Last year, across the country, over 1,100 people were shot by police.
In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves as being somehow different and more sophisticated than the rest of the country, but our police still shoot people at sixteen times the rate of people in Germany.
We have a situation so absurd that the police chief of the tiny town of Rehoboth can apply for, and receive, a $700,000 mine-resistant military assault vehicle, and the town doesn’t even bat an eye. They didn’t hold hearings, they didn’t take a vote, they just left it up to the police to decide how much to turn themselves into a military occupying force in that town.
Our police are trained, through initiatives like Urban Shield, to think of themselves as quasi-military, and the people as their enemies.
None of this is good enough.
This morning, Tuesday March 8, there will be a hearing at the State House on our bill to help deal with this, H. 2169. Come make your voice heard; head below the fold for the background.
When police departments were first created, they were intended to express the principle that “the police are the public, and the public are the police.” The Founders were so concerned about the use of military forces for domestic repression that they refused to set up a peacetime standing army. After Reconstruction, the Posse Comitatus Act forbade the military from exercising police powers. Except in times of extraordinary local lawlessness, such as the resistance to desegregation in the South in the 1960s, the National Guard is generally not a daily presence in our streets, and everyday policing is meant to be left to municipal, lightly armed officers. In the 1980s, however, this began to change, in response to a massive increase in crime. SWAT teams spread across the country, initially presented as being useful for hostage situations and gang warfare. But in today’s low-crime environment, with crime levels not seen since the early 1960s, SWAT teams are mostly used to execute drug warrants. The equipment and tactics intended to deal with that 1980s crime wave remain in place.
It is through small decisions like Rehoboth’s, town by town, that our police departments are slowly changing to look less like the people they serve, and more like occupying armies. This builds a charged atmosphere of hostility and confrontation. In Ferguson, MO, the situation only calmed when the local, militarized police force was sidelined and the much more lightly armed state police came in and walked with the protesters.
Our bill explicitly tries to set the same systems in place for new technologies of surveillance and control. It’s not just about the armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and fully automatic rifles. It’s also about controversial technologies such as stingrays, drones, and ultrasound crowd control devices. Much inappropriate secrecy surrounds the deployment of such systems, and we believe that it is appropriate for the public to know whether they are being deployed by their police departments; the best way to achieve this is, again, by having the elected officials explicitly, as a matter of public record, vote on whether they should be used.