On Saturday night, Minneapolis police shot and killed an Australian woman in an alleyway. The 40-year-old spiritual healer, who had lived in the United States for about three years, was engaged to be married next month. The victim of the police killing had called 911 around 11:30 p.m. to report suspicious activity outside her home.
Family members of the woman’s fiancée said on Sunday that they were frustrated by a lack of official cooperation in obtaining details of the homicide. According a statement released by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and reported by the Star Tribune, the officers responsible for the killing wore body cameras, but they were off. The patrol car cameras also did not capture the homicide — further obfuscating the release of reliable facts of the tragedy.
Equally disturbing as the Minneapolis killing is a similar hyper-response incident from outside of Boston last Saturday night. Police in Hingham, Mass. responded to a family home with SWAT teams and special forces because a 26-year-old man was distraught about a breakup with his girlfriend.
As bulletproof tank-like vehicles and heavily armed troops descended on the quiet neighborhood, Austin Reeves committed suicide in the bedroom of his parents’ home. Without any criminal record or legitimate threat to public safety, his parents are wondering why the police activated a regional response that only escalated a minor personal crisis to a small war zone.
Both incidents demonstrate the changing face of the nation’s streets and law enforcement. Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, it was shocking to see military officers with assault rifles walking the terminal at Penn Station in New York City. At that time, there was a perceived threat, and the increased police presence was comforting to many. Now, however, attitudes are changing when calls for assistance bring a G.I. Joe-style response to communities across America.
Even the country’s smallest cities now boast military caliber weapons and equipment — from the latest surveillance technologies to small tanks and armored transports. Local police departments arrive to minor disturbances in blacked out vehicles, tactical weapons ready, and their warrior attitudes jacked to the max on Red Bull. Bulletproof police vehicles make sensational coverage for the local evening news, but they destroy the tenuous trust between the public and an increasingly militarized police force.
Police militarization is not, contrary to most beliefs, solely a product of post 9/11 era America. The terror attacks in 2001 contributed to expanded militarization because of the direct threat, but the foundation for military like police departments was established 20 years before 9/11. President Ronald Reagan initiated one of the earliest statutes leading to the war-zone minded cops we have today.
In 1981, one of Reagan’s first accomplishments as president was the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act. As a strong element in Reagan’s war on drugs platform, the MCLEA went beyond cooperation. It encouraged the United States military and its vast resources to train police and share military style equipment on the frontline — America’s streets and neighborhoods. Since then, there has been a steady proliferation in the dangerous intermingling of the military and domestic police agencies.
Soldiers have a principally different set of priorities in their training and objectives than police. The traditional role of military personnel is that of the warrior force that opposes and eliminates a defined enemy or threat. Training cops as warriors capable of destroying an enemy places citizens directly in the line of unfriendly fire in their own country.
Domestic law enforcement agencies possess a dissimilar directive than military troops. From local police to the federal agencies responsible for national safety, the primary objective has always been one of a guardian whose job it is — as everyone who has seen a police cruiser knows — “To protect and serve.” Domestic law enforcement is not tasked with identifying and eliminating a hostile force because American citizens are not the enemies.
Additionally, police and military work under two different precepts of the United States Constitution. Police are empowered by local, state, and federal statutes and agencies to act within the framework of the Constitution and its inherent rights. They must not only prevent or interdict crimes, but police have a mandate to uphold the Constitution. The military receives its powers and orders through a different set of operational parameters, and it is not always bound by the same constitutional constraints or considerations.
Therefore, when the government introduces military style tactics and operational procedures in domestic settings, there is a genuine risk of abuse, misinterpretation, and warrior action executed against citizens. When warriors respond to alleys in Minneapolis or Boston suburbs, the guardians who are supposed to be responsible for their safety instead kill innocent men and women.
Police departments will always be a necessary evil of any society. However, when those same departments become the unnecessary evil — invading suburban cul-de-sacs with tanks, killing instead of communicating, and treating the populous like the enemy — it indicates a more serious corruption. It extends beyond simply an attack on America’s people. When a military presence takes over our cities and towns, the police are murdering democracy itself.