President Trump’s reckless encouragement of police officers to rough up people in their custody overshadowed comments made by Bob Krull, head of the Minneapolis police union, at a 2017 political rally in Minnesota. Fervent from speaking at the same podium as Trump, Krull praised the president for rolling back Obama-era restrictions that limited the availability of grenade-launchers and other military-grade weapons to the country’s police departments. “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around…he decided to let cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”
The sight of police officers donning desert camouflage, kitted with assault weapons and riot gear while armored vehicles patrol American city streets has become ubiquitous. From Los Angeles, to Salt Lake City to Philadelphia, officers in full combat gear look and operate more like soldiers facing enemy combatants on the battlefield instead of unarmed protestors demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other people harmed by the country’s predatory criminal justice system.
For Krull, these scenes must feel like victory. He has been fighting against reforms to eliminate the “warrior-style” policing that has promulgated in the nation’s police departments. When Minneapolis become the first major department to prohibit police trainings such as “Killology” and “BulletProof” that largely focus on the officer’s perceptions of fear, and have connections to other police-involved killings like Philando Castile’s in 2016, Krull and the Minneapolis PD protested the move. “It’s not truly ‘fear-based’ training,” Kroll said. “It’s survival training.”
Protestors and journalists have been indiscriminately fired upon by police with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. One photographer says she is now blinded in her left eye after being struck with an officer’s rubber bullet in Minneapolis, and several protesters in New York City were rushed to the hospital for serious injuries caused by so-called non-lethal weapons. A reporter covering the protests in Louisville was live on the air when officers fired at her without provocation.
The move to keep military-grade weapons out of the hands of police departments gained momentum in 2014 after the country watched as local law enforcement responded with disproportionate force to protests of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Armed with M4 assault rifles and backed by a massive armored truck called a Bearcat, similar to mine-resistant vehicles used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq, the show of force sent a clear message to the residents of Ferguson: you are the enemy. Officers also responded with violent, military-style policing to suppress community protests in Baltimore after police officers killed Freddie Gray in 2015.
At the time the President called for the reduction in the availability of certain military weapons and gear to police departments because “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.” He was right. The use of war tools distorts the role of policing in our communities, contributes to unnecessary violence and tragedy, and increases dangers to both civilians and law enforcement.
Just the presence of weapons, especially ones designed for and used in war, can incite violence. The “weapons effect,” as it’s been called, finds that when weapons are present, people are more likely to feel threatened and may be quicker to use them. “Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well,” psychologist Leonard Berkowitz said in a landmark 1967 study about what causes violence. “The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”
As the country calls for justice, we are also witnessing the line separating police and military in our cities fall away. But if the police share our goal of creating safe communities, then they cannot treat our cities like battlegrounds and Americans like the enemy.