Civilian Control Over Police

The presence of military equipment to control the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, was another element that exacerbated already existing tensions after the death of an unarmed African American teenager at the hands of a white police officer. When combat vehicles appeared in the streets of a Midwestern city to contain a demonstration of civilians, they only added fuel to the fire of a discord between the police and the communities of color.

The community policing initiative announced yesterday by the White House imposes a measure of control over the military weaponry that, for years, has been transferred from the Pentagon to the local police authorities. The violent repression in Ferguson by police officers dressed in combat gear, as if they were fighting in Iraq, raised awareness about the existence of a police militarization that had gone unnoticed before. Later it was made known that even small-town police departments had received grenade launchers and mine-protected vehicles, among other types of weaponry.

President Obama’s proposal appropriately reestablishes civilian control over the police force, as it determines that City Councils are the ones in charge of approving the request of this type of weaponry. This change worries the Fraternal Order of Police, which is concerned about their officers’ safety, but it is clear that possessing a grenade launcher has no place in the police function.

Also important is the request for transparency for 21 police departments in communities across the country, which include Los Angeles but New York is visibly lacking. Those places are implementing a presidential initiative in which the participating police agencies gather and make public data about the officers’ activities.

The main goal of those initiatives is to repair the crisis of trust between the communities of color and the police. In order to do so, what is needed is a change of mentality on the part of the officers, as well as their equipment. The SWAT procedures in different cities show that militarization -cops acting like soldiers- has to do with a mental state, a way of seeing their job that does not correspond with what society expects from them. Those rules are a step forward to achieve this goal.