You can tell a lot about a society by the way it equips those who serve on its front lines. Big-city police departments in the U.S. are outfitted with sufficient military hardware to take over a small country. Many of the nation’s health-care workers, on the other hand, had to make do with re-used scrubs and homemade masks during those first hellish months of the pandemic.
The last time America truly boiled over on the streets, as it has this month, was in the late summer of 1968. Protesters flooded Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated earlier in the year. And just a few months later, Robert F. Kennedy, who had been running to become the Democratic nominee for president, was shot. Chicago became a melting pot of Yippies and various anti-war activist groups. There was a cohort outside the convention simply torn by the deaths of King and Kennedy.
The confrontations between protesters and Mayor Richard Daley’s police force (with backup from the Illinois National Guard) were bloody and historic. And yet that Chicago cauldron of activism and beatings looks so different than what we have witnessed in American cities in the weeks since the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis in late May. In comparison to the Call of Duty commando look of the force that cleared the way for Trump’s ridiculous photo op outside St. John’s Church across the street from the White House, Daley’s cops by and large were dressed in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Atlanta church on a Sunday morning. Many had on dark pants and white, short-sleeved shirts. They wore helmets not much different from the ones Vespa riders wear these days. They had small pistols in holsters, and many carried nightsticks.
Chicago became a melting pot of Yippies and various anti-war activist groups.
Washington isn’t the only American city where police have taken on the appearance and outsize gear of military commandos, with bulletproof vests, shin guards, helmets with face shields, submachine guns, flash-bang grenades, sniper rifles, and so much more. The ones who routed the peaceful protesters for Trump didn’t look appreciably different from the SEAL Team Six members that stormed the Abbottabad compound of Osama bin Laden.
Despite the constant stream of senseless killings of unarmed black Americans, we need police and we need police forces. But there are serious issues afoot. Disbanding local police departments, then building them up from scratch, as some cities are considering, is one way to go about it. De-funding only works if those dollars are re-allocated to housing, rehabilitation, and the hiring of mental-health professionals. All are aspects of law enforcement that have proved effective in countries around the world and, indeed, are being adopted in a number of U.S. cities. If it is impossible to shut down and rebuild a new N.Y.P.D., then New York has to repair the force it has, both operationally and reputationally.
The city should start by having each officer on the force receive some form of training in not just sensitivity but common sense. These courses would be designed to teach cops to appreciate the nuances and history of the individual across from them in a confrontation. The city should also get cops out of their cars. I’ve lived in New York for more than four decades, and I don’t recall ever seeing a police officer—and there are almost 40,000 of them in the city—walking a beat.
If it is impossible to shut down and rebuild a new N.Y.P.D., then New York has to repair the force it has, both operationally and reputationally.
On our block in the West Village, we have a mailman who has worked the route for almost 20 years. His name is Michael, and he knows more about the neighborhood he covers and the people who live there than anyone else does. He waves and says hello. Everybody in the area knows Michael. We will occasionally get a patrol car with two officers parked at the curb. Any attempt to smile or say hello to them is impossible because they appear to be studiously avoiding eye contact with the people they are supposed to protect.
By contrast, in the small town in Connecticut where we escape to in the summer months, the local officer always stops to say hello if he sees someone out on his or her driveway. He knows his community, and this knowledge makes him a noble protector of the people in it. City cops should be more like him.
Police departments shouldn’t be de-funded, but some officers need deprogramming. I would forbid any member of any police force from ever taking a course given by Dave Grossman. He’s a 60-ish former Army Ranger who, The Washington Post reports, has instructed more police officers on the art of becoming warrior cops than just about anyone else. His six-hour seminars are explosions of rage and chest-pounding testosterone. “Are you prepared to kill somebody?” he shouted to a class attended by a reporter for Mother Jones. “If you cannot answer that question, you should not be carrying a gun.” At one point in his seminar, he tells the officers that when they kill another human being, they will go home and have the best sex of their lives. I am not making this up.
“Are you prepared to kill somebody?” he shouted to a class attended by a reporter for Mother Jones.
Four years before George Floyd died under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, another Minnesota cop, Jeronimo Yanez, pulled Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African-American man, over to the side of the road. In the car with Castile, who was a nutrition supervisor for a local school, were his partner and her four-year-old daughter. Following an exchange of words, Yanez shot Castile seven times at close range, killing him. Yanez had previously taken one of the Grossman Academy courses. The one he took was called The Bulletproof Warrior.
At the other end of the spectrum of humanity from Grossman is Patrick Hutchinson. He’s a black 49-year-old personal trainer and the father of two. Last Saturday near the Waterloo tube station, in London, a skirmish broke out between a Black Lives Matter group and a mob of white supremacists who were taunting the protesters with Nazi salutes and other insults. One of the supremacists was knocked to the ground. According to Hutchinson, the B.L.M. protesters began kicking him. Hutchinson cleared them off, picked up the man, swung him over his shoulder, and carried him to some nearby police officers. Hutchinson said later, “I just grabbed him and carried him over to the police and said, ‘Here you go’. They thanked me. It was instinct…. I just want equality for all of us. At the moment the scales are unfairly balanced, and I just want things to be fair for my children and my grandchildren.”
America and American law enforcement are at an inflection point, brought on by Floyd’s killing. The U.S. owns its at-times dark past. It will also own its future. If the American people keep the spirit of this moment alive through the coming years, the nation will have a good chance of becoming one that all its citizens can take ownership of.