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The National Guard is not a police force
By Joseph D. McNamara
November 5, 1993
Let's get real. Calling out the National Guard to police cities will not stop crime and violence any more than chiding Hollywood about violent programming will we need to talk about race and inner city culture and stop chasing diversions. Even in the United States, we have to be constantly vigilant against creeping totalitarianism.
Sharon Pratt Kelly, the mayor of Washington, recently sought authority to call out the National Guard to help stop the killings in the nation's capital. Fortunately, President Clinton denied the request.
While the Guard has recently been used in Puerto Rico and Sumter, S.C., for policing, my own experience as a police officer in New York's Harlem during the 1960s riots and, later, as a police chief is that the National Guard isn't even that efficient in its traditional role of quelling disorder.
Guardsmen panicked at Kent State University in 1970 and fired into a crowd of demonstrating students, killing four. During the urban riots of the 1960s, the Guard's record was even worse. In Detroit, nervous Guardsmen fired at imaginary snipers and 40 people died while the disorder continued for days. More recently, in Los Angeles after the first verdict in the Rodney King beating case, the Guard, after being alerted well in advance, took the field only after the game was over and smoke from the burning city closed Los Angeles Airport for three days.
This is not to fault individual Guardsmen - who get only a few weeks training a year in military combat. Policing simply isn't their job. We should remember what Gen. Colin L Powell said: "A soldier's duty is to kill the enemy." But the duty of a police officer is something far different: to protect life and property and to arrest criminals within due process of law.
Under our democratic system, military personnel have no legal or traditional basis for doing routine policing For so many years, that was the image of Iron Curtain nations, who needed to clamp down on their own people.
Just as it is unrealistic to expect the police to stop violence flowing from the decay of inner-city neighborhoods, it is silly to think that rifle-toting Guardsmen, riding around in jeeps with no idea of what they are expected to do, will make people safer. After the initial shock, the presence of troops wears off. Street criminals quickly realize the Guard can't use their military weaponry any more than cops are allowed to shoot without cause. In addition, soldiers are too inexperienced to make arrests with the same savvy cops have.
The truth America shirks from is that the national rate of violence is high, but it is about the same as it was 20 years ago. However, violence is much worse in poor, minority neighborhoods. The No. I cause of death for young, black men is homicide. While a few racists may think that African-Americans are predisposed to violence, the overwhelming majority of people know this a foolish idea. This means we should look for root causes of violence in the culture of inner cities. It is clear that the curse of slavery and subsequent discrimination, along with unwise government policies on welfare, housing and education, encouraged the development of an urban underclass that commits much - but certainly not all - of today's troubling violence.
This is not to excuse such conduct. For everyone's safety, violent criminals need to be quickly and firmly punished and separated from society. However, it is far better to avoid having innocent people victimized in the first place. That means we must do a better job in understanding the culture that produces so many young people with no respect for the life and property of others.
Declarations of wars against crime and drugs by politicians will not be any more effective than former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates threats against gang leaders. The sweep arrests accompanying such rhetoric get thrown out of court and petty arrests take scarce police officers off the streets. Worse still, such police tactics undermine what does work - partnerships between local people and the police to clean up the neighborhoods.
In the long run, it will be neighborhood people who change the negative values leading kids to destructive behavior. The government should cheer such local leadership and empower neighborhoods to change things. We tried the law-and-order model for the past decade - quadrupling the number of people behind bars - but the crime rate is about the same. It's time to stop doing more of what hasn't worked.
A couple of immediate suggestions that would help are to let local neighborhoods ban guns. Not only would it prevent senseless violence, it would repudiate the macho mentality that causes so many assaults. In addition, we should stop continually asking for more police than we can afford and pay more attention to police-operations that take cops off the street. Many departments still have lots of cops doing clerical tasks that would be better accomplished by non-sworn personnel
Of course, such simple solutions do not satisfy the political craving
to. show voters you are "tougher" on crime than your opponents. On the other
hand, if elected officials really want to do something about crime, they have to replace
the hot air with cold logic.
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