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Contrary to the president’s claims, the protests of the last weeks have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Yet, we see the tools of war on our streets. Police and the National Guard patrol with the weapons and armor that I recognize from my overseas deployments in the Marines.
We must demilitarize the police. To do this, we must shift the paradigm of public safety, at home and abroad.
After September 11th, government at all levels — federal, state, local — increasingly flipped the idea of policing on its head. State and local police were given more military and intelligence capabilities, while troops overseas were tasked with policing foreign soil.
The new Department of Homeland Security became a bridge between the two. From airports to subways to street corners, our everyday experience became marked by lurking threats that required overwhelming force. We were all deputized to "say something," if we "see something."
After September 11th, government at all levels -- federal, state, local -- increasingly flipped the idea of policing on its head.
Conversely, our troops are deployed as police. That includes me. As an infantry platoon commander in Helmand Province, my mission was to patrol three villages subject to Taliban influence. In tandem with the Afghan police, we tried to establish rapport with tribal elders, to root out Taliban abettors and to generally underwrite security. Marines are expeditionary — we are meant to take on unfamiliar missions. But we are not police.
Our military is policing villages that are not their own, and our police are empowered to act with military force. These twin failed initiatives must stop: get the military and intelligence services out of our public square here at home, and stop using our military as a police force overseas. As monumental as ending the forever wars would be, it is the former — the demilitarization of police — that will be the harder call to action.
Each city and town can begin by looking at dispatches and details. How often are cops being asked to control traffic? Cite noise violators? Handle substance abuse? And, how often would recourse to force have been necessary to protect public safety?
As the chair of the public safety and transportation committee on the Newton City Council, I am helping to steer that review for my hometown. I expect we'll find that we're asking police to not just keep us safe from violent crime, but also to handle every other assignment that has rolled downhill from law to enforcement, without due consideration for the right agent to enforce.
In some cases, it's already obvious it's not working. For example: Newton police are being called on landscapers whose leaf blowers are too loud. By expanding the surface area of police-citizen contact into these types of non-threatening situations, we increase the likelihood of violence — especially violence predicated on racial profiling.
Ending the 9/11 mindset, and reviewing police functions through the lens of racial justice, will be good for both citizens and police.
Race must be at the center of this review. Collecting data on policing and racism should become a national project, but we can’t let this be a statistics discussion when Black and brown voices on the subject have been clear for centuries: our fellow Americans do not trust law enforcement. As a white man, I feel safer when cops are nearby. Many of my Black and brown constituents do not, and for good reason.
Ending the 9/11 mindset, and reviewing police functions through the lens of racial justice, will be good for both citizens and police. To be sure, we need a public safety arm that can use force to protect people — nobody wants to dial 911 during a robbery and get a ringtone. But we have taken the right of government to use force and spread it across domains where force is rarely helpful.
I’m proud that we’re starting this conversation in my hometown’s City Hall, along with cities and towns throughout the United States. To complete it, though, will take action from Washington, too. Stop militarizing the police. And stop asking the military to police other peoples. From my patrol base in Helmand to my chair at the public safety committee, I know we can do better.
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