With minimally trained volunteer police-alikes and even militias assisting law enforcement, how can we assure that police work to make us all feel safer?
Do police keep us safe, or is an ascendant police state harming us instead? As always, the answer depends upon who you ask, and what side of the power divide they’re on. Either way, to maintain at least the illusion of legitimacy in a nation rapidly dividing against itself, those who do police work should be held to some minimal standards of conduct. Police officers failing to meet those standards must be held accountable for their actions, both to the communities they serve and to the system that places them in positions of authority over everyday citizens. How well are we doing that?
Not very well, it appears.
A recent Detroit Free Press investigation uncovered a troubling truth about the training and oversight of auxiliary police in Michigan. Fact is, there isn’t much of either. Michigan is full of minimally trained civilian “reserve officers” that wear badges and uniforms and who can even carry guns, but who are not officially licensed police officers. Some of the individuals cited in the report included a convicted felon who was not supposed to carry a gun, but did so in his position as a volunteer cop in Highland Park. A reserve officer in Barry Township was a leader of a hate group that, among other positions, opposed the “mixing of the races” and immigration of non-Europeans into the United States.
All together, the Free Press found there are about 3,000 civilians doing reserve police work in Michigan. While their duties are often limited to serving as event security and traffic control, it was not unheard-of for these civilians, appearing as police officers, to patrol with licensed officers and assist in arrests. These civilians had no standardized mandatory minimal training, and when training is required, it was not to the level expected of licensed officers. This is a chilling revelation when these police-alikes can deprive people of life or liberty at a moment’s notice.
When departments are short on funds (and therefore short of hands), it’s understandable that they might need help in dangerous conditions. Besides reserves, law enforcement has also (at least once) turned to local right wing militia-style groups to help with police work. In the summer of 2017, officers from the Department of Homeland Security in Portland, OR, accepted help from a member of the American Freedom Keepers to arrest an anti-fascist protester. That the protest occurred in the wake of the murders of two men who stepped up to protect two young Muslim women from a man spouting racist threats only makes the idea of an alliance between law enforcement and self-styled militias more frightening.
The licensed officers, however, aren’t necessarily much better on their own. A 2014 investigation found that Florida police were encouraged to pin unsolved crimes on innocent black people in the neighborhood. Timothy Loehmann, the former Cleveland officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, was fired for bending the truth during the hiring process, but, incredibly, found police work in Bellaire, Ohio. And the militarization of police departments in recent years hasn’t led to less violence in American streets, but has resulted in increasing distrust between police and the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve.
So what can we do?
One solution, especially loved by the political right, is to employ military veterans as civilian police. Unfortunately, the two jobs require surprisingly different mindsets and training protocols. Military troops are trained to think and act in wartime situations against enemy combatants, whereas police work shouldn’t require viewing American civilians as the enemy. It can also work the other way, as a West Virginia police officer found out in 2016. When he drew upon his military experience to recognize a non-threatening situation and de-escalated instead of shooting, he was fired.
Another solution may be to allow communities to police themselves. Unfortunately, armed civilians trying to do their own police work pose a risk by forcing cops to quickly (and perhaps imperfectly) judge which gun holders are good guys and which are bad guys. People who avoid calling police, as members of this Oakland, CA, church have pledged to do, may result in needless danger. And what happens when the people who make one community feel safer are seen as threats by another community, as happened in Kansas City this year?
There are no good solutions. In a country where opposing political tribes now see traitorous enemies where they once saw the loyal opposition, insuring that the police work for you may mean that they work against our neighbors. How can we all feel (reasonably) safe? And how long can a situation like this go on? We may be finding out.
Related: Whose Streets?