One day about six years ago, I watched the funeral procession for a Gretna Police Department officer pass along Belle Chasse Highway.
In this procession were two black vehicles that resembled the Humvee military trucks that most of us got to know through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They belonged to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT unit.
Behind those was a rolling black behemoth that looked like it could have crushed the SWAT vehicles in front of it, being so much larger than both of them.
What I saw that day was an early sign of what has been called the militarization of American police departments, a process in which weaponry and vehicles trickle down from the armed services to local law enforcement.
According to the New York Times, East Baton Rouge Parish received two mine-resistant vehicles along with 558 assault rifles and other assorted weapons. Jefferson Parish scored a helicopter and armored vehicles; St. Tammany Parish got a helicopter and other armored vehicles too. Many other parishes were similarly endowed.
All of this is the outgrowth of what happened 13 years ago today. Our military may be able to protect Fortress America from external assaults, but attacks from within proved to be another matter. So we reacted by trying to make local police agencies better able to deal with possible acts of terror.
Maybe we overreacted. It’s not like we haven’t done so before. The “red scare” of the 1950s brought us McCarthyism and blacklisting; the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to the internment of Japanese-Americans.
The extent to which law enforcement has been militarized since 2001 was put in high relief by the sight of heavily armed police and combat vehicles confronting protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old.
At the risk of oversimplification, you can probably say that people on the liberal side of the political spectrum have been wary of local law enforcement for a long time.
After all, it was local departments that attacked civil rights demonstrators in the South in the 1960s. And it was the tactics of local law enforcement that were reined in by the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision requiring that suspects be advised of their rights.
Conservatives, on the other hand, saw the Miranda ruling as coddling criminals, and they viewed their local police as soldiers on the front line of the battle to bring law and order back to American cities after the urban unrest of the 1960s.
Given that history, it’s not surprising that people on the left side of the spectrum are wary of the trend toward militarization of police departments. What’s different now is that conservatives have joined them.
Of course, one of the core beliefs of modern conservatism is the primacy of the individual over the state. So it would be natural for a conservative not to want police powers strengthened at any level through enhanced weaponry, tipping the balance further in favor of the government.
But there’s another factor animating conservative concern over police militarization: good old American paranoia. Many conservatives connect police militarization with a general overarching anxiety about the might of the federal government, as if everyone from the beat cop on up is part of one great conspiracy to crush individual rights.
No matter how they arrived at their position, it’s good that conservatives are showing some wariness about the actions of police at the local level. With both sides of the political spectrum suspicious of seeing law enforcement so mightily militarized, maybe we can finally do something to change that.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.