THE RECENT TRAGIC shooting of a young man by a police officer in America has brought the issue of police tactics and violence into the spotlight. Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death is an awful incident, which raises questions about the state of policing in America. However, the reaction of the Ferguson police department and the Missouri state police to the protests which emerged in response to Brown’s death are in many ways even more worrying.
The protesters in Ferguson have not been met with normal uniformed police officers who would be expected at a public protest, but with heavily armed, military looking officers. For the citizens of a democratic country exercising their right to protest to be met with high-powered sniper rifles, body armour, military vehicles and all the paraphernalia of a military response is very worrying. If protesters are being confronted by paramilitary forces, does this mean that the state and government authorities now see protests as a military threat that requires a military response?
The United States has a law, Posse Comitatus, that restricts the use of military forces against American citizens. It is a standard democratic safeguard meant to protect citizens from despotism imposed by military force. Police departments in America have gotten around this law by creating SWAT teams and other semi-military forces which can be deployed against civilians. These forces are basically domestic military forces, designed to deploy military force on the United States homeland. They are also incredibly dangerous.
Have citizens become enemies to be defeated?
Military forces are trained to fight enemies that threaten a country, using all available and necessary violent force, in order to protect that country. Military personnel are trained in a particular way and have a particular mindset, which is necessary in order to enable them to carry out the task of protecting their country from foreign threats. This mindset and training are absolutely not appropriate in a civilian setting. Citizens are not, and should never be, the target of their country’s military force – even if looting or rioting is taking place. Confronting private citizens with military personnel and weaponry instantly changes the situation.
The citizens have become something less than citizens, they have become enemies – foes to be defeated by force. The entire point of civilian control of the military in democracies is to prevent this kind of situation. It is even worse when the military forces confronting the citizens are nominally police officers. They have been given training and equipment which undermines their first duty as police, which is to protect their communities, not attack them with bigger guns.
Blurring the boundary between law enforcement and military action creates the conditions for a military dictatorship. The moment citizens become enemies of the state, to be opposed using the state’s military might is the moment the state stops being a complete democracy. States are meant to protect their citizens, all of their citizens, no matter what kind of public disorder they are involved in.
To attack them with a military force, even if it is a “police” force, creates a division between state and citizens. The citizens are now outside the protection of the law, and the state is now above it. Once a problem becomes a military one, where the very survival of the state is seen as being at risk, any means are justified. If civilian protestors become an existential threat, to be attacked and defeated like any other enemy, then all civilians are potential enemies, subject to military force and military domination.
Reduce danger – don’t increase it
SWAT teams and similar outfits are useful and necessary in a very small number of policing situations, like terrorist attacks, hostage situations and serious armed disturbances. However, they have become a widely used policing tool in America and elsewhere, tackling everything from drug crime to fraud. This is a serious overreach of the government’s most dangerous power, its use of force.
Governments are kept in check by democracy precisely because they can resort to the exercise of overwhelming force. This is why deployment of military force requires the approval of the legislature in democratic countries – to prevent abuse of this force.
The force governments wield through their possession of military force is rightly kept away from their citizens. After all, if the citizens are the ultimate authority, then they must be immune from the ultimate force of a state. The short road to dictatorship can very easily begin by removing this protection, through the use of of paramilitary forces like armed police response units, like our own Special Branch. The use of such forces must be strictly controlled and monitored. While necessary in certain very specific situations, such forces always carry the risk that they might be used to suppress democracy in the name of “security” and “public order”.
We should resist the introduction here in Ireland, and indeed throughout Europe, of any more American style paramilitary police forces. The existing military capability of our police forces is more than adequate, and does not need any expansion. In the 21st century, we should be looking to reduce the danger to citizens from their own police forces, not increase it.
Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/ and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.