Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Policing, Paramilitarism and what to do about America's addiction to gun violence

With Vice President Joe Biden due to make his recommendations for gun control as early as Tuesday US gun culture is firmly under the spotlight.

Following the shocking events of Sandy Hook and Webster contributions were quick to be made on both sides of the debate: proponents of legal reform suggested, starting with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that a right to bear arms did not extend to convicted murderers having access to assault weapons with large magazines. Meanwhile staunch defenders of the constitution responded with the argument that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" - preferably one in every schoolyard, at least according to the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. As one commentator described it, "it’s the hubris of Bloomberg versus the humbug of LaPierre."

Brits, as many across the world, watch this bizarre political debate with bemusement. The cultural links which make our special relationship tell us that our two countries are not so different as to require opposite approaches, yet we may take pride in having an unarmed civilian Police force on our side of the Atlantic and justify this with remarkably low levels of violent crime, gun-totin' Americans confidently assert aggressive self-defence as the best form of protection while pointing to persistent levels of violence requiring vigilence.

Indeed, preemptive strikes and escalation are normalised by habit throughout American society, from foreign policy to primetime entertainment. US drone attacks within the allied airspace of Pakistan only began to hit headlines when the phrasebook of war added 'collateral damage' to it's lexicon of grief, while, closer to home, SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) deployments have also started coming under increased scrutiny - not least because of the 1975 TV series or the overblown 2003 movie remake.

Philadephia established the first SWAT squad in 1964, followed by LA in 1967, primarily in response to civil order challenges including regular rioting and the rise of heavily-armed and politically-motivated urban guerrilla movements. By the early 1980s, as such groups evolved into criminal gangs, most major US cities were using these special response units to prosecute a vicious 'War on Drugs'.

In 1994, as part of a shake-up which saw the implementation of a national SWAT strategy, the Pentagon was permitted to donate military surplus to local Police - in 17 years these 'donations' included 112 armoured personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters, more than the actual military force of many a medium-sized country!

And while the 1999 Columbine High School killings marked "a profound shift", according to University ofMissouri criminologist David Klinger, things really began to change after 2001 when funding streams for otherwise prohibitive equipment costs were justified in the light of the 'War on Terror'.

In the decade since the Dept of Homeland Security was set up in response to the September 11th attacks it has allocated over $34bn in grants to state and local governments. SWAT teams were a natural beneficiary, aided and incentivised equally by federal anti-drug grants and asset forfeiture policies. Soon towns with populations of less that 20,000 had their own SWAT units to help the fight against the 'War on Crime'.

A further boost to the programme of domestic militarisation came in 2009 when arms manufacturers benefitted from federal cash in the economic stimulus package after Police departments were given leave to make large request for updated hardware, under the guise of a new economic ‘war’.

Backing this up, Peter Kraska, a criminologist at the University of Eastern Kentucky, found that 3,000 SWAT deployments per year in 1980's became more than 40,000 by 2001, and estimates this may now top 60,000. Baltimore was a crime hotspot long before The Wire got there, so a 1,000% increase in Maryland SWAT deployments in 30 years indicates a clear cultural, as well as tactical, shift.

Over the last six months of 2009, SWAT teams were deployed a total of 804 times in the state of Maryland, or about 4.5 times per day - which the Baltimore Sun calculates were used to execute basic search or arrest warrants 94% of the time.

Separately, the National Tactical OfficersAssociation analysed 759 deployments from across the country in 2006, finding two-thirds were for basic warrants.

SWAT teams have also been used to crack down on neighbourhood poker games, enforce alcohol and occupational licences, even being deployed to catch student loan cheats. And in Anaheim earlier thisyear nine days of peaceful protests against police brutality were broken up in scenes that looked more like a prologue to Call of Duty - a disneyfied Baghdad.

In two heavyweight papers Kraska measured the growing militarisation of US Police forces and examined the converging trends which changed the nature of domestic security. He identified the gradualerosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which led, via a redefinition of criminality and crime control, to 'unprecedented' coordination and normalisation of the relationship between US military and civilian police forces.

Professor Kraska notes the failure of agovernment to clearly demarcate between the police and military can be seen asa clear indicator of repressiveness and therefore of a lack of democracy - a failure encapsulated by division over the meaning of 'state militia' in the fabled Second Amendment. As he says, "The problem is that when you talk about the war on this and the war on that, and police officers see themselves as soldiers, then the civilian becomes the enemy" - and then the civilian inevitably starts to fight back.

And so, in the disconnected world where Police and People co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and emnity it should be no wonder that both sides are so anxious not to concede any political ground, and the otherwise unintelligible 'right to bear arms' is twisted into a national obsession and patriotic duty, defended in equal measure by both state and individual who are set against each other as a result.

Is there any middle ground on which the two sides can meet?

In fact, yes, there is - and if you've read this far the source may come as a surprise: it was the Police themselves.

Last April the 70 members of the North American Major Cities Chiefs Association debated and agreed to collectively support a national Firearms Violence Policy.

Download it, read it and share it.

Insist it is adopted federally, in full - immediately.