As the governor of Missouri called out the National Guard to finish what Ferguson’s armed-for-combat police started, it was hard not to question the efficiency, or even intelligence, of this kind of paramilitary policing.
The line that divides police and military work can be traced back to Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, which set up a new paid constabulary for London. Its first commissioners set up a benign, unarmed police service designed to prevent crime rather than suppress it. That notion was replicated, with varying success, for white settlers in the British colonies. At the same time, the British Empire used a different policing style for its “colonies of rule” – the local imperial subjects – from Ireland to India. There, the police forces were paramilitary in nature and purposed to ferret out and suppress dissent. The division, in other words, hinged on whether the population to be policed was seen as friendly or hostile, a base of support or a rabble to be subjugated.
Later, the line began to blur again. Emma Bell of the Universite de Savoie in France wrote last year that the colonial model is coming home and spreading throughout the world. It’s been happening since the 1970s, when riot police units were set up to deal with growing political unrest and industrial action. During the 2011 London riots, the possibility of using water cannons was widely discussed, but London has only just gotten around to buying them. London Mayor Boris Johnson was even hounded by an interviewer into agreeing to face one as a test. He hasn’t kept the promise yet – one reason London still has a mayor: Water cannons and other riot-control weapons such as plastic bullets can be deadly or severely disabling.
“As society has become increasingly divided, the police have been forced to perform the function of border control between the excluded classes and the rest, and have consequently adopted (or perhaps revived) authoritarian policing methods previously reserved to the colonies,” Bell wrote.
That is a decidedly leftist view of the matter. There are more pragmatic explanations for the convergence between military and police functions. In 2004, the Swiss researcher Derek Lutterbeck tied it to the post-Cold War rise in cross-border challenges to security, such as the drug trade, human trafficking and terrorism. Lutterbeck termed the security apparatus’ reaction “the rise of the gendarmeries” after the French paramilitary police force, the Gendarmerie Nationale. That force, originally part of the Defense Ministry and armed with heavy machine guns and even light tanks, was transferred to the Interior Ministry in 2009, in a clear sign of this military-police fusion.
Throughout Europe, Lutterbeck pointed out, the numbers and budgets of gendarmeries such as Italy’s Carabinieri or Spain’s Guardia Civil have been rising to deal with the cross-border threats in a “reversal of one of the major achievements of the modern nation-state” – the growth of civilian police as a public service rather than a force of repression.
As the creeping erosion of this notion continues, police officers around the world are becoming convinced they are fighting a war on something or other, whether that’s drugs, terror, anarchists or political subversion. This mindset contrasts with the public’s unchanged perception of what the police should be doing, which is to keep the streets safe, a conceptual clash that can lead to unexpected results. Ukraine provides one recent example. On Nov. 30, the Berkut riot police beat up a few hundred students who had camped on the main square of the capital, Kiev, to call for closer ties between Ukraine and Europe. Ukrainians were not used to being treated like the population of a “colony of rule.” Hundreds of thousands took to the streets the following day, setting off a chain of events that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych and the current crisis on Europe’s eastern borders.
That reaction helps to explains why the heavily armed police in Ferguson – who looked more threatening and wore more tactical armor than U.S. servicemen in Iraq – were unsuccessful. Now they are being aided by the National Guard, which is paramilitary by definition.
Arming police with military weaponry and outfitting them for battle is a recipe for creating violent conflict where there was none and achieves the opposite of keeping public order. Governments need to make an effort to convince citizens that they are seen as allies, not enemies. Then there will be fewer rioters and insurgencies for military or paramilitary forces to suppress.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Moscow-based Bloomberg View contributor and writer.