They have the trappings of soldiers: bulletproof vests, protective headwear, camouflage uniforms and assault rifles. But the men whose image Radley Balko flashed on the screen of the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater on Tuesday night were not soldiers — they were police officers responding to protests in Ferguson, Mo.
The militarization of American police departments, exemplified by their increased use of military-grade gear and SWAT teams, was the focus of Balko’s presentation, sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD), with assistance from the nonprofit Jack Miller Center. Balko is a criminal justice blogger for the Washington Post.
During his talk Balko traced the evolution of the SWAT team from its introduction by the Los Angeles Police Department after the 1965 Watts Riots. In 1970, he noted, there was only one SWAT team; by 1975, that number had risen to 500 nationwide. In 2005, he said, 50,000 individual SWAT deployments took place, often to serve warrants for relatively minor drug offenses and white-collar crime.
Balko emphasized that police and the military serve distinct functions, and that the lines between them had become blurred. “The idea that the two jobs are interchangeable is the problem,” he said.
Before his talk, Balko told the Collegian he hoped the audience would “question some of their assumptions about policing and how it works and how it’s supposed to work.”
Balko also elaborated on his view that the militarization trend has degraded the relationship between police and the public. “It’s created a very us-versus-them mentality in the police department, and it’s caused communities to see the police more as kind of an occupying force than guardians of the community,” he said.
CSAD director Tom Karako said inviting Balko to campus seemed like a timely choice. “The news has been dominated by so many stories about law enforcement and policing,” Karako said, noting that a Mount Vernon man died in police custody last spring. The man, 33-year-old David Levi Dehmann, died after suffering injuries in a jailhouse scuffle with a Knox County Sheriff’s deputy.
Kenyon has hosted a Constitution Day speaker each year since at least 2004, when Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) attached a rider to a congressional spending bill requiring schools that receive federal funding to provide educational programming in honor of the occasion.
CSAD also invited a group of students to share lunch with Balko on Tuesday afternoon at the Kenyon Inn. For Daniel Cebul ’17, the biggest takeaway from the lunch was Balko’s claim that, unlike in the military, police aren’t required to submit after-action reports. “Analyze the performance and try to make improvements — that doesn’t exist for your local police departments,” Cebul said. “They lack the same accountability and performance evaluation.”
Teahelahn Keithrafferty ’19 attended Balko’s talk at the urging of a friend. She said Balko’s remarks left her stuck between feeling helpless and wanting to take action to remedy the issue. A hometown friend of hers just became a police officer, and she hopes to talk with him about the militarization phenomenon in a way that doesn’t “offend that honor that you have with being a police officer.”