Militarization Dehumanizes Cops -- And Imperils People They're Meant To Protect
Buying a subscription to this newsletter will get you a column like this one in your email inbox nearly every day.
Two new revelations have emerged since the arrest of five Memphis police officers for murder following the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols on January 14. The AP reported on Tuesday that one of the officers shared cell phone photographs of Nichols taken after he was beaten and propped against the side of a patrol car. The officer, Demetrius Haley, took two photos of Nichols using his flashlight to illuminate the scene. Haley admitted sending at least one of the photos to five people, including a female friend, two fellow officers and a civilian employee of the Memphis Police Department. The AP noted that department policy prohibits officers from using cellphones while on patrol duty. The AP did not specify whether police policy outlaws taking personal photographs of suspects or sending them to other people.
There were so many other crimes committed against Tyre Nichols that having one of the arresting officers take a photograph of his battered face and body and share it with friends hardly moves the needle on the Richter scale. Police have still not provided evidence that the initial traffic stop, allegedly for driving recklessly, was legitimate. Nichols was violently dragged from his car and forced to the ground and was never told the reason he had been stopped or why he was arrested. He was pepper-sprayed in the face at the scene of the traffic stop as he was being given conflicting orders by several police officers on the scene. He escaped from them, ran away, and after he was caught, was beaten and kicked in the head by five officers. Emergency medical technicians did not arrive on the scene and administer care to Nichols for at least 20 minutes. He died three days later in the hospital from his wounds.
The news that Nichols was photographed and that the photos were shared with others is reminiscent of the same sort of behavior by American soldiers in Vietnam, when they would pose themselves next to the bodies of dead Viet Cong or North Vietnamese soldiers and share the photos with friends in their units and family back home. Col. George S. Patton III infamously sent out Christmas cards with photos of dead Viet Cong and once posed with the polished skull of a dead Vietnamese soldier that had a bullet hole above one of the eyes. The photo was taken and given to him as a going away present from his men in the 11th Cavalry Regiment.
Patton was promoted to Brigadier General shortly after sending the Christmas card with dead Vietnamese bodies.
This kind of behavior is the result of the dehumanizing effects of war, and in the case of the Memphis police, of believing that they are at war with a criminal element in the city they are sworn to protect and defend. At least some dehumanization in war is probably inevitable. When an enemy is shooting at you in a battle and your fellow soldiers are being wounded and killed around you, soldiers – even highly trained soldiers – begin to look at the enemy as less than human.
In Vietnam, the enemy were referred to as “gooks” and “slopes.” I was with a company of infantry soldiers for less than an hour in Mosul, Iraq in 2003 before I heard them refer pejoratively to the local populace as “Hajis,” a word derived from the requirement in the Muslim religion that all devout Muslims must make a “Haj,” a pilgramage to the holy city of Mecca to worship the Prophet Muhammed at least once in their lives.
In a war, you can justify shooting at and killing the enemy as an act of self-preservation or defense of your fellow soldiers, and killing in war is done under legitimate orders of military superiors. Police officers are permitted to draw their weapons if they feel threatened by a suspect and to shoot to kill if an armed suspect is trying to kill them. But neither the Memphis police nor any police department are at war with the people for whom they enforce laws intended to make the community safe. Police officers are said to “serve” their communities, as in the slogan of the Los Angeles Police Department, “To Protect and Serve.”
Naturally, that doesn’t include the use of excessive force on a suspect while making an arrest, especially when that suspect is unarmed. And it certainly does not include the dehumanizing behavior of taking personal photographs of suspects and using them as trophies to show off what you have done.
Books could be written, and no doubt have been, about how this sort of dehumanizing behavior comes about with both soldiers and police officers. I read somewhere this week that excessive force by police is the result of the “culture” of policing, as is the “blue line” behavior by police when they clam up and won’t report fellow officers for violating department policy or even the law. Watching the coverage of the Tyre Nichols murder, one expert on MSNBC said something like, you can try to train aggressive behavior by police out of them, but it’s hard.
Of course, it’s hard. It’s hard to train a good plumber or electrician. It’s hard to train EMT’s, too, but it has to be done.
The other revelation that came out of the Tyre Nichols killing was in another AP story this week that reported on the lowering of recruiting requirements for the police force in Memphis. Facing a shortage of officers in recent years, Memphis dropped its requirement that recruits have at least some college education, military service, or have done previous police work.
“All that’s now required is two years’ work experience — any work experience,” the AP reported. “The department also sought state waivers to hire applicants with criminal records. And the police academy even dropped timing requirements on physical fitness drills and removed running entirely because too many people were failing.”
One of the officers involved in the initial traffic stop of Nichols was shown on his own body camera running after Nichols and then giving up after a few hundred yards. He was out of breath as he walked back to the scene of the arrest, and when he got there was heard on his own body camera saying, “I hope they stomp his ass,” referring to Nichols after other officers caught him. The officer seen chasing Nichols was one of those arrested in his murder.
I realize I sound like a broken record bringing up once again Robert McNamara’s “Project 100,000” during the Vietnam years, but what the Memphis police department has done is exactly what the Pentagon did when it lowered draft requirements, striking the need for a high school diploma and knocking down what amounted to the minimum IQ level to serve in the Army. Many of the soldiers involved in the massacre of more than 300 Vietnamese civilians in My Lai were Project 100,000 recruits, as was Lt. William Calley himself.
The officers senior to Lt. Calley, including his company, battalion, and brigade, and division commanders, were all charged with violations of the law involving the orders given for the operation and its cover-up afterwards. None of the senior officers was the product of lowered requirements for recruiting. Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster went on to become Superintendent of West Point, and was eventually relieved of his command in that position and demoted to brigadier general as part of his administrative punishment for his involvement in My Lai. None of the other officers charged with crimes relating to the massacre were convicted other than Calley.
Lowered requirements for service in the police or military is not to blame for the murder of Tyre Nichols, but it didn’t help. The whole of the department gets the message that the job they have isn’t worth much if they’re letting everyone in with lower requirements to serve than they had to have when they entered the police academy. Reducing physical requirements for serving isn’t helpful, either. The cops who had to chase Nichols were clearly angered by the difficulty they had catching him, and indeed, they did “stomp his ass” when they caught him.
The job of being a police officer or a soldier is stressful by its nature. The easy thing to say is, if you don’t want to deal with the stress, then don’t take the job. But the inherent difficulty of dealing with stress doesn’t justify overreacting when you’re under it. At least part of the problem with policing in this country right now is the militarization of police forces.
Cops used to walk the beat with a revolver in their holster that held six rounds of .38 caliber ammunition. Now beat cops are armed with semiautomatic pistols like Glocks that can fire up to 17 rounds in a few seconds. SWAT teams are armed with automatic M-15 style assault rifles that can fire single shots, bursts of three rounds, or on full-automatic, with clips holding 30 rounds of ammunition.
This is the stuff soldiers go to war with, not to mention the armored personnel carriers you see on the street every time the police are faced with a demonstration by unarmed people. If policing has had a “culture” that has turned its head from excessive use of force and lying on the stand in trials and keeping secret misbehavior by fellow officers, the militarization of police forces has added to the dehumanization of police. Officers are bound to behave differently when they are clad and armed as if they’re going to war.
I don’t have a solution for what has happened to policing in this country. Disarming the police to one extent or another isn’t going to happen. The first cop who’s killed because his body armor was taken away or his weapon wasn’t capable of semiautomatic fire, and you will never hear the end of it from the police and the politicians who have pushed for the militarization of policing.
But civilians, especially Black civilians, are stopped for minor traffic violations every day and face overly aggressive behavior by heavily armed and armored police officers. Dehumanization of those who are supposed to “protect and serve” is how civilians become the enemy and end up dead.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.