Dear Dirty America


An Army on Every Streetcorner

An Army on Every Streetcorner
August 02
01:15 2013


Howdy hey, fellow dear and dirty readers!

In case it’s not already marked on your calendars, law enforcement agencies around the nation will be inviting the communities in their charge for meets-and-greets Tuesday evening under the National Night Out umbrella. So far this year, 37 million people in 15,000 communities are expected to participate in this bacchanalia of all things baton-wielding and badge-bearing. The event was started in 1984 by the nonprofit National Associaton of Town Watch, which promotes the night as an opportunity for neighbourhoods to send a message that they are organized and fighting back.

Who that message is meant for and against whom or what those neighbourhoods are fighting back against are left unspecified – like much else in the various governmental crusades on things for the sake of security. Implicitly, one might be drawn to conclude that criminals and crime are respectively being addressed, with the intention that these hoodie-veiled phantasms might heed and be warded away by the porchlight vigils, parkside barbecues, &ca that will mark the evening.

“While the one night is certainly not an answer to crime, drugs and violence,” the National Night Out site explains, it “represents the kind of spirit, energy and determination to help make neighborhoods a safer place year round. The night celebrates safety and crime prevention successes and works to expand and strengthen programs for the next 364 days.”

Do these programmes need strengthening though, let alone expansion? The site neglects to say, but again, the implication is that they do. A hard sell though, when much of the night is also a venue for police departments to flaunt their best and shiniest equipment. From this layperson’s perspective of the sights on offer, the pursuit of collective security has never seen such an engorgement as it has over the past two or three decades.

Mind you, I’ve no general qualm with the firefighters, paramedics, police officers, guardsmen, postal workers, or any of the other myriad people either lumped together into (or noticably excluded from) this heroic realm called civic service. But in a time of financial crises, pension concerns, a provocatively turgid military budget, and apparently misinvested educational spending, how are agencies to obtain the money to fund these sophisticated civic arsenals?

Federal grant money, but of course! Since 9/11, $34 billion in grants from the Department of Homeland Security have been distributed to states for procuring military-grade weaponry and other security-related items. In addition, billions of dollars worth of surplus military equipment are finding their way into the storage rooms and lockups of police departments in every state in the nation.

Not that post-Iraq War surplus is needed, as grant money isn’t hard to find. Who to contact and how to so do are laid out in the fall 2011 issue of a periodical called The Tactical Edge, which is put out by the National Tactical Officers Association advocacy group, itself founded around the same time as the National Night Out in 1983. In addition to lobbying for militarised police, the association organises training courses, gives assistance, and even provides grant funding of its own for such things.

Once accumulated, in one form or another this stuff civilian warriors adorn themselves with ends up either augmenting an existing tactical response unit or else becoming the basis for a new, probably unnecessary SWAT team. These Special Weapons and Tactics groups that local departments know and love were originally conceived in the late 1960s by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates as Special Weapons Assault Teams, a subtly more apt description deemed less aurally-pleasing.

As the NTOA site describes the origins of SWAT:

“One of the most influential causes for the origination of these teams was the so-called Texas Tower shootings at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman killed fifteen people and wounded thirty-one others on August 1, 1966. Also influential were the violent riots and disorders of the decade of the sixties, many of which involved sniper fire directed at police and civilians.”

If Whitman and his rifle were reason enough to so thoroughly equip these military-grade sentinels of the public good, then by the numbers the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, have clearly been a godsent windfall akin to Christmas.

Handily enough, the NTOA discloses a categorised list of its sponsors, which predictably includes but is not limited to such household names as Taser, Lenco Armored Vehicles, and AMTEC Less-Lethal Systems. The current chairman of the tactical nonprofit’s board is Deputy Chief Bob Chabali of Dayton, Ohio, who also heads his city’s SWAT team. Incidentally, that team raided the wrong house earlier this month in a morning raid.

Which almost never happens. No, really. Or at least, if it does happen there are never any adrenaline-inspired bursts of collateral damage, public humiliations, or wrongful deaths. Or if it does at that, the officers involved are held accountable, or at the least, not given commendations for their mistakes.

All sarcasm, but of course. But there are plenty of comprehensive, damning studies cataloguing the proliferation of America’s urban soldiers to thumb through, plus the varying degrees of malfeasance afflicted on their unwitting, generally supportive populaces. But the ACLU has already launched an investigation back in March looking into this very thing. Scrutiny is being given, but is it enough to stem the black-masked tide?

Who can say? Over the years the DDA has said plenty, stretching the gamut from expressing concern to airing irritation, to simply plunging into venomous metaphor. Because it’s a fearsome thing, in some ways. If one were to base their reality solely upon the content of the news columns, then the proliferation of unprecedented domestic spying programmes, the naked self-interest of industry groups profiting from (and doubtlessly, actively contributing to) a fitful social decay, the incompetent and irritatingly misanthropic legislature, the insular executive and judicial systems which guarantee justice shan’t be served by their rampant hand-washing and pointed lack of accountability…

…it’s enough to make a conspiracy theorist’s head burst, to contemplate.

But stepping back from that dark brink, leave us take a page from Tolstoy and put this into a human perspective. Individuals all, in the aggregate Americans’ concerns about security and ridiculous desire for total peace of mind have gone out of hand, becoming a vast tide of fear that has shrewdly been diverted, tapped, and used to power the turbines of an extraordinarily profitable industry. Fair enough, if we’ve learned a lesson and can undo the damage done.

Of course, on the more individual scale of the spectrum, one of the problems underlying these developments is an evident rift between officer and lay citizen, with a widening, us v. them mutual distrust – particularly in areas where that missing connection is needed most. Say what one will about the economics of law enforcement, part of the impetus for the National Night Out is a move by law enforcement, paramedics, firefighters – whathaveyou – to get out of their cars (and hopefully leave the aviators in the glove compartment) and meet members of their communities.

The cynic in me says this is just shallow PR, or a marketing field day for the event’s major sponsor, the Target Corporation. (And that may well be because the only people I harbour a deep prejudice against are corporate persons.) But the person in me recognises that there are persons behind those badges, and genuinely wants to see in those militaristic toys they’ll have on show at most a conversational piece, rather than an attempt to cow, to inspire, or to look tough.

Neither blindly love nor hate them, try not to fear them, but by all means go out and meet them Tuesday evening. At the very least, one might have a chance to ask where they get all those wonderful toys.

*     *     *     *     *

Dan Rudy is a workaday weekday journalist who occasionally posts short stories to his website, The Sluffabout. Otherwise, he sits quietly and drinks his coffee like a good chap.

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