The militarization of police is beginning to make the US look like an active war zone against its own citizens. Police departments have proven to be unable to use military grade weapons responsibly. We’ve got untrained people with military grade weapons in a position of power that dehumanizes everyone else, and it’s both an immediate and a terrifying reality. -Tyler Simpson
Despite their expensive costuming, the police in Ferguson are putting on an unsophisticated, unscripted performance, a copy without an original. If these cops were to take a page out of the Army’s book on crowd control, it would be an improvement. But they seem to be making up tactics to go with the gear they’ve acquired.
It goes without saying that the American military is not benign or without defect. Its primary job—and the orientation of its training and equipping—is to defeat violent threats with superior firepower and maneuver. It an inherently violent mission. The military is an inherently violent institution.
It’s not that the police could simply do better with all this military gear if they were given more training on it or had improved protocols. Practically and ethically, the police just don’t need this equipment. It is not conducive to protecting and serving a civilian population that enjoys freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Recently in a small, sleepy North Carolina town of roughly 16,000 people, the Roanoke Rapids Police Department acquired some Humvees and Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles (or MRAPs). Roanoke Rapids got them free from the Pentagon, returned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Next door, in South Carolina, the Columbia Police Department also received a free MRAP from the Pentagon, which otherwise would have cost Columbia nearly $700,000. Their interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, justified the acquisition saying that the MRAP “will be a barrier between the public and a hostile person or situation such as a barricaded suspect with weapons who may be threatening someone’s life.” We are quickly redefining what a rational response to a security threat looks like.
The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which “provides or transfers surplus Department of Defense military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies without charge,” is a big part of this disturbing trend.
By passing off still-good equipment to America’s municipal police forces, it allows the defense industry to ask for more funding for more equipment.
Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent. Before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America. And do it now before Kankakee looks like Kabul or Boise looks like Baghdad.
What impact will this have on the future of US police militarization? It could be that the war on terrorism provides such strong justi- fication for the existence of PPUs that they may cut back on proactive functions, return- ing to their original status: reactive units that primarily train for the rare terrorist or hostage incident. While I would welcome this devel- opment, I think we will still be left with the problem of the regular police—operating in the context of a society that places a high level of emphasis on militarism — being increasingly seduced by the trappings of paramilitary subculture. Paramilitarism could exert even a stronger influence on what the regular police decide on for uniforms (e.g. military BDUs), how they think, the weaponry and technology they employ, the organizational models they adopt (e.g. COMPSTAT), and the crime control solutions they devise. The CP reform movement’s call for democratization may be increasingly drowned out by the drumbeats of high-technology militarization. Whatever trajectory the future takes, keep- ing track of the movement of civilian police on the militarization continuum, and the extent to which the military becomes more enmeshed in police functions, will be increasingly important for our understanding of ‘policing’ in contemporary society.
Police reforms must be systemic as this is not just a few bad apples, but a nationwide policing problem. The federal government has the power to ensure that military equipment is not used in routine policing situations, like drug searches or street patrols, but limited to truly dangerous situations, e.g. barricades, hostage situations or active shooters.
SWAT teams should never be deployed solely on the basis that there is probable cause that drugs are present. Drugs being present do not equate to violence and many abuses of SWAT teams have been the result of that mistaken assumption. SWAT teams are only appropriate if it can be demonstrated that ordinary police officers cannot safely execute a warrant.
Training programs that encourage a ‘warrior’ mindset should be avoided.
There needs to be transparency so the public knows how the police will be policing their community and a chance to participate in the decision making process. A bright light needs to be shined on the policies, practices and weaponry that are being used, there needs to be public oversight. This requires data collection on equipment received, where it is and how it is used. Right now there is no consistent record keeping.
Today, virtually every police department in the nation has one or more S.W.A.T. teams, the members of whom are often trained by and with United States special operations commandos. Furthermore, with the safety of their officers in mind, these departments now habitually deploy their S.W.A.T. teams for minor operations such as serving warrants.
The most serious consequence of the rapid militarization of American police forces, however, is the subtle evolution in the mentality of the “men in blue” from “peace officer” to soldier. This development is absolutely critical and represents a fundamental change in the nature of law enforcement. The primary mission of a police officer traditionally has been to “keep the peace.” Those whom an officer suspects to have committed a crime are treated as just that – suspects. Police officers are expected, under the rule of law, to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the “bad guys.” For domestic law enforcement, a suspect in custody remains innocent until proven guilty.
Soldiers, by contrast, are trained to identify people they encounter as belonging to one of two groups — the enemy and the non-enemy — and they often reach this decision while surrounded by a population that considers the soldier an occupying force. Once this identification is made, a soldier’s mission is stark and simple: kill the enemy.
The point here is not to suggest that police officers in the field should not take advantage of every tactic or piece of equipment that makes them safer as they carry out their often challenging and strenuous duties. Nor do I mean to suggest that a police officer, once trained in military tactics, will now seek to kill civilians. It is far too easy for Monday-morning quarterbacks to unfairly second-guess the way police officers perform their jobs while they are out on the streets waging what must, at times, feel like a war.
Americans should remain mindful bringing military-style training to domestic law enforcement has real consequences. When police officers are dressed like soldiers, armed like soldiers, and trained like soldiers, it’s not surprising that they are beginning to act like soldiers. And remember: a soldier’s main objective is to kill the enemy.
As a former Marine, I don’t think there is any danger of the police being “Militarized”. The similarities between the police force and the military exist only on the surface. As an infantry Marine, there is no beating around the bush that your primary job is to find and kill people who were going to be trying to kill us. The chain of command is more important than the ten commandments and anything less than instant willingness and obedience to orders is completely unacceptable. You are a small part in what is essentially a very large and complicated weapon.
As a police officer, you exist to protect and serve anyone who is not a police officer. Your use of force options are there only for worse case scenarios and if you didn’t try bullshitting your way out of a situation before you used force, you are perilously wrong. Out on the road, you are an individual that only operates as a unit when the situation calls for it. The chain of command is, for the most part administrative and loosely used.
Some ideas, concepts, and choices in gear do carry over simply because they are the most efficient way to react to a threat.
This is a teachable moment and an opportunity to advance the cause of transforming the police. Hundreds of thousands of Americans watched events unfold in Ferguson. They saw the police tear gassing a community in mourning, firing at them with rubber bullets and using sound canons to disperse them. They saw military-style police chase them into neighborhoods where they continued to fire tear gas and rubber bullets. They saw reporters abused and arrested as a SWAT team took over a McDonald’s where they were reporting from and other reporters attacked with tear gas and then the police dismantling the journalist’s equipment.
These events led to news outlets reporting on the actions of the police with even greater intensity. In response to the arrest of one of their reporters, Ryan Grim wrote an official Huffington Post statement about the journalist’s arrest which made a key point: “Police militarization has been among the most consequential and unnoticed developments of our time.” The police in Ferguson did an excellent job of drawing the nation’s attention to the reality of 21st Century policing and the need to dramatically change its direction.
Taking SWAT teams away from police may or may not curb abuse. The culture surrounding police (and national security) authority is what causes abuse. Look back to the Vietname era when the FBI was spying on civil rights activists, people took loyalty oaths, the National Guard killed college protestors. It can happen and it doesn’t need technology or MRAPs. It just takes the will to abuse. Right now, I think the will to abuse is much lower than it has been in the past 50 years.