In Ireland they are known as Peelers. In England they are known as Bobbies. Both nicknames for the police are derived from the same person, Sir Robert Peel, the British Home Secretary who formed London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829 and with it the modern model of organized law enforcement. Peel went on to serve twice as Prime Minister.
The reasons given at the time for this radical reform were increasing concerns about drunkenness and lawlessness, and the inefficiencies of existing parish-based law enforcement arrangements which had been inconsistent from one part of the city to the next. While the crime figures and corruption and incompetence of local patrols are disputed by some historians, and thought to be a pretext, the new Metropolitan Police did offer a standardized means of consistent enforcement citywide that did not suffer in less wealthy areas.
However one very important reason for systematic policing was to save the authorities the trouble of deploying soldiers to the streets. Peel understood that the military were trained to use deadly force against a hostile foreign enemy, and deploying them against the civilian population that they were supposed to be defending was a decidedly risky endeavor. An unarmed civilian agency could be better trained to specialize in dealing with street-level crime without causing loss of life that would undermine support for the state and its efforts to keep order.
Throughout history governments have made the mistake of using the military for law enforcement purposes, and the results have often been tragic and have led to massive political upheaval. In 1905, Russian authorities deployed troops around the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to contain a mass demonstration by striking workers who were marching on the Tsar’s winter residence. The confused and disorganized response of the thousands of soldiers led to the shooting and trampling to death of an estimated thousand or more unarmed civilians in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, an event that fatally undermined royal power in Russia and stoked the fires of revolution. The deployment of trigger-happy British troops in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, in the absence of a functioning impartial local police force, led to another Bloody Sunday in Derry, a loss of innocent civilian life that ultimately spawned the 25-year conflict of the Troubles. The Chinese authorities used troops to break up a pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the outcome of that was a catastrophic human cost, the isolation of China, and the setting back of reform for decades.
One would think that enlightened governments would have learned by now that there is a distinction between the role of the military and that of law enforcement. However it would seem that this distinction is blurring in the United States.
With a military machine that is overflowing with equipment that is foisted upon it by posturing congressmen in thrall to their defense contractor donors who are strategically placed in just about every congressional district, the Pentagon has taken to giving away large swathes of its arms.
Since 2006, local police departments have acquired 432 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles (MRAPs), 435 other armored vehicles such as Humvees, 44,900 night vision goggles, 533 aircraft, 93,763 machine guns, and 180,718 ammunition magazines. Hardly necessary for pulling someone over for a broken tail light.
The military transfer program allows police departments to snap up equipment at bargain prices, equipment that would otherwise be scrapped. The result is police departments of small towns and cities, far from the vast metropolises of the northeast that have always been the targets of terrorism in the past, stocking up on an arsenal that would hold back an alien invasion. By playing the “officer safety” card, they can find it easy to justify their acquisitions.
While police forces taking possession of such equipment claim that they are preparing for unlikely eventualities and the armored cars and tanks and guns are likely to spend most of their time idle, there are reports of heavily armed SWAT teams conducting terrifying military grade raids for tasks as mundane as liquor inspections and checking business licenses. Police recruiting videos now contain scenes that would not look out of place in war-themed video games, with the doors of homes being battered in and smoke grenades thrown in.
Furthermore, new technology is enabling law enforcement agencies to monitor society and process more data even faster. Privacy advocates balk at the ability of the government to snoop on private communications and the movements of citizens in public. Data processing centers can now find fingerprint matches against criminal records in minutes, a process that used to take months. Facial recognition technology can identify a person no matter what false name and address they give. An aerial observation system called Persistence Surveillance Systems can record the movements of vehicles and pedestrians for later analysis, allowing police to go back to the time and place where a crime was reported and see it taking place. This technology has limits for now—a getaway car will often drive out of camera range—and the low resolution prevents the actual identification of vehicles or individuals without corroboration from other surveillance sources, and as such it is yet to be adopted by any law enforcement body. Nonetheless, civil liberties advocates find this a sinister development, particularly since it was used on a trial basis by Compton police in LA County in 2012 without public knowledge or consent.
A look at the history of policing finds that new methods of law enforcement are usually initially met with some opposition, but are eventually accepted. The unflattering nicknames given to the police, some with porcine connotations, are lingering signs of resentment that have never fully gone away since the inception of policing. Closed circuit television cameras in British town centers were once treated with horror by anyone who had read Nineteen Eighty Four, but are now commonplace and a largely accepted safety feature. Advocates of expanded surveillance claim that street lighting was once criticized as Big Brother personified, but soon came to be seen as an essential public safety feature, and advanced surveillance will eventually find the same acceptance as the public gets used to it.
They may a have a point. The American public waits in line for air travel with its pain-in-the-neck security theatre, an ordeal that is met with a mixture of quietly anxious watch-checking and resignation.
Even the most invasive Orwellian surveillance may come to be as accepted as the TSA pat-down, but only if the truly guilty find themselves on the receiving end of special police attention. However if innocent people are caught up in over-zealous policing, particularly if military-grade equipment and war combat methods are used, then support for law enforcement will be undermined. Police departments could do well to remember that the effectiveness of their operation depends a lot more on the cooperation and trust of the communities they are sworn to protect than on the intimidating size of their vehicles or the war-readiness of their weapons. The citizens of Compton, California are not the Iraqi insurgency. They must never be treated as such.