Last month, Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon became the 74th school shooting incident to take place in the United States since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. With the rising pandemic of mass shootings and violence in our society – most recently, Reynolds High School, Las Vegas, Seattle Pacific University, Chicago, and Isla Vista, – one has to wonder: How many more lives will be lost before we as a nation take swift and collective action to address systemic violence? During the time that we’ve spent attempting to answer this question after every mass shooting, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have developed a response of their own by using “military-transfer programs” to receive surpluses of recycled military equipment at little to no cost.
By giving our police officers this equipment, we empower them as pseudo-militarized forces, laying the groundwork for individuals to disproportionately misuse their institutional power, especially over women and trans* people of color, urban poor youth of color, and other marginalized communities.
According to The New York Times, local police departments across the country have been receiving an upsurge of “former tools of combat,” such as machine guns, ammunition magazines, camouflage equipment, firearm silencers, aircrafts, and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles as part of “military-transfer programs” (NYTimes). In “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, Michelle Alexander shows us that these programs began in 1981 under the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Act, “which encouraged the military to give local, state, and federal police access to military bases, intelligence, research, weaponry, and other equipment for drug interdiction” (77).
(Source: Department of Defense; The New York Times)
People in favor of the “military-transfer programs” argue that this military equipment is essential for police officers to always remain one step ahead of drug cartels and other violent criminals. Nowadays, you’re likely to see police officers wearing paramilitary-style uniforms, carrying bigger guns, and closely resembling U.S. soldiers. These changes in police operations only confirm the idea that the people are supposed to be fearful of police officers, especially if these people have already experienced the ramifications of a criminal justice system that unjustly favors specific groups of people over others. Moreover, police officers serve as extensions of this system by imposing their authority over the people, which must be seen patriarchal and oppressive because it draws power from the marginalization of people in society.
Militarization creates a police culture where the usage of excessive force, especially in urban communities, is not only normalized but also expected from officers. With the existence of racial, gender-based, and class-based oppression in society, it thus becomes easier to justify excessive force over individuals in marginalized communities. This same argument can be seen through the profiling and criminalization of women of color in urban communities in regards to crimes such as prostitution. Police departments use SWAT teams and other special units to conduct sting operations in urban communities to arrest female and gender non-conforming sex workers; however, most of the time, these daily conferences around the U.S. rarely receive major coverage from mainstream media outlets. All of this is to say that the militarization of our policing institution further perpetuates an oppressive culture where officers are extended more patriarchal power, which directly affects women and trans* people of color, youth of color, and other marginalized communities in society.
Although mass shootings are a pandemic in the U.S., we must recognize that the militarization of our policing institution perpetuates this hyper-masculine, male-dominated culture within the policing world, where the easiest solution to situations is to simply out-gun and one-up the other person(s). Yes, both carrying a gun and using it when one’s life is in danger are two requirements that future officers must consider when applying to the policing institution. However, allowing our police departments to use military weapons and equipment only contributes to the perception that police officers’ duties are defined by and limited to use of force, justifiable violence, and 24/7 crime fighting. Further militarizing our police forces will not only solidify the existing relationship between hyper-masculinity, justifiable violence, and the policing profession, but also continue to attract a specific demographic of applicants to police work that may not recognize the implications of their presence in marginalized communities.
In order to tackle the root causes of mass shootings and violence in society, law enforcement must recognize, at best, that militarization is a band-aid solution that continues to drive home the point that the appropriate response to violence is more violence.
There are alternative methods of addressing mass shootings and violence in society. What if the police were to divert their full attention to tackling the root causes of mass shootings, which we’ve demonstrated to be a misogynistic, oppressive culture fueled by hyper-masculinity and normalized violence. What if the police took more critical approaches when attempting to understand and address social problems in our society such as gender-based violence? What if individual police officers challenged their own militarized, hyper-masculine culture and instead focused on providing equitable police services that at best minimize patriarchal oppression?
Our police can have a tremendous impact in deterring mass shootings and normalized violence, but in order to do so, they must first look within to challenge militarization.