There are nations where even law-abiding citizens have good reasons to deeply fear the police. That must not become true of the United States, but warnings have been evident here long before the murder of George Floyd made them impossible to ignore.
It is not white parents, but Blacks and Latinos who feel an urgent need to give their children “the talk” about what to do with their hands and voices during a traffic stop. Profiling of minorities is a well-documented problem.
Abundant federal funds for tactical gear, water cannons and other battleground vehicles have contributed to the militarization of civilian police forces and to what has been described as a “warrior mentality” better suited for combat patrols in Afghanistan, than for cultivating trust in American cities.
Deliberately making matters worse, President Trump has now sent militarized agents from several federal departments to snatch citizens off the streets of Portland, Oregon, ostensibly to protect government property during demonstrations.
And he’s threatening to do it in other cities, namely New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and other urban centers governed by Democrats.
Unlike local police, the agents wear combat fatigues and military helmets and not one stitch or badge of identification. They refuse to identify themselves to the public or tell their victims why they’re being kidnapped. They prowl and transport their victims in unmarked cars with deeply tinted windows.
In a videotaped incident at Portland as glaring as the police murder in Minneapolis, a 53-year-old Naval Academy alumnus was clubbed hard and long enough to break his hand while pepper spray was shot into his face. He had done nothing to provoke it. To America’s shame, this has been seen around the world.
There is no other way to put this: Those are the tactics of storm troopers serving an administration whose disrespect for the Constitution, indeed for all human rights, is total.
One obvious purpose is to promote President Trump’s campaign for re-election, which depends on further dividing Americans with manufactured fears about crime. In most places, crime has actually been declining. Even where it is not, the solution is not an armed federal invasion.
Another object is to see just how far the courts will let him abuse his office. If they do not put a stop to his reign of terror in Portland and allow it to spread to other cities, they will be false to their own oaths of office.
It dovetails with his flat-out lie that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, favors abolishing the police. Trump doubled down on that during his Fox News interview even as host Chris Wallace, armed with the facts, repeatedly contradicted him. Politifact gave Trump’s claim a “pants on fire” falsehood rating.
Most police, we believe, want to do right by all our communities and be welcomed in them, rather than feared. But training regimes, supervision, disciplinary procedures and many other things need to change.
Something as seemingly minor as how police are uniformed could make a difference. Even the nicest people can be visually intimidating if they are clad head-to-toe in black or midnight blue. Their shirts would not necessarily have to be white. Even lighter shades of blue or green would be an improvement.
But even sensible change comes hard, as Michael Weinstein has found out in the course of his campaign for the Democratic nomination in Florida House District 81.
The Palm Beach Police Benevolent Association, a local union, withdrew its endorsement of him because of his remarks in a candidate questionnaire the Sun Sentinel published online June 26. Here’s what Weinstein wrote about law enforcement reform, all of it quite reasonable:
“Over the years, I have watched this country fight racism from the outside in, instead of the inside out. Meaning, we arrest and punish individual offenders who violate civil rights, but we are not focused on curing the problem. From my perspective we need a three part approach: 1. Mandatory de-escalation training. 2. Demilitarization of law enforcement. Police Officers should have all the proper equipment needed to protect themselves, but that does not necessarily mean wearing fatigues and patrol officers driving unmarked cars. These things can cause distrust and are not necessary for effective law enforcement, and 3. I support the idea of Citizen Review Boards.”
John Kazanjian, the PBA president, told the Palm Beach Post that in terms of de-escalation, “We’re ok with that. But taking away our unmarked cars? That’s the way we do stuff. That’s a no-brainer for us.”
Read closely, however, Weinstein wasn’t necessarily questioning the use of unmarked cars under all circumstances. They’re essential for stakeouts, for example. But if he was suggesting that they shouldn’t be used routinely, he’s right.
Moreover, an unmarked car is hardly the deterrent that a visible police cruiser is.
Weinstein told the newspaper he supports the use of unmarked cars for surveillance, but not community policing, and that “road patrol officers should wear their blues and greens and not combat fatigues.
“SWAT officers and others,” he added, “it’s okay.” But Kazanjian wouldn’t hear any of it. He refused to return Weinstein’s phone calls. He told the Post — and perhaps this is the real issue — that his members oppose any sort of citizen review board.
Police departments need to realize that some reforms have become inevitable. Citizen review boards is one of them.
Another is to take steps to prevent any president from exploiting militarizing civilian police agencies, as President Trump has done at Portland.
If the courts don’t stop him, the people must.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.
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