American and British police culture and tactics are often described as militarized, but it is not yet fully understood how such excessive use of force developed. But sociology professor Julian Go’s research offers a global and historical perspective on policing to explore the racialized and aggressive approach. His new book, “Policing Empires: Militarization, Race, and the Imperial Boomerang in Britain and the US,” posits that imperialism abroad and policing at home are fundamentally linked.
“We tend to think of policing as an immediate problem that may have only developed in recent decades,” he says. “But to truly fundamentally understand the complexity of policing and the problems associated with it, we need to have a deeper understanding that can be achieved by thinking both historically and globally.”
Go says his exploration of the topic was motivated in part by high-profile cases of excessive force by officers in recent years. But he had also studied extensively American empires and interventions in countries like the Philippines, Puerto Rico and elsewhere, leading him to draw connections between the militarization of American and British police forces and colonization.
What he found astonishing was that the US and UK police are armed, equipped and trained like an army, meaning they essentially prepare to fight citizens and treat them like enemy combatants . Furthermore, citizens themselves pay for the police to be armed like an army.
“I wanted to understand how we got here: how did we get to the point where the police are so heavily militarized and equipped and trained to treat citizens as enemies of war?” Come on said.
In his study of the history of policing, he found that the original intent was quite the opposite. The American policing tradition draws on the British tradition, which began in the 19th century with the London Metropolitan Police. Created by Sir Robert Peel, it was expressly created as a non-militarized force to provide an alternative to resorting to the army. But from the beginning, this idea quickly transformed into the militarization we know today.
Part of understanding this change is understanding the adoption of military tactics, tools, and cultures. What the press and academics call militarization, Go says, is what he calls the imperial boomerang.
“In other words, when you look historically at times when police have become militarized, what they’re actually doing is appropriating the tools and tactics of overseas colonial policing and military interventions abroad linked to imperial expansion,” he says.
Go’s research also highlighted key moments when police turned to imperial or colonial tools and tactics. When police turn to such resources to improve their policing, Go says, what they are really doing is responding to perceived racialized threats, fear of revolution or rebellion in streets.
“It’s racialized in the sense that they always imagine these outbreaks of disorder or threats to order primarily led by non-white, often immigrant or African-American populations in the United States and Britain,” says Go The populations that have triggered this racialized threat have varied over time, once including groups like the Irish, for example.
What Go says he realized is that a militarized police response relies on the construction of citizens as colonial subjects, on the perception that people deserve violence. Historically, he says, the people the US and UK considered worthy of coercive control were people overseas seen as uncivilized, inherently violent and unworthy of the full enjoyment of their rights – which justifies colonialism. “If I had to boil this story down to one formula, it’s basically that the police militarize when they perceive a racialized threat to the order,” says Go.
Thinking in a global framework
While he hopes to reach scholars and historians with “Policing Empires,” he also hopes the book will reach a broader audience to provide insight into how imperialism abroad and policing at home the interior are fundamentally entangled. The aim is to broaden the public’s imagination and understanding of how the problems faced in their country due to aggressive policing should be viewed within a more global framework.
If policing tactics are to change, Go says, citizens need to think about how to ally with the populations of other states, in other contexts and even internationally. How police act at home is linked to how the US and UK treat people abroad.
“I started to see how racialized the discourse and popular perception of crime and disorder is and how colonialist it is without us really realizing it,” says Go. “The hypothesis is that “There are some people who are fundamentally savage, inferior and worthy of violence. And that, I think, is something deeply ingrained in popular consciousness. When it comes to changing policing, we need to take that into account deeply unconscious assumption that criminals are inherently violent and savage people, when in reality they are human beings and our fellow citizens.”
Provided by the University of Chicago
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