The shooting of two police officers in Ferguson has once again raised concerns about the divisions that exist between the police and many US citizens. In particular, it highlights the anger of black Americans over a legacy of police brutality that extends into the present day. But it also exposes a need for much deeper reforms. This is not just about racism but the way in which the entire population is policed and views policing.
There has been considerable anxiety in law enforcement about the safety of officers since the outbreak of unrest in Ferguson and the killing of two New York police officers in December by a lone gunman in retribution for the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD.
Underpinning these concerns is the commonly accepted truth that law enforcement, for all its faults, is necessary for protecting citizens and preserving social order. Those tasked with protecting and serving the population must also be protected.
This fear was evidenced in the statement by the St Louis police chief, Jon Belmar. “These police officers were standing there and they were shot, just because they were police officers,” he said.
But there is a danger that incidents such as these could be used as evidence for the need for even tighter policing. This, in turn, reflects the increasingly authoritarian character of 21st-century policing. In the US this is marked by the rise of militarised police, enhanced government surveillance and rising incarceration rates.
While the shooting of these two officers is an unquestionable tragedy, it is also a call for a more fundamental transformation of US law enforcement.
At present, it is still unclear who shot the police officers – but Michael Brown’s family have called for the violent incident not to detract from the fight for justice for the teenager whose death sparked tension in Ferguson in the first place.
This latest shooting comes against a backdrop of intense national debate about the future of US law enforcement. A recent Department of Justice Report concluded Ferguson used its police less as a force for protecting citizens and more as a “collection agency” that doled out traffic tickets, particularly to black residents, to increase its public revenue.
US attorney-general, Eric Holder, has promised that the Ferguson police department will be reformed and possibly even dismantled in order to put an end to this “toxic envirnment”.
But the Department of Justice report and the mainstream media have primarily focused on reducing racism within the police force. They have failed to consider how increased policing of the entire population might be aggravating tensions. It would be a step too far to call the US a “police state”, but it is, at the very least, an extensively and increasingly “policed state”.
The US is a world leader when it comes to incarceration rates for a start. And policies such as the War on Drugs have dramatically expanded powers to search ordinary citizens, seize their property and place them under arbitrary arrest. The increased willingness of police to arrest people for relatively minor crimes such as jaywalking has become part of co-ordinated campaigns to reduce crime locally. Social issues are commonly met with a policing solution – and not as a last resort but as a first instinct.
As in many countries, enhanced video and digital surveillance is employed in the US to root out home-grown radicals. The threat of immigration is met with calls for greater border control. World peace is pursued through military interventions and drone attacks.
The efficacy of these policing strategies ultimately pales in significance to the wider psychological effects they have on ordinary people. An increased police presence produces heightened feelings of paranoia and mistrust as well as negatively intruding on the daily lives of American citizens for little justifiable reason.
There is growing evidence that it is not policing but community activism and involvement that can best reduce crime rates. It is, therefore, crucially important to discard the mindset that policing equals strength and safety.
Arising out of this tragedy is the renewed possibility for realising a less policed society. In doing so, more resources and social imagination could be invested into fostering vibrant, tolerant and economically developed communities and cities.