Who’s to Blame for Battlefield America?
By John W. Whitehead
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2013
“It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn’t even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!”— Sgt. Sinque Swales, reflecting on a firefight in Iraq
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is responsible for the growing spate of police shootings, brutality and overreach that have come to dominate the news lately, whether it’s due to militarized police, the growing presence of military veterans in law enforcement, the fact that we are a society predisposed to warfare, indoctrinated through video games, reality TV shows, violent action movies and a series of endless wars that have, for younger generations, become life as they know it—or all of the above.
Whatever the reason, not a week goes by without more reports of hair-raising incidents by militarized police imbued with a take-no-prisoners attitude and a battlefield approach to the communities in which they serve.
The latest comes out of New Mexico, where cops pulled David Eckert over for allegedly failing to yield to a stop sign at a Wal-Mart parking lot. Suspecting that Eckert was carrying drugs because his “posture [was] erect” and “he kept his legs together,” the officers forced Eckert to undergo an anal cavity search, three enemas, and a colonoscopy. No drugs were found.
In Iowa, police shot a teenager who had stolen his father’s work truck in a fit of anger and led cops on a wild car chase that ended on a college campus. When 19-year-old Tyler Comstock refused orders to turn off the car despite having stopped, revving the engine instead, police officer Adam McPherson fired six shots into the truck, two of which hit Comstock. Members of the community are demanding to know why less lethal force was not used, especially after a police dispatcher suggested the officers call off the chase.
And then there was the incident involving 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was shot dead after two sheriff’s deputies saw him carrying a toy BB gun in public. Lopez was about 20 feet away from the deputies, his back turned to them, when the officers took cover behind their car and ordered him to drop the “weapon.” When Lopez turned around, toy gun in his hand, one of the officers—Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the force—shot him seven times. A field training officer for new recruits and a firing range instructor, Gelhaus seems to subscribe to the philosophy that an officer should ensure their own safety at all costs. As Gelhaus wrote in a 2008 article for S.W.A.T. magazine:
Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home. If you cannot turn on the “mean gene” for yourself, who will? If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone, you need to turn on that mean gene. Taking some kind of action – any kind of action – is critical. If you shut down (physically, psychologically, or both) and stay in the kill zone, bad things will happen to you. You must take some kind of action.
While some critics are keen to paint these officers as bad cops hyped up on the power of their badge, I don’t subscribe to the bad cop theory. The problem, as I explain in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, is far more pervasive, arising as it does out of America’s obsession with war and all things war-related, which is reflected in the fact that we spend more than 20% of the nation’s budget on the military, not including what we spend on our endless wars abroad. The U.S. also makes up nearly 80% of the global arms exports market, rendering us both the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer of war.