Coming Home to Roost, Part 2
olice training mimics military training, both physically and mentally. Transition programs that funnel soldiers to police forces have become common at all levels of government. The changing face of law enforcement is indicative of this process as forces that are traditionally advertised to “protect and serve” have become noticeably militaristic. Perhaps even more concerningthe fact that soldiers, many of whom carry the mental baggage of war, are being streamlined from the streets of Fallujah to the city blocks of the U.S.
In a recent article for Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine, Mark Clark tells us that military veterans seeking employment in police ranks “is happening right now in numbers unseen since the closing days of the Vietnam War.” To assist with job placement and transitioning, organizations like “Hire Heroes USA” works with “about 100 veterans each week”—at least 20 percent of whom are seeking law enforcement jobs. Law enforcement agencies like the Philadelphia Police Department and San Jose PD, which boast of being structured as “a paramilitary organization,” actively seek military veterans by awarding preferential treatment. Many police departments across the country have added increased incentives and benefits, including the acceptance of military active duty time towards retirement, to acquire veterans.
An October 2013 edition of the Army Times reports that “more than 7 in 10 (local law enforcement agencies) said they attend military-specific job fairs and three quarters reported developing relationships with the Labor Department’s local veterans employment representatives.” Also, “Half said they work with military transition assistance programs and half also said they develop relationships with local National Guard and reserve units.” Most local departments also have some type of veterans hiring preference and “more than 90 percent reported having at least one vet in a senior leadership position.”
An example of this trend can be found in Hillsborough County, Florida where the Sheriff’s department is seeking to hire “200 law enforcement deputies and another 130 detention deputies” and Major Alan Hill has set his sights on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to fill these roles. Ironically, Hill points to “coping skills” as a main reason. “A lot of them know how to operate under stress. All of them know how to take orders,” Hill said. “We want to get the best of the best and bring them in here, and give them a home, and allow them to continue to serve.” Other departments across the country, such as the City of Austin Police Department and the Webb County Sheriff’s Office, both in Texas; the Denver Police Department in Colorado; the Hillsborough County and Orange County sheriff’s offices in Florida; and the Tucson Police Department in Arizona—have initiated similar efforts.
The correlation between the mental baggage of war, the increased hiring of military combat veterans as police officers, and an observable escalation of aggressive and violent police brutality is difficult to ignore. Police departments have screening processes, but many are lacking. The lingering effects from being in a war zone are unquestionable and signs and symptoms which often are suppressed during “downtimes” tend to surface and intensify under distress—a common occurrence for police officers.
A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “19 percent of the 912 police officers surveyed in the New Orleans Police Department reported PTSD symptoms and 26 percent reported symptoms of major depression.” A 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that “police who have unresolved mental health concerns—whether or not those concerns are associated with their combat-related experiences—are at risk of harming themselves or others because of the nature of their jobs.” Furthermore, the “mental health effects of combat deployment can manifest themselves in the daily activities of police work with more severity than perhaps other lines of work.” Specifically, “Officers’ combat experiences can affect how they use their weapons, their adherence to use-of-force policies, how they drive their police vehicles, and how they treat citizens with whom they come into contact.”
Despite the potential dangers of these mental health effects, police departments fail to adequately assess them during the evaluation and hiring process. And even in cases where they are considered, the presence of such conditions are either: (1) intentionally hidden by candidates; (2) undetectable due to their impulsive nature; (3) not considered a reasonable basis for disqualification.
Soldiers transitioning from military to civilian life will often mask the psychological effects of combat out of fears of being stigmatized or disqualified for employment. “Of those reporting a probable TBI, 57 percent had not been evaluated by a physician for brain injury.” In a recent study conducted at the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control (COCS), Kara Ballenger-Browning reported that “many of these soldiers are self-conscious about the diagnosis.” In her findings, Ballenger-Browning cited a poll where “half of Iraq/Afghanistan combat veterans with suspected mental disorders believed that receiving treatment would harm their careers and another 65 percent stated that they would be considered weak for seeking help and many were afraid that their peers would lose confidence in their abilities.”
The study also focused on military-sponsored “soldier-to-civilian” transition programs, which sought to assist veterans with civilian job placement. Within such programs, “anonymous questions about PTSD treatment and future employment dominate online discussion forums, and many erroneously assume and advise that outside agencies embrace a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” Consequently, “these findings give reason to believe that veterans may not seek treatment for PTSD, fearing automatic disqualification from employment based on the diagnosis.”
Since the transition from soldier to police officer has become commonplace, the COCS study included an assessment of the typical candidate evaluation process used by police departments to determine how, or if, the lingering mental health effects of combat would influence hiring decisions. Information was gathered from a dozen random departments throughout the U.S. The study found that:
- In each case, a psychological evaluation of the applicant was required; however, a separate evaluation for PTSD was not typically administered
- The vast majority stated that a history of PTSD would not result in automatic disqualification
- Although screening tools, such as the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), exist to evaluate levels of PTSD severity, no law enforcement agencies reported using one
- In cases where mental health diagnoses were known, “most agencies suggested that medication, including psychotropic medication, was evaluated to ensure that safe and efficient job performance would not be adversely affected”
While many advocate groups view this lack of screening as a positive thing because it’s one less obstruction for veterans to face, it should be concerning to members of the communities that are subjected to the ill effects of officers who suffer from combat-related conditions like PTSD or TBI. “Despite the challenges faced by veterans leaving active-duty military service for new or existing police careers,” lauds Clark, “the ranks of police forces are swelling with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Considering that one-third of all soldiers returning from deployment suffer from PTSD, TBI, some form of depressive disorder, or a combination of these, it’s probable that many of these new recruits who are “swelling the ranks” are bringing significant mental baggage with them.
The combination of this development with the standard process of objectification and internalized oppression, as well as the ingrained mentality of “war culture,” is a volatile one. Add the deliberate militarization of domestic police forces to the mix and we have an alarming trend—one that is highlighted by the near-daily occurrence of indiscriminate police violence across the country.
The Evolution of Domestic Militarism
The militarization of America’s police forces has been a gradual process which began as blowback from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Radley Balko, an investigative journalist for the Huffington Post, has spent much of the past decade following this alarmingly fascistic development. What Matt Taibbi is to the mortgage banking scandal, and Jeremy Scahill is to U.S. imperialism, Balko is to the militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies. Likening modern police forces to a “standing army,” Balko has made compelling arguments—using constitutional law and the 13th amendment, as well as deploying an historical analysis extending back to old English law—that the mere existence of these forces are unconstitutional.
First, as a general response to the grassroots militancy of the Cultural Revolution, which sought greater degrees of liberty, freedom, and equality police forces began borrowing from the “special forces” model of the military. “They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas Clock Tower massacre in 1966.” This led to the development and proliferation of SWAT teams. “Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in LA in 1969,” explains Balko. “By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country.”
The second development was the “war on drugs,” which “overlapped” and developed simultaneously with the reactive militarization of the late 1960s. Balko captures the vibe: “Nixon was declaring an ‘all-out war on drugs.’ He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.” Shortly thereafter, with the arrival of Reagan, “the two trends converged and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis, mostly to serve drug warrants.”
Two decades later, domestic militarization reached new heights with the third development in this evolution. The World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. Broadening the “war on drugs” to include an all-encompassing and often-times ambiguous “war on terror” opened the door for massive increases in “domestic security measures,” which led to seemingly limitless funding of police forces, the creation of new “security” agencies such as Homeland Security, and the opportunity for millions of dollars of profit to be made through the privatization of these services.
Private corporations like G4S Secure Solutions (formerly “The Wackenhut Corporation”) jumped at the chance to secure government contracts (including U.S. Customs and Border Protection) and boost revenue. The creation of a “police industrial complex” has allowed companies like these to benefit from a “business to business global security market that is estimated to generate revenues of up to $14.9 billion per year” while being heavily subsidized by government contracts. As a complementary development, the privatization of prisons works hand in hand with this newly-found, multi-billion-dollar law enforcement industry by creating even more incentive to seek out arrests and incarcerations.
“Federal funding in the billions of dollars has allowed state and local police departments to gain access to weapons and tactics created for overseas combat theaters.” In an ongoing study by the ACLU, which is awaiting responses to “over 260 public records requests with law enforcement agencies in 25 states,” enough discernable evidence has been gathered to determine that “the use of military machinery such as tanks and grenades, as well as counter-terrorism tactics, encourage overly aggressive policing—too often with devastating consequences.” The study highlights random developments across the country:
- A county sheriff’s department in South Carolina has an armored personnel carrier dubbed “The Peacemaker,” which can shoot weapons that the U.S. military specifically refrains from using on people
- New Hampshire police received federal funds for a counter-attack vehicle, asking “what red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this?”
- Police in North Dakota borrowed a $154 million Predator drone from Homeland Security to arrest a family who refused to return six cows that wandered onto their farm
- Two SWAT Teams shut down a neighborhood in Colorado for four hours to search for a man suspected of stealing a bicycle and merchandise from Wal-Mart
- Police in Arkansas announced plans to patrol streets wearing full SWAT gear and carrying AR-15 assault rifles
Furthermore, during a 2007 House subcommittee hearing, Balko reported a “1,500 percent increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades.” Today, in America, “SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day.”
The equipment and machinery regularly utilized by local police forces across the U.S. now mimics that of a war zone. They possess everything from body armor to high-powered weaponry to tanks, armored vehicles, and even drones. But why? Are the duties of police officers really as dangerous as they’re made out to be? Out of approximately 900,000 police officers in the U.S., there are roughly 150 fatalities per year. Nearly 100 of these fatalities are accidental; therefore, 50 out of 900,000 officers—or 1 out of every 18,000 (five hundred thousandths of one percent of the entire force)—are killed each year. The odds of being struck by lightning over the course of a lifetime are 1 in 3,000. Yet police are armed to the teeth—a fact that suggests conscious shifts from “defense” to “offense” and “protecting and serving” to “confronting and repressing.” Citizens—most notably poor, working class, and people of color—who are intended to be the beneficiaries of this “protective service” are now viewed and treated as enemy combatants on a battlefield.
Coming Home to Roost
America’s culture of war and violence was bound to catch up to all of us. Over the past decade, yearly U.S. military expenditures more than doubled from a little over $300 billion in 2001 to over $682 billion in 2013 U.S. military spending represents 39 percent of global spending—more than the combined spending of China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, Canada, and Australia. Since 1945, the U.S. military has invaded, intervened in, or occupied at least 50 countries. Currently, the U.S. operates and/or controls between 700 to 800 military bases worldwide, a list that includes locations in 63 countries. In addition to these bases, there are 255,065 U.S. military personnel deployed in 156 countries worldwide.
This global military presence has real and often disastrous consequences for human life. In the 2011 book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, author John Tirman estimates that “between six and seven million people died in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq alone, the majority of them civilians.” However, wartime casualties pale in comparison to the lingering effects, chaos, and disorder stemming from prolonged military occupations. “In the period 1950-2005, there have been 82 million avoidable deaths from deprivation (avoidable mortality, excess deaths, excess mortality, deaths that did not have to happen) associated with countries occupied by the U.S. in the post-1945 era.” While it’s difficult to gauge how much of a role the military occupations played in this devastation, it’s safe to assume the instability created by such occupations factor significantly.
Violence Abroad Mimics Violence at Home
America’s police forces also reflect this culture. And while law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have delivered pain and devastation to poorer, inner-city communities for nearly a half-century, their militarization has only recently begun to attract national attention. Much of this attention can be pinpointed to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the response it received from police, which included unadulterated brutality against peaceful protesters, unnecessary use of force, and the negligent use of tasers and Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper) spray—a substance that has been proven to cause “adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and even sudden death” in some cases. However, it was not merely these careless and sadistic actions, which have attracted such attention, but rather the changing profile of the victims of this brutality— young, white, “middle-class” women and men. “For 25 years, the primary ‘beneficiaries’ of police militarization have been poor people in high-crime areas—people who generally haven’t had the power or platform to speak up,” explains Balko.
“The Occupy protesters were largely affluent, white, and deft at using cell phones and social media to document and publicize incidents of excessive force.” Their public victimization, despite falling far short of the police brutality that has existed within communities of color for decades, inevitably struck a chord with a nation still inundated with white supremacist ideals that assign varying degrees of value to American lives—mainly based on the color of one’s skin and their socioeconomic background. Ultimately, white members of the media, seeing reflections of their own sons and daughters being abused, suddenly chose to report en masse. White viewers, seeing reflections of their neighbors and relatives, suddenly expressed widespread disgust. This was no longer an episode of “COPS,” “glamorizing controversial police tactics” and perpetuating “implicit biases regarding race and class.” These were now white, middle-class lives being affected and brutalized.
Essentially, the hate that Malcolm X spoke of, historically reserved for “defenseless black people,” is now developing into indiscriminate rage—targeting poor and working-class people of all colors throughout the U.S. Through this ongoing process, it is becoming apparent that even white privilege, in itself, is beginning to lose its immunity from this unaccountable wrath.
The 2011 beating of a homeless schizophrenic man, Kelly Thomas, in a transit parking lot in Fullerton, California confirmed this wrath. The incident was, unknown to officers, recorded by security cameras on the night of July 5, 2011, and later viewed by millions of Americans as the officers’ trial was closely followed. Thomas was unarmed and posed no threat at the time of the beating. “The surveillance camera footage shows Thomas being beaten, clubbed, and stunned with a Taser by police.” Thomas suffered a coma and died five days later in a hospital bed.
November 2011 showcased yet another incident of blatant disregard as a police officer doused UC-Davis students with streams of pepper spray. At the time, the students were engaged in non-violent protest by sitting together with their arms locked. Video footage of the officer calmly and methodically walking up and down the line of students, spraying in and around their faces without pause, epitomized the sadistic nature of modern policing.
On August 10, 2013, Tallahassee police officers, while conducting a field sobriety test on 44-year-old Christina West, forcefully slammed her face-first into the road as one officer screamed in rage. While obviously inebriated, West was subjected to what City Commissioner Scott Maddox later described as “a disturbing use of force against a completely non-aggressive arrestee.”
In September 2013, 20-year-old David Connor Castellani was arrested, beaten by police, and attacked by a K-9 unit after a verbal altercation outside of an Atlantic City casino. Castellani was unarmed. The following month, after a disagreement with his father over cigarettes, 19-year-old Tyler Comstock found himself the target of a police chase in Iowa. Despite being told to “back off” in order to defuse the situation, officers escalated the incid
ent by pursuing Comstock, crashing into the truck he was driving, and shooting and killing him. He was unarmed.
In January 2014, a 2009 surveillance video from a Seabrook, New Hampshire police station was leaked, showing police slamming Mike Bergeron face-first into a concrete wall and dousing him with pepper spray while he was on the floor. Bergeron was arrested under suspicion of drunk driving and was unarmed, handcuffed, and relatively calm when one officer decided to violently slam his face into the wall, to the apparent joy of the other officers who could be seen laughing.
Incidents like these and many others have signified the donning of a new age—one that is eerily reminiscent of authoritarian societies gone by, draped with violently oppressive, daily interactions between agents of government and the citizenry, and dripping of fascistic notions built upon a culture of militarism and war. A violence historically reserved for the most disenfranchised of the population—and ignored by most of the rest—is finally extending itself beyond the oppressive structures of old, transcending targeted demographics to include a working class- wide assault.
An extensive 2006 report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded that, in the United States, the “War on Terror” has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country. For 30 years, politicians and public officials have been arming, training, and dressing cops as if they’re fighting a war,” explains Balko. “They’ve been dehumanizing drug offenders and criminal suspects as the enemy. And of course they’ve explicitly and repeatedly told them they’re fighting a war. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that a lot of cops have started to believe it.”
This development, while unwanted, was inevitable for a nation that was built on a foundation of Native American genocide, African enslavement, the ruthlessness of capitalism, a culture of misogyny, and persistent strains of racism and classism. The process of objectification, which has become pervasive for America’s youth, has served as an expedient catalyst to a culture of war and oppression; and the insidious victimization of America’s working class has worked in tandem with the internalization of this oppressive culture, producing willing participants eager to earn a place in the master’s good graces by brutalizing their working class peers.
As products of this conditioning, the mindset of the modern police officer in the U.S. remains peculiar. As individuals, within the confines of their own lives among their families, loved ones, children, and friends. They aren’t much different than many of us. Ironically, despite being enforcers of government policy in their professional capacity, many do not hesitate to jump on the soapbox of anti-government rhetoric—often opposing things like Obamacare, welfare, gun control, open immigration policy, and even taxation—on their “personal time.” Right-wing fringe groups like the Tea Party and Oath Keepers have actively recruited both military personnel and police officers, finding an abundance of narrow and impressionably ripe minds within these ranks. While claiming to “return to the basics” and “serve the U.S. Constitution,” their actions (even when serving their “public” duties) ultimately rely on literal interpretations of a highly-subjective, often vague, and antiquated document that was written by wealthy, white (some slave-owning) landowners nearly 250 years ago.
Naturally, these interpretations are skewed by a myriad of privileges. Regardless of the officer’s own ethnicity or socioeconomic background, it is the role that ultimately represents a virtual arm of white supremacy and class oppression. Regarding the racist dynamics of law enforcement in the U.S., “It’s useful to understand this as an allegory about how white skin privilege works,” explains Annalee Newitz. “The police uniform (and) the badge are like white skin, and the person who wears that skin is allowed to enforce laws which he doesn’t himself intend to follow.” Within their roles as “officers of the law,” they become the embodiment of the government-backed suppression they often despise in their private lives. Only the suppression they carry out is against a specific target population (people of color, the poor and disenfranchised, and the working class). And, despite coming from that very working class, they undoubtedly lose any and all sense of class consciousness in their roles as ruling class watchdogs.
Within this role, they take ownership of a wide array of hypocritical entitlements—a mindset that wholeheartedly believes the U.S. Constitution protects my rights to own guns, and my rights to protect my privileged status in society, and my rights to protect my property, and so on. However, those rights don’t apply to you. And they certainly don’t apply to young men of color who happen to be walking home at night. Nor do they apply to striking workers demanding a living wage. Nor do they apply to Occupy protestors collectively sitting in protest of illegal wars, corporate greed, and corrupt banks. Nor do they apply to evicted homeowners who were exploited by deceitful mortgage schemes. Nor do they apply to homeless people who are simply trying to survive on the streets.
Rather than seeing themselves as public servants, police officers have increasingly embraced the “us vs. them” mentality—anyone who isn’t a cop is a potential threat. In doing so, they have become “mindless drones” void of any conscience amidst a world that is becoming increasingly unconscionable—the ultimate tool on an ever-intensifying class-war landscape. The collective baggage they bring with them—products of objectification, war culture, militarism, and combat-induced mental illness—serve as positive attributes in the eyes of those who use them as tools of oppression, while representing erratic triggers of violence to everyone else. The war has come home. The chickens are here to roost.
Colin Jenkins is founder, editor, and social economics chair at the Hampton Institute, a working class think tank providing history, theory, analysis, and research on political and social matters.