City Police Militarization as a Way to Keep the Cash Flowing

For decades, the elected city commissioners in the city I worked for in Florida rubber-stamped nearly all of the often very expensive budget requests by the city police department. An excellent example of an utter lack of elected leadership. Why? Because most all of these requests typically had nothing whatsoever to do with reducing crime problems. Indeed, many requested programs or new facilities actually INCREASED community crime problems, in part because many of these budget requests starved several other important city funding needs. In addition, many tactics employed by the city police department, when funding is requested, used scare tactics and programs that created a downwardly spiraling, self-perpetuating vicious cycle. “IF YOU DON’T GIVE THE POLICE $5 MILLION MORE DOLLARS THIS YEAR, BURGLARIES WILL ESCALATE!!” Saying this over and over again creates the false perception that the rate of crime is higher than it actually is. The related part of this downward spiral is the militarization of the police. By buying armored vehicles, assault weapons, and other military props (such as militarized police uniforms or gear), the police create a community perception that the city is under assault by an invasion of criminals. The only solution, of course, is to provide the police with an endless blank check of millions of additional public dollars in each annual budget cycle. What exemplified this self-perpetuating militarization and budget increases for the police in the city I worked for was the acquisition of a military attack helicopter. While I was a city planner for that city in the 1990s, the police department was able to acquire a military helicopter. In the several years since the police department obtained the chopper, I saw red. I Augusta GA 10-20-2006 0175  low-rescalled the police department several times in the wee hours of the morning after being unable to sleep late at night. Why? Because the police helicopter would repeatedly circle at low elevations over my neighborhood. Over and over again. At absurd hours. The perception? I’m living in Lebanon. Or  Saigon. And my neighborhood is under attack. Not once did I see a report in the newspaper the next day indicating that a band of insurgent terrorists had invaded my neighborhood. But the loud, aggressive, incessant chopper flights certainly made it seem that way. “GIVE THE COPS MORE MILLIONS!! WE ARE UNDER ATTACK!!!!” One night I demanded, without success, to get the officer in charge of the chopper on the phone with me so that I could read him the riot act. At times, I was so enraged that I have vowed, jokingly, to get a gun and shoot the chopper down. One of the most frightening experiences I ever had in my life was when I was in college in Arizona. I was visiting a friend who lived in Phoenix, and at the time, the city had a police chopper. Late at night, in his front yard, the chopper trained a powerful spotlight down on us while we were in the front yard just talking. I felt like a ground trooper about to be strafed in Vietnam. In general, police helicopters are terribly invasive, are probably often used to intimidate, and are an enormous noise pollution source. I strongly question the need for one, especially in a relatively small community. The chopper breeds hysteria, fear mongering, and attacks against those who oppose it (for being “soft on crime”). It also has significant potential to be a huge drain on a community budget. Probably the only thing that can lead a community to opt not to continue to employ a police chopper once the terrible idea of it is initiated is if it ever crashes due to such things as mechanical failure or operator error. Again, a police helicopter creates an impression that the community is under siege. In my city, it was apparently part of the police chief’s effort to militarize the police department. Maybe also to burnish the reputation of the chief and his department as macho and tough on crime. As I indicated above, the beauty of such things as military police equipment is once it is part of the police department, it is nearly impossible to get rid of. Doing so would seem like being in favor of riots and mayhem. That the community is caving in to criminals. Studies have shown that there is no correlation between number of cops (or increasing funding for the police department) on crime. See Sense and Nonsense About Crime and Drugs: A Policy Guide (1985), by Samuel Walker. Part of the self-perpetuating downward spiral here is that the police department becomes the local government equivalent of the Pentagon. Every year, they get pretty much everything they ask for, and this is driven by exaggerated fears and lack of elected leadership. Instead of communism or the “war on terror,” local police departments ramp up drug or burglary or murder hysteria to keep their budgets rising by significant amounts nearly every year. In the city I resided in, city police budget increments in the 1980s greatly exceeded the rate of inflation and were much higher than the budget increments for any other city department. When I first moved to the city in 1986, the police department funding consumed about 19 percent of the total city budget. By the 1990s, the police department was consuming about 36 percent of the total budget. Would the crime rates in that city be significantly higher had the city not poured those hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into their police department?? I seriously doubt it. Would the community quality of life been much higher had the city instead devoted those dollars to other city needs? Almost certainly. Despite relentless messages from the media that tell us of dramatic yearly increases in the crime rate, victimization studies indicate the crime rate in the U.S. has remained fairly stable over the past few decades, according to a University of Florida professor. Dr. Richard Hollinger, an associate professor of sociology, points out that although police chiefs and sheriffs use emotional appeals (such as waving confiscated uzi’s at PTA meetings) to win increases in their budgets from city and county commissioners, increased spending for law enforcement has no significant impact on the crime rate. Cops driving around in their patrol cars see almost no crimes while doing so, and they are just wasting gas as they travel from doughnut shop to doughnut shop, according to Hollinger. Rattling off a list of statistics regarding crime, Hollinger pointed out that most of what the media tells us about crime is sensationalistic, exaggerated, biased, and false. Real solutions, according to Hollinger, are either unacceptable in a free society, or are simply not even being discussed. For example, we COULD reduce the crime rate by increasing the size of our police forces, but only at the cost of impoverishing our government budgets and creating a totalitarian, police-state society. Instead, Hollinger would call for the following: First, we need to improve neo-natal care (in order to improve the IQ of our population). Second, we need to improve our pre-school and elementary school education programs well beyond their current dismal state. We now have, according to Hollinger, a 40-percent high school drop-out rate in Florida (the highest in the nation), and it is little wonder: Our priorities are skewed toward hopeless and counter-productive crime control tactics such as more police helicopters and more high-tech prisons. Real solutions are “politically unacceptable.” We therefore continue our march of folly. The rich, noted Hollinger, get richer, and the poor go to prison.

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