An intimidating and appalling trend of militarizing the police force has been underway for a while, but it has also gone under the radar — until there came the time when we could overlook it no more. That is, until the full and gory repercussions of the culture of militarization came to bear down upon us in the form of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. In its aftermath, public discourse has focused on the transfer of countless bayonets, tasers, automatic weapons, rifles, armored vehicles, armored drones and aircraft worth thousands of US dollars from the US Military and the US Department of Homeland Security to our local police forces.

In addition to this, across the country, more than 60,000 SWAT teams have been known to go knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the night, as part of a raid against drugs. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Nearly 80% of the SWAT raids the ACLU studied were conducted to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases. With public support for the War on Drugs at an all-time low, police are using hyper-aggressive, wartime tools and tactics to fight a war that has lost its public mandate.”

In a panel discussion held on campus on Wednesday, November 5th about the militarization of the police, New Haven Chief of Police Dean Esserman declared himself to be in agreement with most of the humanitarian and community-based concerns raised by the ACLU regarding this dangerous precedent. He argued, however, that it is not the weapons but how, when and where the weapons are used that determines whether or not they are a positive addition to the police force. As a police officer who has been working for 30 years, who has buried three of his officers, has been shot at several times but who has never in his life had to shoot at someone else, Chief Essermen believes that it is his training, rather than the weapon he was carrying, which has thus far determined his conduct in the face of crises.

He argued, “If it was your child or your loved one in the police uniform, you would have thanked God they have that equipment.” Simultaneously he maintained that most of the equipment in New Haven mainly “sits around and collects dust.” He deems some of the equipment necessary but also argued for the importance of diligent training process and a national standardization of police procedures and codes of conduct.

While the appeal by Chief Esserman to our emotions and trust commands our respect, his argument failed to maintain its consistency when he was asked whether he would accept a transfer of drones from the US military to the New Haven police force. He (thankfully) said that he would absolutely not because drones have such a negative and frightful connotation that their acquisition would significantly undermine the trust between the police force and the community. In this case, contrary to his previous reasoning, it is the communal perception of the weapon with its context of wartime use that can threaten to undermine police-community dynamics, regardless of whether or not the weapon is ever actually used. Untrained or inadequately trained officers having access to wartime equipment is only one part of the overall problem and Chief Esserman’s recommendations in dealing with this part are sound. The other and more important aspect of the problem, though, is that of the perception and relationship of the police with respect to its community. It is undeniable that when the weapons directed against our enemies on battlefields are brought around to protect the corner of our street, we are left feeling uncomfortable. The question is, how long are we willing to overlook this feeling?


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