Fix the Police, Part 2

All right. Ferguson. Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson.

Let’s talk about the professionalization of the security forces (those are the police plus the armed forces). In my dissertation, I posit the idea of a “security-force configuration,” which is the set of institutional relationships among the army, police, and politicians. In Latin America, there have historically been two kinds:

  • Militarized security-force configuration: The army controls the police, in part because it has vastly superior resources, but also because it has the power of appointment and oversight. Both entities are professionalized, meaning that merit rather than connections are the primary means of getting ahead. There’s a unified military command, which means the police are in essence an extension of the army.
    • Locus of Control: Soldiers
    • Balance of Resources: Army > Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army = Police
  • Politicized security-force configuration: Politicians have the power to appoint and fire police officials. The police and army have roughly equivalent resources, and the army is much more professionalized than the police. The police have their own command, and their loyalty to the national regime is unpredictable.
    • Locus of Control: Politicians
    • Balance of Resources: Army = Police
    • Balance of Professionalization: Army > Police

Neither of these is a picnic. They each create a distinctive kind of vulnerability in the political system: militarized ones are susceptible to national coup (think Argentina and Paraguay), because the unified military command can turn against the government, and politicized ones are subject to local insurrection (think Colombia and Mexico), because local party actors use local forces to fight local battles.

What’s striking about Ferguson is that it reveals how much the U.S. actually has a politicized security-force configuration, even as we’re talking about how (undeniably) militarized the police have become. There’s a transfer of materiel from the army to the police, which makes the balance of resources more equal (though far from equal), but more importantly, the level of professionalization doesn’t change. If anything, the contrast gets more stark: police don’t know how to use their new tools (toys). Merit is devalued: those who know how to use these tools better don’t get ahead, because no one knows how to use them. For example, it’s been pointed out that soldiers are trained never to hold their weapons above a 45-degree angle unless they’re being attacked; police in Ferguson aren’t respecting those norms.

But what’s different about the U.S. system is that we have inherited the tradition of the sheriff from England, and that’s often an elected position. In the Colombian politicized security-force configuration of the first half of the twentieth century, the president appointed governors, who appointed state police chiefs as well as mayors, who appointed local police chiefs. There were no elected police officials, they were an extension of the party system. The sheriff is different; he or she has a direct accountability to voters.

And here’s where foundations, particularly community foundations, can play a role in depoliticizing our country’s security-force configuration – by placing greater pressure on the elected office of sheriff to be more accountable to community norms and professional practices, particularly with regard to military hardware, and funding advocates who seek to increase citizen oversight of the police.

Because there’s a third security-force configuration that we should be striving toward: a democratized one.

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One Response to “Fix the Police, Part 2”

  1. Chris Pitman Says:

    My first suggestion would be too look at the constitution as to bringing the police under the military. As to making the “Sheriff” accountable they are an “Elected” individual who can be un-elected as easily as elected. As for not knowing how to use their “new toys” a number of police officers are returning veterans as well as a number of “gang-bangers”. You speak of depoliticizing the police force, however, I question if it is the “Police” force that should be depoliticized or the Post Office, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), IRS… as they all have heavily armed security units whose job is to go after trespassers (BLM), tax cheats (IRS), bad mailers? Post Office, It appears from this paper you are advocating a democratized force. If people vote it is a democratized force.

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