Conversation with a Police Chief
There was a time when, growing up in a suburban area around Mansfield, a university town in northeastern Connecticut, I could go days without seeing a police car. These days, though, when I go back there to visit my old hometown, I see them everywhere. Where once there was one resident State Trooper for the township of Mansfield, today there’s a fleet of Troopers in squad cars, called “Interceptors.” The university too, which in my youth had a couple of university cops whose only real job was breaking up the occasional dormitory panty raid, now has a full-fledged police department, staffed with beefy cops who would be hard to distinguish from the troopers -- or from recently furloughed military vets (which many of them probably are).
In communities and cities across the country, the number of police has soared, rising, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 603,000 in 1992 to 794,000 in 2010. This even as crime has been falling fairly steadily for over 30 years, even in cities that have had to cut back on their police staffing for budget reasons.
But it’s not just a matter of numbers. Police are also much more aggressive in their behavior towards the public. Where “no-knock” forced entries into people’s homes were a rarity 30 years ago, such so-called “breaches” are increasingly the norm in many jurisdictions -- they reached over 80,000 last year by one calculation -- as police departments adopt an approach that elevates “officer safety” over concerns about the safety of the public, including innocent bystanders. (Consider two recent incidents in New York where bystanders were shot by police who were firing at suspects -- in one case an unarmed mentally ill man standing in traffic in midtown Manhattan.)
The same can be said about the use of supposedly “non-lethal” tasers, which have morphed from being alternatives to shooting and killing suspects to tools to enforce docility, or even to punish people who verbally contest the actions of a police officer. A recent report in the New York Times showed that as part of a growing trend to place police officers in public schools, students, including even in elementary schools, are being tasered for what used to be considered an offense meriting a trip to the principal’s office--sometimes with serious and even deadly results.