When did Mayberry become a police state?

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Thomas R Machnitzki
Police SUV from Steel, Missouri. (Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki)

There was always something comforting about the old black and white cruisers that police drove around town when I was a kid.

I distinctly remember the words painted on the door – To Serve and Protect. And most of the time, you felt like that’s what police officers inside did.

Of course there was an ornery old cop in the small town of Turner that I had to drive through to get to and from high school each day who would pull you over for just about anything. But we weren’t afraid of him as much as we were of losing our gas money to one of his speeding tickets.

I didn’t grow up with a fear of the cops in my town. I respected them. And I counted on them.

The father of one of my best high school buddies was an Oregon State Trooper. There were few role models in my life I respected more than my dad and Sgt. Gary Chichester.

It was the same when I moved to Missoula, Montana. I covered several trials and got to know many of the police officers very well. A few of them liked my craft beer blog and told me so on their off days.

In Alaska, I got to know the State Troopers you are probably familiar with from the National Geographic show “Alaska State Troopers.” The cops in the towns I’ve lived in  we’re pretty normal. They drove Ford Crown Victorias or Chevy Caprices, they drank beers when the barbecued, and they they went to church on Sundays.

Some people complained that the cops wrote too many tickets or were heavy handed with citizens, but there wasn’t a blatant fear of them. They were members of the community, the same as we were.

In 2008, I covered a story about a police officer who had suffered from PTSD after serving two tours in Iraq. The need for police officers in many areas was being filled by military veterans. But it came with a price. Some of these cops didn’t see the difference between community policing and a theater of war.

Some of them were so damaged from their time of service, that they carried trigger fingers into situations that needed cooler heads.

When we moved to Palos Heights, a small town in the South West suburbs of Chicago, in 2012, I was initially surprised not to see any Ford Crown Victorias patrolling the 4.2 square miles of shear suburbanality.

Instead, I found that police in Palos were mostly driving these back SUVs with smoked glass and yellow lettering, if they had any lettering at all. Several are unmarked, and there is an uncanny resemblence to the old stories of unmarked black government vehicles that pick you up and whisk you away without warning.

It was all very dystopian for me, because the police presence didn’t instill confidence or safety, it actually instilled fear.

I know the police officers in Palos Heights to be good and helpful, but the show they make when they’re around town doesn’t scream to serve and protect, it screams police state.

It’s a far cry from the woefully inadequate equipment of the Chicago Police Department. It’s rare to see one of their white Crown Victorias with an intact paint job. Most are peeling to the point of obscuring the To Serve and Protect words painted on their doors.

I think police are an important part of society here in America. I have known many wonderful cops. I call many cops friends. I like their commitment to public safety, even if the jocularity tends to run towards authoritarian more often than not.

I always assumed it takes a certain personality to be a good cop.

I’m grateful that they put their lives on the line for us ordinary citizens selflessly. And I honor those who have died in the line of duty.

But I am troubled by the militarization of our police departments. I’m troubled that my kids won’t grow up with cops they can trust or turn to in times of trouble.

I’m afraid to call the police for any reason, because I don’t know what the response will be.

I don’t like that my little 4.2 square mile neighborhood is patrolled by big, black SUVs. I don’t like that police departments are buying tactical military equipment and outfitting their officers in riot gear.

I don’t like what happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

It reminds me too much of the police states I grew up next to. I remember visiting Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union as a child and being terrified of the secret police.

Maybe a I never had Mayberry or Andy Griffith, but the police were doing their jobs when a I was a kid. America was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the places I lived.

I think I would rather face the threats and violence of life and know that I have a community around me to pick help me pick up the pieces than to live in a police state where things are perceived to be safer and more sanitized.

In our deep fear of those who don’t look like us, or sound like us, or pray like us, we have traded away our freedoms for a faulty defense system.

The further we get from Mayberry, the more we have to rely on individuals for our protection. When you have a smaller number of people protecting you, you have to give up some of your rights to make it easier for them to police you. They will need high-tech equipment to monitor you, to keep you safe.

It’s a trade off, really. More community, fewer police. Less community, more police.

2 thoughts on “When did Mayberry become a police state?”

  1. The PHPD cracked the John Cappas drug case because of that they were allowed to have police officers join a group of law enforcement who patrolled(not sure that’s the right word) O’Hare Airport and made drug busts. They get a lot of money for this but it must be used for equipment so they all have cameras in and other stuff and big suv’s. At least that’s my understanding. But the are still regular, suburban policemen, they will look around the back yard if you hear noises. They direct traffic at the St. Spyridon’s during their festival. They smile when you say hello and recognize people. They hang out at the annual car show and chat with residents all in all decent policemen doing their jobs. So what does this say about the power of images?

    1. Oh, I know they’re regular guys, and I do appreciate them. I even understand how they got the nice equipment. I suppose I just wonder if they understand how those creepy SUVs look to young children. They don’t make them feel safer. Cops who visit your school or stop to talk to you about how life is going make them feel safer, and I’m sure they do that. But as you say, the power of images is a very real thing, especially as we have seen from Ferguson.

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