What ‘The Incredibles’ has to say about police militarization
In an oft-quoted scene from the original film, Mr. Incredible visits the character Edna — imagine the animated version of Marvel costume designer Alexandra Byrne — for a new superhero suit. After he requests a cape in the design, Edna throws a wadded paper ball at Mr. Incredible and says, “No capes!”
Now, Mr. Incredible seems to be a fairly normal guy in his daytime life. He has a wife, three kids, a job he doesn’t exactly love, and a car that could use an upgrade. He wants a cape in part because he wants to live a more glamorous life as a superhero.
But Edna knows better. She warns Mr. Incredible that several superheroes saw their heroic careers ended when their capes were caught or snagged at a dangerous moment. The wrong uniform led to their demise and kept them from being the superheroes of tomorrow.
“The Incredibles” might simply be an entertaining movie, but Edna’s advice — that what you wear affects how you do your job — holds true to real-life superheroes as well as fictional ones.
When at their best, our local police officers are the superheroes of the real world. Like their fictional counterparts, officers aim to be available on a moment’s notice at any reported sign of danger to prevent any harm to person or property. And like movie heroes, police officers, too, wear costumes — traditionally blue uniforms. However, police militarization has changed the clothing and weapons police wear, with adverse consequence for all.
Thanks to the federal government’s 1033 Program, camouflage and assault rifles are now becoming a commonplace uniform among some police departments, regardless of whether their use is warranted. This program, established in the early 1990s, authorizes the transfer of excess military equipment to federal, state or tribal law enforcement agencies (LEAs). Initially, this new equipment was only to be used for “counter-drug activities,” but in 1997 lawmakers expanded LEAs’ authorized use of military-grade equipment to include all “bona fide law enforcement purposes.”
This broadening of purpose has created ample space for misuse and abuse of power. For example, St. Louis County police SWAT officers wore full camouflage while arresting a Monsanto protester — an occasion hardly calling for the need to blend in. Several months later, two St. Louis County police officers were photographed standing atop a tactical operations Humvee during Ferguson protests, with at least eight additional officers armed with assault rifles standing around the vehicle. Observers wondered if they were watching protests in Ferguson or coverage of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a time when public trust in law enforcement was already extremely tenuous, officers’ donning of military camouflage and weapons cast the police as soldiers and the protesters as insurgents, eroding what was left of the existing police-community relationship. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Service deemed the Ferguson law enforcement response a failure. Police, in an American city, were seen by many not as superheroes, but as villains.
In part a response to police action in Ferguson, a 2015 report by the federal interagency Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group recommended prohibiting the use of camouflage uniforms in settings where they would provide no tactical advantage, such as urban environments. “A prohibition on acquisition of such equipment by LEAs from Federal programs is appropriate,” the report states, “because the substantial risk of misusing or overusing these items … could significantly undermine community trust and may encourage tactics and behaviors that are inconsistent with the premise of civilian law enforcement.”
President Trump has since reversed the mostly superficial restrictions that the Obama administration put in place after Ferguson, allowing for the use of the full range of equipment provided by the 1033 Program. Since Trump’s decision, another name has been added to the list of unarmed individuals unnecessarily killed by police officers: Twenty-two-year-old Sacramento, California, resident Stephon Clark.
Indeed, police militarization has not only inflamed community tensions and made it more difficult for police to do their job effectively; in some cases, military equipment has directly promoted the opposite aim of public safety: civilian harm.
Recent research provides evidence that police militarization is associated with increased civilian casualties. According to Fatal Encounters data, approximately 1,212 people were killed in 2008 during an encounter with law enforcement. By 2017, this number had risen to 1,750 people. Police militarization increased over this same period.
When police officers are forced to make split-second decisions, military equipment encourages them to use lethal force. Physically speaking, holding military equipment such as M-4s requires the use of two hands, greatly reducing an officer’s ability to use a less lethal tool for law enforcement. Mentally, police in soldiers’ uniforms begin to think of themselves in militaristic terms, armed with a different purpose and source of power.
In some instances, military-grade equipment offers tools that may be used for good. Advocates for police militarization believe this equipment is necessary to combat today’s biggest enemies of public safety, including terrorism, drug-dealing and mass shootings.
However, in practical terms, this equipment has become a cape — flashy but easily snagged or caught in the crosshairs, with negative outcomes for our police officers and the ones they have sworn to protect.
It’s time to tell police officers, “No capes!”
Image credit: Sarunyu L