OPINION: Dimming down police militarization

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Fear and intimidation go hand in hand with police pullovers. Whether innocent or guilty, we feel shameful and small as the police officer asks us what we did wrong, and as the flashing LED lights drown us in pools of red and blue. My discomfort as a white male, however, seems like nothing when compared to the discomfort people of color likely feel in the same situation.

In The New York Times article “Obama Offers New Standards on Police Gear in Wake of Ferguson Protests,” Mark Landler quotes President Obama’s response to reporters about “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” 

Police departments can’t expect citizens to simply change their perspectives on law enforcement when officers are heavily armed and culturally insensitive to the people they police. As the primary stakeholders involved in police activity, citizens need to be respected.

Over a year ago, a task force appointed by President Obama issued a report and made suggestions to law enforcement agencies. According to US News, “the report suggested education that would highlight cultural understanding as well as bias awareness.”

Assuming President Obama is correct about the distrust between police departments and communities of color, and assuming the task force is correct in prescribing further education, it follows that some number of law enforcement agencies are insufficiently equipped to do their policing.

Legitimate concerns about the excessive force of police officers are being raised, most especially by people of color. Even whites, who receive much less police scrutiny than their black counterparts, recognize problems in national law enforcement.

The National Institute of Justice explains how most law enforcement agencies follow policies which “describe an escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation.” Furthermore, “officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand.” In other words, officers are trained to know whether one level of force is more appropriate than another. 

The meaning of appropriate force will vary from officer to officer, making it a subjective decision. If the officer can prove he or she responded with appropriate force, then the officer cannot have committed excessive force.

If officers lack knowledge integral to their community, then they can’t make entirely sound judgements. If officers fail to make sound judgements, then their citizens won’t trust them.

If officers abuse the use of force continuum, then their citizens won’t trust them. If officers lack integral knowledge, abuse allowances of force and have access to military-grade equipment, then citizens will not only distrust the police, they will fear them.

One, albeit small, solution for police departments is to abandon the traditional blue-red light bar. I don’t have an issue with the light bars themselves; I have an issue with the blue and red together. 

Ronnie Schreiber, staff writer for The Truth About Cars, wrote an editorial titled, “Why Do Police Cars Use Red & Blue Lights? They’re Visually Confusing.” A visual phenomenon, chromostereopsis, is directly at play when perceiving the red and blue. “Most people perceive blue as closer than red,” said Schreiber in his editorial, “and as a result the human eye cannot focus on both red and blue at the same time.” Our eyes are not prepared to perceive red and blue on top of each other. Schreiber maintains this effect is exactly why police cars use red and blue lights, and I see where he’s coming from. 

To me, standard pullovers, especially for speeding infractions, don’t seem to require the incessant flashing that’s provided. Blue lights are easiest to see at night, so I understand why blue lights are used. But do blue and red have to be used together? The visual confusion it provides is only an illustration of the fear citizens associate with police. Pullovers can exhibit blue lights, or maybe even blue and green, instead. 

I admit colored lights are low on the list of things law enforcement needs to change. But if adopted, I believe the change could significantly impact the way citizens perceive police officers. 

 

Weilhammer is a senior English writing major from Indianapolis, IN.