The Boomerang Effect: When Police Act like the Military

Just before leaving for East Africa, I moderated a panel discussion hosted by Metro State University in Denver on the militarization of domestic police.  The panel featured the authors of “Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism,” Christopher Coyne, Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Abigail R. Hall, Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Tampa.

EconFreedom_Tamara moderates panel_MSU_April 2018.jpeg

In the book, Coyne and Hall explain that while “many Americans believe that foreign military intervention is central to protecting our domestic freedoms” they should be aware of the impact such action has here at home in the U.S.

They write, “Overseas, our government takes actions in the name of defense that would not be permissible within national borders. Emboldened by the relative weakness of governance abroad, the U.S. government is able to experiment with a broader range of social controls.”

“These practices, policies and tactics are then brought home.”

This is called “the boomerang effect.”

What does the boomerang effect look like in our neighborhoods?

Think back to Ferguson, Missouri, August 9th, 2015.  I, like many Americans, black and white, was horrified to learn of the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American. He was suspected of robbing a convenience store. The teen was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the St. Louis suburb.

It didn’t take long for local police to rush to the scene. And, how did they show up?

Armed with “combat gear” which included camouflage, night vision goggles, assault weapons and tanks. Yes, tanks!

The images looked like the combat zones I’ve covered in Iraq. In fact, the public is largely unaware that since 9/11, St. Louis county had received a ½ million dollars from the pentagon for military gear including seven Humvees and a dozen M16’s. The shooting ignited protests that lasted for weeks but there was little commentary on how eerily the domestic police response replicated a war scenario.

Fear is a powerful weapon, a weapon that historically has been used by governments to limit the freedoms of citizens in the name of “safety.” If a country, faction or individual is labeled a security risk abroad or at home, then Americans are more likely to be fearful and support more money and weaponry to stop the “threat.” 

But what if the fear being cultivated is based on racism (fear of young, black men) or xenophobia (distrust of immigrants) – and the response being justified is military rather than community policing?

Amy Ekert, PhD an Associate Professor of political science at Metro State University of Denver, also a panelist at the discussion at MSU Denver says the lines between domestic politics and international politics are increasingly becoming artificial.

Again, the boomerang effect: “The government needs to do something! They need to protect us.” We’ve all heard and maybe some of us ourselves exclaimed these demands.

All of the panelists are careful to assert they are not anti-cop, by any means. But there must be discernment in identifying and responding to real domestic security needs – an approach of de-escalation rather than more domestic militarization of our police and communities.

My take-aways?

1) Citizen ideology is key. Know what your government is doing, ask questions, get engaged. In other words, stay woke.

2) Remember, the government works for its citizens. Not the other way around.

3) Read "Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism." The authors connect some dots which will open your eyes.

Are you seeing the lines being blurred between policing and militarization in your community? Please comment below. Tell me what you are witnessing and how you think citizens should respond.