The original motto of most law enforcement organizations was “To Serve And Protect.” But, in recent years, the motto may as well be “To Harass And Intimidate.” Many purposefully engage in racial profiling (New York City even singles out African-Americans for its “Stop And Frisk” program). Many live outside the cities they serve. Most spend their days in cruisers only leaving them when they need to. All are heavily armed.
In the eyes of the citizens, particularly poor minorities, law enforcement officers have become the enemy; uniforms to be feared, or at least viewed with suspicion. And with the proliferation of guns, officers necessarily view citizens with suspicion. Their reaction is to treat citizens with polite arrogance. They pump out their chests, stand tall and strive to look as intimidating as possible.
Many officers have visually, physically and mentally detached themselves from their own communities. The neighborhood beat cop virtually no longer exists. The only time most cops are welcomed is when there’s a crisis.
Like most things, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County has taken this to an extreme. He encouraged his deputies to racially profile in order to round up illegal immigrants. He has harassed citizens with roadblocks seeking minor vehicle infractions in order to check immigration status. He has conducted neighborhood sweeps for illegal immigrants. He misspent millions of taxpayer dollars in order to purchase armored vehicles. He participated in TV episodes with dozens of his heavily armed storm troopers crashing down doors in the middle of the night to arrest non-violent criminals. He has armed a volunteer “posse” to patrol schools.
Now, following the murder of one of his detention officers, Arpaio has ordered all of his deputies and officers to carry AR-15 assault weapons at all times…even off-duty. What could possibly go wrong?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Law enforcement agencies could tone down their militaristic image. They could put away the military-style assault weapons and armored vehicles until they are actually needed. They could get out of their cruisers and get to know their fellow citizens. They could encourage everyday conversations and interactions with those in their communities. They could drop the attitude that everyone is a criminal. They could support reasonable gun regulations. They could reinstate the beat cops. And, most of all, they could focus less on military training than police work…work that includes building trust.
But don’t expect the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to do any of this anytime soon. Arpaio has an image to keep up…as America’s Toughest Sheriff.