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The Militarization of Police in America: Fact or Fiction?

Here are nine reasons why accusations of militarism are wholly over-stated and essentially untrue.

The “issue” of the “militarization of police” has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation in the past year. Critics alleging the militarization of American police lament the acquisition of surplus military equipment, such as armored transports; military-type apparel; police training with military units and the former’s adoption of military tactics, such as dynamic entry, bounding overwatch and fire and movement; the proliferation and over-use of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams; and intrusive tactics, such as no-knock search warrants and residence entries. 

Critics offer the following as evidence: SWAT team gear and training; photographs of a federal agent dressed in a vest and helmet and carrying an “assault rifle,” seizing the hapless Elion Gonzalez to facilitate his return to Cuba; police in riot gear confronting looters in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore; and police responding to active shooters. Critics lament that American police officers have abandoned the Norman Rockwell image of the friendly cop on the beat and have become instead, by virtue of their uniforms, training and equipment, oppressive instruments of government authority and, according to some, an occupying force.

Obviously, the police tactics and equipment used by officers today is in response to current threats, and threats faced today by American law enforcement are different and have become more dangerous and challenging in the past decade. Terrorism, both home-grown and foreign-based, unprovoked assassinations of police officers, and increasingly dangerous criminals have shaped and continue to shape the evolution of law enforcement. Nevertheless, accusations of militarism are wholly over-stated and essentially untrue for the following reasons.

1. Criticisms lack perspective.
There are more than 900,000 sworn police officers in the United States. If the average officer has 10 contacts with citizens during the average work day, he or she will deal with 2,500 citizens every year. Continuing with this simplistic example, U.S. police officers will have millions of contacts with citizens every day and more than 22 billion contacts with civilians every year. Furthermore, with the proliferation of cell phones and recent Supreme Court decisions protecting the filming of police (as long as they don’t interfere with on-going police operations), officers are being filmed and coming under more scrutiny than ever before. In short, recent highly publicized alleged or actual instances of police misconduct constitute an infinitesimally small percentage of positive daily contacts made by law enforcement officers.

2. Officers are highly trained.
The focus on police appearances and equipment misses the significant and required periodic training officers receive in conflict de-escalation (verbal judo), legal rights and prohibitions of police authority and sensitivity training (cultural diversity). In light of emerging social issues and cultural dynamics, officers today receive significantly more training on dealing with the mentally challenged, trauma-informed responses to sexual assault, dealing with disabilities, freedom of speech and more. Law enforcement has emphasized the “serve” side of the “protect and serve” equation. The challenge for law enforcement administrators is making community members aware of this orientation.

3. Police equipment is available to the general public.
Most equipment possessed by police can be purchased by citizens. Ballistic vests, handguns, extended capacity magazines, semi-automatic patrol rifles, batons and pepper spray are available to citizens with few exceptions. 

4. Threats Are More Dangerous, Militarized.
Closely associated with No. 3 is the fact that the threat faced by officers is more dangerous than ever before. It’s amazing what can be purchased online. In Eustace, Fla., for instance, officers were attacked with a grenade launcher. There are many documented instances of “bad guys” wearing vests that can stop rounds from officers’ handguns and shotguns. If engaged by an assailant wearing a vest, officers with handguns are left with head shots (which is not a politically satisfying option) to stop the threat. The only other weapon available to officers is the patrol rifle, and not all departments issue patrol rifles to all patrol officers.

Not only do law-breaking assailants have access to dangerous weapons and body armor, they also have tactical training gained in the military or via realistic gaming and simulation programs available to anyone with a computer. Why should law enforcement not have tools and equipment at least as potent as those we may face on the street?

5. Who’s copying whom?
Often, military tactics were developed by the police. Many military tactics, such as dynamic entry, were actually developed as police tactics. The reason they are thought to be military is due to embedded media who were with military when they observed these tactics. There are military tactics, such as bounding overwatch and fire and movement, used by officers to protect themselves when under imminent or actual fire. Again, in light of the increasingly dangerous threat faced by officers, why shouldn’t they use tactics that maximize safety and effectiveness in a dangerous profession?

6. Rifles are much more accurate than shotguns.
Critics decry the use of so-called assault weapons by police. Already noted is the fact that while rifles carried by the military have a fully automatic function, the vast majority of patrol rifles carried by law enforcement officers are semi-automatic, meaning there’s one shot per trigger squeeze. The use of patrol rifles both enhances officer survival and limits collateral damage to innocent civilians. Patrol rifles have much greater range and are much more accurate than handguns and shotguns. Their rounds will penetrate a vest worn by an assailant, a crucial consideration since more assailants than ever before are protecting themselves with ballistic armor. Enhanced range and accuracy allow an officer to engage a threat at a greater distance and maximizes cover available to an officer. Many departments still deploy shotguns with 00 buckshot. The dispersion of shotgun loads beyond 50 yards puts innocent citizens in the immediate area at risk. Even departments using slugs in their shotguns are severely limited by range and accuracy, decreasing their utility and officer safety.

7. Not all military equipment used by law enforcement is inherently lethal.
Much of the “militaristic” tools used by police, even the high-profile armored personnel carriers (MRAPS) and similar civilian equipment, are not inherently lethal. In many instances, this equipment has helped police maintain order while keeping officers safe. As was the case in the San Bernardino shooting last December, armored vehicles got officers closer to the threat when they were under fire. Such vehicles can also provide cover and be used to evacuate civilian hostages or victims safely.

8. Uniforms may serve as a deterrent.
Uniforms in most professions have changed over the last 100 years to provide better functionality and comfort. Why shouldn’t police uniforms change as well?

Long gone are the days where officers carried a pistol, handcuffs and a baton. Now officers carry a pistol, several magazines loaded with 10-20 bullets each, pepper spray, a baton, handcuffs (usually two pairs), a Taser, flashlight, gloves, tourniquet and trauma response equipment, a radio, possibly a body-worn video camera, etc. A fully loaded duty belt can weigh up to 20 lbs.

Problems with bad backs and other injuries result from the long-term wearing of heavy duty belts. Injuries resulting in light duty reduce manpower, endangering officer safety and increase departmental costs, something opposed by most communities. These problems constitute a valid reason why many departments have moved toward outer vest carriers, which distribute the weight of duty belt gear higher up on an officer’s torso. Outer vest carriers are also worn by the military. However, the reason law enforcement has gravitated to this equipment is not a desire to emulate the military; rather it is a recognition that vest carriers are an appropriate response to a common health problem experienced by cops. 

Finally, what officers wear can influence perceptions of citizens. Potential offenders are less likely to fight with an officer wearing a campaign (i.e., drill instructor) hat. Outer vest carriers likely have the same deterrent effect. Is there anything wrong with encouraging respect toward officers and deterring violence against them?

Finally, the militarization of some American law enforcement uniforms pales in comparison to uniforms in many European democracies where officers carry fully automatic carbines on patrol and wear fatigues.

9. The counterproductive consequences of taking needed equipment from law enforcement are real.
If tools needed by officers to do their jobs are taken from law enforcement officers, it will threaten their safety and morale, reduce their ability to combat crimes in progress and ultimately negatively impact the effectiveness of law enforcement itself.

When local law enforcement fails, the National Guard is called in. Clearly, use of the Guard is the ultimate in militarization of local law enforcement, and the Guard lacks the community outreach training, orientation and capabilities of local law enforcement agencies.

‘Militarization’ Is a Non-Issue
The issue of “militarization” is really a non-issue that has resulted from lack of information and explanation from law enforcement agencies and emotional reactions driven, in part, by political agenda.

That said, there are still many things law enforcement leaders can do to address and manage public perceptions. Increased community outreach and explanation to community groups and the media of why we do what we do and how we do it would be a good start. Improving officer training (e.g., verbal judo and other de-escalation techniques, conducting command post training that anticipates emergency situations), thoroughly documenting officer actions and holding officers to high standards would also be helpful.

Ultimately, law enforcement cannot be separated in fact or perception from the communities it serves. The key is to recognize that even when law enforcement and military personnel use similar equipment and tactics (i.e., means), one should not conclude their ends are similar. The military is composed of warriors. Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, are guardians. There is a difference.

Although criticisms of militarization are not valid, the criticisms must still be addressed effectively by law enforcement leaders as an essential goal of re-establishing confidence and good will with those we are sworn to protect and serve.

Lt. John Weinstein is the commander of Northern Virginia Community College Public Safety District 3. He is certified by Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services as a firearms instructor and is his department’s lead firearms instructor. He also conducts firearms training at two local police academies.