The Charlotte Area's Soldier-Cops

A Defense Department bonanza for your local law enforcement agency

Pictured above is the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office Special Response Team, a 16-member “team of officers who go through many hours of intensive training on tactical techniques with the use of specialized weapons and equipment in order to respond to high risk calls and situations within the county.” Note the sniper rifles artfully arranged in front of the group, like crossed swords.

Not pictured are the four armored military vehicles the Sheriff’s Office has received from the Defense Department’s military-transfer program since 2006, as outlined in a recent New York Times graphic following up on a story from June on the increasing militarization of American police departments.

Militarized cops have jumped onto the home pages of news organizations lately because of the continuing horror in Ferguson, Missouri. But it’s been amply covered for a few years now, by organizations like the ACLU and journalists like Radley Balko, whose book Rise of the Warrior Cop—published just last year—is an essential read for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the topic.

So is the SRT in Cabarrus County made up of a bunch of trigger-happy cowboys? Obviously not. But does the Sheriff’s Office in Cabarrus, population just under 190,000, home to Lowe’s Motor Speedway and the weekly Concord Opry Jam, need four armored vehicles and the 74 assault rifles it’s obtained from the feds?

How about Cleveland County to the west, with its six grenade launchers? Or Gaston County, with this stunning haul: 230 assault rifles, 54 handguns, 10 grenade launchers, six shotguns, and two armored vehicles? (By comparison, Defense has provided Mecklenburg County with a mere 76 assault rifles and six shotguns. Bunch of Quakers here in Meck, apparently.)

I don’t know. But I know this: When civilian law enforcement agencies arm themselves like soldiers, they send a tacit message, intended or not, to the citizens they’ve sworn to serve and protect: One false move, and you run the risk of death. Think I’m exaggerating? If you haven’t already, check out this already much-discussed column in The Washington Post by Sunil Dutta, a Los Angeles Police Department officer and professor of homeland security. An excerpt:

We are still learning what transpired between Officer Darren Wilson and Brown, but in most cases it’s less ambiguous—and officers are rarely at fault. When they use force, they are defending their, or the public’s, safety.

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long? …

Show some empathy for an officer’s safety concerns. Don’t make our job more difficult than it already is.

Got that? “Just do what I tell you”—or else. That cops manage, in most cases, to restrain themselves from physical violence against members of the public seems beside the point. In Dutta’s calculus, all of the authority in any transaction lies with the cop. Your safety—your life—is in that officer’s hands, and the consequences of disobedience is, potentially, death. Dutta argues that victims of police violence can always file a post facto complaint or sue, which I’m sure is a great comfort to the family members of the four unarmed black men police have seen fit to shoot to death in American cities in the last month.

There’s a term used to describe a nation in which civilian police are equipped and act as soldiers and reserve the absolute right to exercise their power whenever, and on whomever, they choose. If that’s where we are, that’s where we are. But let’s be honest enough to admit what should be obvious by now: That line in the anthem about “the land of the free” is a bad joke when the cops arrest journalists for practicing journalism, and the unarmed catch six bullets for reasons still undetermined, and armored personnel carriers are rolling down Main Street.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest