This past week in Ferguson, Missouri, next to St. Louis, violence has erupted after an unarmed person of color was shot and killed by a policeman. The ensuing riots and uproar have fixated the nation on a problem that has been brewing for years.
It is brewing near your communities — the connection between the police and the people they serve is fraying. The closest that most Americans come to feeling the oppression of police is when they pass through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints at airports. No one enjoys the feeling.
TSA is, frankly speaking, a boogieman. Checkpoints, intimidating screeners, strip-search machines and pat-downs with no probable cause are dreaded.
Newspaper editors report vitriolic reactions to stories about TSA from the public.
(from my testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, Washington, DC, November 29, 2012)
I had an opportunity to testify before the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in November 2012 about TSA and its effect on the traveling public. Back then, I suggested, to chuckles from committee members and the hearing audience, that TSA security inspectors be dressed in pastel colored polo shirts, rather than in the storm trooper outfits in which they parade through airports today.
After all, TSA inspectors are not law enforcement agents. They are simply baggage inspectors. TSA does not have the ability to arrest anyone. They cannot take anyone into custody. They don’t carry weapons.
Real police are stationed nearby to take care of law enforcement issues when they arise.
The situation outside of St. Louis brought this home to me again this week. And, as I was pondering the issue, I read this article, Stop Arming the Police Like a Military, by Dr. Tom Nolan, an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I always enjoy articles when veterans of police forces and experts agree with me.
Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particularly those of color, the message is being received loud and clear: “You are the enemy.” Police officers are increasingly arming themselves with military-grade equipment such as assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles and dressing up in commando gear before using battering rams to burst into the homes of people who have not been charged with a crime. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that the Pentagon has played a huge role in this militarization by transferring its weapons of war to civilian police departments through its so-called 1033 program.
Many communities now look upon police as an occupying army, their streets more reminiscent of Baghdad or Kabul than a city in America. This besieged mentality created by the militarization of police has driven a pernicious wedge into the significant gains made under community- and problem-oriented policing initiatives dating from the late 1980s.
Mr. Nolan goes on to say, “Militarized policing undermines the very notion of law enforcement in a democratic society.” That is the same message that I carried to the House of Representatives with my testimony.
The positioning of TSA as a law enforcement organization (though it is not), rather than a helpful organization developed to assist passengers fly safely, has generated fear instead of reassurance. Whole-body scanners, hailed by TSA as a necessity for security, have not captured one would-be terrorist, while subjecting masses of our population to a virtual strip search.
Screaming, scared children have been forcibly separated from their parents. Feeble, barely-able-to-stand elders quiver and shake beside their wheelchairs as they are screened while family members are forbidden to assist them. Women are subjected to treatment that would result in the arrest of anyone performing such a search outside of the parallel TSA airport-check-point universe. We all hear the stories.
Worse, TSA has become a subject of derision. Even President Obama noted to laughter during a State of the Union address, that Americans should support high-speed trains as an alternative to flying because, “for some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.”
In my oral presentation, I added, “Dress TSA security screeners in non-threatening uniforms, perhaps, pastel polo shirts.” I continued, “They are security assistants, not law enforcement officers. Their job is to check identification and make sure the traveling public is safe, not to force citizens into submission. Get rid of the starched shirts, badges and bling.”
Whether it is the police force dressed like storm troopers in Ferguson or your community; or, TSA security assistants masquerading as law enforcement officers in military uniforms; this militarization is not healthy for a democratic society.
Putting TSA security teams in pastel polo shirts would be a good beginning.