Reject the "Militarized" Police Screed

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS August 19, 2014

Perhaps the irresponsible hyperbole about the "militarized police" will fade now that the mob violence in Ferguson has required the calling out of an element of the real military, the Missouri National Guard. Not that Leftists and anarchists won't still screech about a "police state" as they have always done regardless of events. It can be hoped, however, that the dangerous flirtation too many supposedly conservative pundits had with left-wing rhetoric will now be seen as an embarrassing episode not to be repeated. When even a social conservative like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee falls for the "militarized police" line on his Fox TV show, it is clear that the intellectual content of right-wing discourse has taken a nose dive.

            This column is not about the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. That incident is being investigated with great intensity by local and Federal authorities and it is best to wait for that process to play itself out. My subject is the rioting that has taken place since the shooting and the disturbing tendency of some putative conservatives to initially join with liberals to claim that the police response to the violence was the problem. That the police deployed with armored vehicles, flak vests and assault rifles was considered "shocking" by those who sit comfortably in distant TV studios and do not have to be in the streets facing gangs throwing rocks and firebombs, and perhaps carrying assault weapons of their own.

            The mob outnumbers the police. Patrol cars have been shot at. Stores have been looted and burned because there are not enough cops to guard everything. The looting was stemmed one night when property owners took up defensive positions with their own guns to deter attacks. I have only seen one interview with locals about how the police response has not been strong enough to "serve and protect" the general public from the roving criminal bands. The rules of engagement under which the police are operating are very restrictive.  It has been alleged that law enforcement backed off during one of the protests last week to avoid a confrontation, allowing looters to have their way.  

            On Friday, a surveillance video was released showing Michael Brown strong-arming a clerk as he stole some items just before his confrontation with Officer Wilson. That night, looters targeted the store as if they wanted to complete the work Brown has started. Not the image anyone decent in Ferguson would want to convey. The good news is that community leaders now want to work with authorities against the thugs within their midst, a development which will hopefully continue past this crisis.

            Yet, the dominant media narrative during the first days of the rioting was represented by the banner used on CNN's State of the Union show Sunday, "Officer Friendly Becomes G.I. Joe." Of course, the Officer Friendly approach was tried in Ferguson when Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was put in charge of police operations. He met and marched with community leaders who were able to control events Thursday evening, but lost control again the next night. When Missouri Governor Jay Nixon activated the National Guard, he said it was to counter "violent criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and businesses of Ferguson at risk." 

            In contrast, Democratic Congressman William Clay, whose district includes Ferguson, claimed on CNN that the police were trying to "quell peaceful protest." This is not true. There have been marches and press conferences every day. News crews are everywhere. But this is during daylight hours when the placards can be read and the light is best for cameras. It is at night that the situation changes. The cover of darkness gives the looters, arsonists and vandals their chance. To call their acts "protest" or give them the cover of "civil rights" is to open the gates wide for anarchy.

            But then, society has been heading down this path of societal disintegration for decades. As Edmund Burke observed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France: "Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without." As the influence of morality has diminished in a culture of decadence, self-seeking and entitlement, criminality has mushroomed. When I first went to work in Washington, DC over twenty years ago, I was shocked to notice that homes and apartments within sight of the Capitol had bars on their doors and windows to keep out intruders. It was the innocent who had to lock themselves up at night.

            In most large municipalities, street gangs outnumber the police. Middle class flight to the suburbs was a reaction to the deterioration of security in the central cities. The police needed to acquire better arms and equipment in the face of gangs who by the 1990s could outgun local law enforcement and render entire urban sectors as "no go" areas for the authorities. A state of nature reigned again fully as Thomas Hobbes described, with the lives of too many residents "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." It was to address this dire development that the Defense Department started providing equipment to local authorities in 1997. So there is nothing new about this story. It is just a left-wing diversion which more savvy conservative commentators should have dismissed.

            Everyone should read or at least scan the FBI's 2011 Gang Threat Assessment Report before claiming that the police are the problem. The key findings section of the report summarizes the situation thusly,

Gangs are expanding, evolving and posing an increasing threat to US communities nationwide. Many gangs are sophisticated criminal networks with members who are violent, distribute wholesale quantities of drugs, and develop and maintain close working relationships with members and associates of transnational criminal/drug trafficking organizations. Gangs are becoming more violent while engaging in less typical and lower-risk crime, such as prostitution and white-collar crime. Gangs are more adaptable, organized, sophisticated, and opportunistic, exploiting new and advanced technology as a means to recruit, communicate discretely, target their rivals, and perpetuate their criminal activity.  

There are an estimated 33,000 gangs operating in the U.S. with over 1.4 million members. Yet, even they only commit about half the crimes. We are very, very far from a "police state" and much, much closer to anarchy. It is far safer to walk down the street at night in Beijing than Chicago (I have done both).

            Consider the liberal response to this situation. On August 18, John McWhorter, an associate professor of English at Columbia University, posted a column at The New Republic (where he is a contributing editor) calling for a "pullback in the War on Drugs" as the way to halt confrontations between police and gangs. He writes, "Without that policy-which would include that no one could make a living selling drugs-the entire structure supporting the notion of young black men as criminals would fall apart. White men with guns would encounter young black men much less often, and meanwhile society would offer young black men less opportunity to drift into embodying the stereotype in the first place." If this is what left-wing intellectualism now produces, it is safe to call it ignorant and irrational--- and dangerous.

            How does ending the war on drugs make it impossible to make a living selling drugs? It simply removes obstacles (risk and expense) to the business. It will also increase the victims of the drug culture, especially within minority communities. Drugs destroy everything they touch. There is no upside to addictive poisons that ruin the character as well as the lives of those seduced into using narcotics for "recreation." Yet, even if we indulge in McWhorter's nonsense, it won't be enough.

            As the FBI report states, "Gangs are increasingly engaging in non-traditional gang-related crime, such as alien smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution. Gangs are also engaging in white-collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud, primarily due to the high profitability and much lower visibility and risk of detection and punishment than drug and weapons trafficking." So we would have to quit enforcing laws on a wide variety of crimes to avoid police-gang confrontations. If the police are the problem, then legalize everything and the police can not only be disarmed, but disbanded. Though it would not be long before reports appeared about the "militarization" of neighborhood watch groups which would have to quickly take on a larger role in defense of homes and property.

            As Adam Smith reminds us in The Wealth of Nations, "It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it." Conservatives (and others) should never forget on which side of the police line they are almost always going to find themselves; and why it is their best interest to make sure the "thin blue line" has the strength of armor plate. 

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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