefully in an effort to debunk the idea that Black Lives Matter and related protest movements amount to a “war on cops,” and we look forward to hearing his take on how the historical and ongoing militarization of US law enforcement ties into the current crisis. We are equally excited to get his thoughts on the future and solutions, and are happy to announce that Mr. Balko’s q&a with the John Jay community following his talk will be led by Steve Handelman, Director of the College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice and editor of The Crime Report.

The next entry in this series will look forward to our April 22nd NACOLE Academic Symposium, with a discussion of the role civilian oversight can play in shaping law enforcement culture.

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