White House Commission May End Up Training More Cops to Use Military Weapons

Last August’s police crackdown on protesters in Ferguson was so severe that within weeks the U.S. Senate held a hearing on federal programs that have militarized local police. One expert stood out for describing how police culture has changed since the 1980s, with too many officers adopting a confrontational and predatory mindset. AlterNet returned to Peter Kraska, a professor and chair of graduate studies and research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, for his perspective on President Obama's newly created police reform commission. Kraska was not just unimpressed, but fears it will lead to more violence.

Steven Rosenfeld: It didn’t take long before people who follow abusive policing and the militarization of America’s police started raising red flags concerning Obama’s announcement they he was creating a commision to report back on ways that local police could demilitarize their operations. One red flag was the appointment of Charles Ramsey as a co-chair, because when he was Washington D.C.’s police chief he ordered crackdowns on protesters that led to $22 million in settlements. Others were concerned that Obama didn’t talk about the process of policing—and procedures for evaluating operational details. I am very curious what you think is missing or needs to be on the agenda, but may not be?

Peter Kraska: When I testified to the U.S. Senate [in September on militarized tactics seen at the Ferguson protests], the White House ended up getting in touch with me. And they asked me to do some sort of telephone information session where I talked to high-level White House administrators. They were putting this all together and trying to think it through and we had a good two-hour-long conversation. One of the things that concerned me about the conversation, and it concerned me during the U.S. Senate hearing is all of the critique of police militarization would devolve into, ‘Let’s give them more training.’ 

SR: What is the problem with that?

PK: Real specifically, the 1033 program [distributing military surplus weapons to local departments] is providing lots and lots of military armaments, war discards, from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s bringing it to Main Street America. And it should be pretty obvious to most people, and I think it is, that this is highly problematic. In short, I think this marks a watershed moment in the history of police militarization. A practice that is clearly offensive to the majority of the American people is not being shut down—due to its controversial and consequential nature—but  strengthened in a way by the White House fully supporting its continuation.

Now, what the Obama administration is essentially saying is that they’re going to keep the spigots open, in terms of military-grade gear going to cops. But their solution is to provide better training on how to use it. Now, what could be more counterproductive than continuing the flow of arms to local cops and saying that now they need better training? And who is going to give them that training? The only people qualified to give them that training are two entities. Either the Department of Defense itself or for-profit training agencies that mostly employ ex-military special operations people. 

SR: Right, and when we spoke a couple of months ago, you pointed out that some of those exact same kinds of trainers were coaching sheriff departments on how to pull over cars and sieze personal property as ways to boost their coffers—the same people.

PK: Absolutely. We, at this point, need a major investigation into the police training industry. It can’t be trusted. It’s highly fear based. And it’s absolutely promoting militarization. When I testified at the U.S. Senate [in September] I said, very specifically, that the worst thing you could do—and Sen. McCaskill, Sen. Coburn, and others got this—is keep the spigots open and embolden the militarization of policing by providing more training funds. 

SR: In mid-August, soon after the first crackdown on the Ferguson protesters made national news, virtually every major African-American civil rights organization in the country issued a joint statement with 15 or so action items on what to do about the whole arena of overly aggressive policing: abusive policing; racial profiling; use of deadly force standards, etc., etc. And what they essentially said was you have to document what’s really going on, identify overly aggressive tactics and start to break down these race-based policies, and these policies where there is no middle ground. IE, where you use a sniper rifle instead of a pair of binoculars to look at who is a across the parking lot. I haven’t heard anybody take those suggestions seriously. Have you?

PK: No, in fact the hallmark feature of Obama’s rollout—that the media is fixating on and giving the Obama administration a free pass on—is body cameras. Body cameras certainly are probably needed. But bodycams will do nothing if you don’t have the system of accountability that will follow up on that digital evidence. And the police institution has proved, for the last 25 years, when they police disadvantaged communities, there is little to zero accountability for misconduct, wrongdoing and brutality—even when there is digital evidence. 

SR: I happened to spend Thanksgiving with a distant relative is an ex-FBI officer turned defense attorney in St. Louis who is close friends with the prosecutor there. And he said, among other things, that there is no middle ground when it comes to not shooting to kill. He said that’s what they are trained to do; if you lose control of a situation, you don’t look to de-escalate, you look to take control. That’s it—and everything else is naïve. Now, I recall when Sen. Claire McCaskill spoke at the hearing that you testified at, that she was looking for that middle ground. Is that notion of middle-ground a myth?

PK: I want to be real clear on this. The police militarized police, and the type of training they get today, mostly from for-profit organizations, cultivate absolutely a security-first mentality. And what’s happened is places like Caliber Press, for example, they have what some people call the holy trinity of police police training books. Some people call it the black Bibles. The problem with these manuals and their associated training is that they foment fear and fear of victimization among the police, and teach them, for example, that 80 percent of cops that get killed on duty never fired their firearm. For them, that means that cops have to fire a lot sooner and unload their gun, which is exactly what we are seeing. This is part of a for-profit training industry that’s been promoting this for the last 20 years and now we are seeing it come to fruition in ugly ways.      

SR: It sounds to me that you expect the White House to institute more training, which doesn’t stop the pipeline or the delivery of the unnecessary surplus military weapons. And basically, the status quo remains.

PK: Not only does the status quo remain, it could embolden the status quo because they’re going to be providing funds to those same organization that are cultivating a paramilitary mindset among the police that’s leading to so many problems. So all these various for-profit training camps, they’re the ones that are going to be looking at this money. They’re the ones that are going to be providing this training. It’s not only status quo, it’s worsening the situation. 

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