After the recent events in Ferguson, MO, there's been a lot of conversation about whether the government should continue its practice of giving military gear to local law enforcement agencies.
Where did law enforcement militarization begin in the US, we should be wondering.
According to Robert Slayton, a Chapman University professor we should be looking back to the 1950s and LAPD Chief William Parker.
When Chief Parker took over the department, a number of changes took place:
- First, they started hiring officers based on merit (as opposed to the former "old boy network" or who knew who within the city's political ranks).
- Parker started crime mapping programs and in using high-tech equipment in patrol vehicles.
- What Parker is perhaps best known for, however, was his decision to model the LAPD after military ranks.
- The Parker legacy is sketchy at best. Did race issues between the police and civilians begin with Parker?
Parker's Military Ranks
There's not a lot of data on how Parker ranked the officers. No full biography has been written of Parker's stint as chief, but when you pull it together the pieces of information that exist, an interesting picture emerges.
One historian believed Parker may have helped set up policing forces while he served overseas in Germany. The executive director of the LAPD Museum points out he was a "military man wounded on D-Day", according to LA Weekly. Others said he would send out his patrol officers as if they were an elite army, to help make sure streets were safe and rules were followed.
Another man said that you can see a lot of the military in how Parker's LAPD operated, down to the types of tactics and operations they used. And considering the Los Angeles Police Department has the largest PD air force of any police department in the world (and that the first police helicopter in all the nation went into service under his watch) that makes quite a bit of sense.
In terms of specifics, well, most of the details surrounding his time in the military are spotty at best, but what is known is that he considered the US armed forces to be the "model of efficiency".
Thin Blue Line
Under Parker's Watch, the ranks within the department were thinned out. He felt that staffing a police force with fewer, more professional officers would leave less room for corruption, which is when he coined the phrase "thin blue line". Parker's thought was fewer officers who were better trained and more "elite".
Seemingly overnight, the LAPD became one of the most corruption free and professional law enforcement agencies in all of the country. Parker stream-lined the force to a smaller, more mobile department. The foot "beat cop" became a thing of the past.
Other police departments took note and started to emulate his model.
A controversial figure
Although some have lauded the former chief with turning the LAPD into a lean, mean crime fighting machine, others are saying "not so fast".
They talk about the "darker side of Parker" and talk about the inappropriate language he'd use when referring to Latinos and African Americans.
Some has gone so far as to call him a flat out racist, recalling his "us against them" philosophy between the LAPD and the citizens. It was the 50s and a sad time in our country for race relations.
And now, with the recent events that have unfolded in Ferguson, MO, some may wonder if other parts of Parker's leadership model have also spilled into other areas of the country as well.
Chief Parker may have been a lever for a move toward police militarization, but he's not the only factor.
Ever since the terrorist attack on 9/11, the US government has helped smaller agencies taken on a military-type approach as a means of upping anti-terrorism capabilities.
In some cases, the federal government not only provided the resources, they also provided equipment.
Professor Slayton, though, feels "enough is enough" and there need to be greater regulations in terms of how local law enforcement grants are used. He'd also like to see set policies and procedures for when military-type equipment can and cannot be used. From there, he feels there should be mandated training for the proper use of these types of devices.
The President of the United States seems to agree.
Obama Administration orders review
Earlier this week, President Obama has ordered his administration take a very close look at federal programs that have been providing military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.
The public has been quite angered with how the Ferguson Police Department has responded to the recent riots, and feel police took things way to far (which some believe may have made an already bad situation that much worse).
Ultimately, the president is wanting to determine whether continuing these types of programs is appropriate. Do police department really need military-grade equipment and if they do, are they being properly trained in when and how to use it?
The New York Times reports the review will be led by White House staff; senators say they'll be looking into holding a congressional hearing to determine whether police departments have "become too militarized".