The Big Blue Line Formally Cracks

Given what’s happened in places ranging from New York to Ferguson to Baltimore lately, this presidential action (as the New York Times‘ Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported) wasn’t surprising:

President Obama on Monday banned the federal provision of some types of military-style equipment to local police departments and sharply restricted the availability of others.

The ban is part of Mr. Obama’s push to ease tensions between law enforcement and minority communities in reaction to the crises in Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and other cities.

He took the action after a task force he created in January decided that police departments should be barred from using federal funds to acquire items that include tracked armored vehicles, the highest-caliber firearms and ammunition, and camouflage uniforms. The ban is part of a series of steps the president has made to try to build trust between law enforcement organizations and the citizens they are charged with protecting.

Mr. Obama promoted the effort on Monday during a visit to Camden, N.J. The city, racked by poverty and crime, has become a national model for better relations between the police and citizens after replacing its beleaguered police force with a county-run system that prioritizes community ties.

What’s really going on here under the surface is that the whole Democratic counter-offensive on the Republican racially-drenched law-and-order campaign that began in 1970 and reached critical mass in 1988 depended on a Big Blue Line of solidarity with police. Beginning in 1992, Democrats led by Bill Clinton argued for less of the lock-em-all-up mentality of the 1980s, but for more police officers deployed more intelligently.

The “deployed more intelligently” part got partially lost, just as the impure alliance between “community policing” and “broken windows policing” often meant the latter snuffing out the former.

To the extent that said impure alliance became identified with the Democratic approach to criminal justice policy, it has to be reconsidered right away. But Democrats would be dumb to reverse the dynamics too far by making their own police reform strategy boil down to fewer cops.
It’s still about how they are deployed, and what they do.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.