The Truth About Police Militarization

 

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri over the past few weeks have brought many issues to the forefront of the general public. Aside from the obvious elephant in the room—of which I have no plans to comment about at this time—the other major issue arising out of this mess seems to be that of the “militarization” of police departments in the US. It is on this issue which I feel compelled to opine, based on my education, personal knowledge, and experience. I view this issue from the prism of my own personal knowledge and experience, yet at the same time through the filter of my very Libertarian beliefs. I intend to examine this issue reasonably, objectively, intelligently, and from a historical perspective.

Chicago Riots, 1968

Chicago Riots, 1968

First A Little Perspective

To begin with, I think the term “militarization”, when referring to the modern police, is thrown about quite loosely by people who really don’t understand what that term even means. In light of the Ferguson events, I think that the criticism of “militarization” is largely due to a visceral reaction stemming from the visual of the tactics used by the police in response to the riots, looting, and civil unrest. The images of police “storm troopers”, standing in front of armored vehicles, in a Roman legion military formation, clad in camo uniforms, body armor, helmets, and shields, and armed with sticks and rifles, is mainly what is drawing this militarization criticism. Yet the important thing to remember here is that these specific tactics, and the visuals that they provide, are merely a special response to an extreme situation, i.e. riot and crowd control. These police responses and riot control tactics are not the normal day-to-day operation of ANY police department in the US, nor are they indicative of normal daily operations. They are a special response to a critical and extreme situation, and therefore should be regarded as such.

Quelling a violent riot is absolutely nothing like the daily duties of the average patrol officer responding to average calls for service. Even the average “priority” call of a crime in progress rarely requires a “militarized” or SWAT response. Controlling a large, unruly, and often violent mob of people is more akin to an ancient battlefield than it is to anything found on routine police patrol. This is why you see the use of massed police formations, similar to ancient Greek and Roman Phalanx tactics, to control hordes of violent rioters. These massed formations of officers and armored vehicles, while militaristic and intimidating in appearance, are purposefully intended to do just that. This blatant “show of force” is the only way to safely combat a violent mob of hundreds of out of control people, and to restore order. One officer standing on the corner blowing a whistle yelling “halt” just isn’t going to cut it. The bottom line is that a violent out of control mob is a potentially very dangerous situation, and requires special tactics to control it and to restore public order.

Although these tactics appear militant, aggressive and scary—which again they are intended to be—the use of non-lethal tactics during riot control are paramount and primary. The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bags, tasers, hand-to-hand combat, and other non-lethal tactics are intended only to disperse the mob and to regain order, not to intentionally harm or kill people. Often these non-lethal tactics are used at a greater risk to the officers themselves, especially if there are people in that mob that intend to fire live ammo at the police. Helmets, face shields, external body armor, and shields, despite their militant appearance, are all merely practical tools to protect the officers from rocks, debris, bottles of urine, Molotov Cocktails, and any other kinds of various ballistic objects which are typically thrown by the mob at the police.

What has been seen in Ferguson is also nothing new. The “militaristic” police response to the riots in Ferguson is hardly indicative of the “militarization” of modern police, because these same tactics have been used in riot control for decades. From the riots of the 1960s, to the current situation in Ferguson, police riot tactics have changed very little in 50 years. These riot control tactics are taught in every police academy in the country, as well as to correctional officers who work in jails or prisons, to be used to against riots and disturbances which may occur inside of a prison. And it is also not just the police in the US who use these tactics for controlling riots, it is pretty much any civilized country in the world who tries to regain order peacefully, without resorting to gunning down the crowd, as you saw during the 2009 Iranian Green protests.

"Militarized" Riot Training, Circa 1968

“Militarized” Riot Training, Circa 1968

Now the obvious criticism to this, is that these police responses are heavy handed and militaristic, and are intended to intimidate peaceful protests and silence peoples 1st Amendment right to peacefully assembly. First off, I am calling complete bullshit on this argument. You will find no one who supports and respects the constitution more than I do, and this argument is just plain idiotic. If in fact a protest is peaceful, civil, orderly, and non-violent, than you will not see the police using riot gear and riot tactics in order to stop it. Even if a protest becomes unruly or civilly disobedient, generally speaking there will not be a riot control response to stop it. For large events, whether it is a parade, concert, convention, or protest, you may see a large police presence, but it is usually just regular uniformed officers there for crowd control and public safety. Regular peaceful crowd control is not riot control. In a post 9/11 world there also may be instances of heavily armed or “militarized” SWAT officers used for public safety at large events (a good example of this is New Year’s Eve in Times Square or the Boston Marathon), but these are special examples, and the officers are not there to intimidate or stop people from having a good time. They are merely a prudent response to real and credible threats.

The situation in Ferguson seems to have calmed a bit for now, but in the early days no one can reasonably argue that those protests were peaceful and non-violent. I think the gunfire, injured officers, arrests, vandalism, and looting make this point rather clear. Therefore, you saw a police response ready to stop a riot, not a police response for peaceful crowd control.

Can there be criticism and critique of the police response to the Ferguson riots, of course, as there should be. Could things have been handled slightly differently, and were there mistakes that were made, certainly. Any major or critical first responder incident requires an after action review, to assess, improve, or change how the response was handled. I have no issue with critique whatsoever. What I do disagree with, is that the riot control tactics are somehow indicative of gross police “militarization”. Riot control tactics are just that, meant for dispersing a violent riot and regaining public order as quickly and as safely as possible. If there is not a riot in your neighborhood, than I highly doubt that you will see hundreds of police “storm troopers” marching down your street with armored vehicles. If that were to happen, I would be the first to denounce it. “Militarized” riot response is not normal daily operation for any police department.

A Brief History Of US Policing

Before I move on with the rest of my points, a little history lesson is in order first.

By most historical accounts, the London Metropolitan Police Service in Britain was the first modern professional police force in history, established in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. This is where the term “Bobbies” came from. The establishment of this professional police department was intended to replace the disorganized volunteer night watchmen and locally paid constables with a professional corps of full-time police officers. Sir Robert Peel is widely regarded as the father of modern policing because of the principles on which he founded the department. He created the concept of policing by the consent of the public, rather than fear, and he understood that public support and trust in his organization was paramount to its success. His “Peelian Principles of Policing” are still absolutely relevant today, and are the cornerstone to modern policing. Sir Robert Peel wanted there to be a clear distinction among the populace that his police were a civilian organization, and not an extension of the military. He therefore dressed his officers in blue uniforms, as a stark contrast to red uniforms of the British Army at that time.

Policing in the US was heavily influenced by the British model at the time. Although most major US cities had various informal volunteer watchmen and constable organizations by the early 1800s, the Boston Police Department is generally considered to be the first professional police department established in the US in 1838. Other large US cities, including New York and Chicago, soon followed Boston, with the creation of their own professional police departments. By the late 1800s, most large cities in the US had a professional police force. The industrial revolution played a large role in the need for these departments, because as the urbanization and populations of cities increased, so did the crime and unrest. Like in Britain, these departments were established as professional civilian agencies, and not as extensions of the military. However, unlike in Britain, most US police departments incorporated a paramilitary organizational, administrative, and rank structure.

However, despite establishing and administrating these police departments with guiding principles and policies, early policing in the 1800s was notoriously corrupt, politically influenced, and often heavy handed. By the latter half of the 1800s, the police in large US cities were commonly used as strike breakers, and were often wielded by the power elite as tools of oppression against their enemies, lower classes, and against new waves of immigrants. There was also little to no standards for the hiring and training of police officers during this time, which also contributed to the corruption. To make matters worse, very little case law, precedent, or guidelines existed governing the conduct of police operations or the use of force, which was again was a recipe for corruption.

During the latter half of the 1800s, police departments also began to incorporate various new technologies and techniques into their daily operations, such as wagons, horse patrols, and police call boxes. It was also around this time that police officers routinely began to carry firearms, in addition to their traditional nightsticks. Initially, city police officers were forced to provide their own firearms, as was common with rural or western sheriff’s departments of the day, and there was little to no standardization, training, or policy governing their use. In 1896 however, the New York Police Department, under Commissioner and future president Teddy Roosevelt, became the first US police department to standardize and issue firearms (Colt revolvers), to their officers. By the turn of the century and early 1900s, most police departments in the US had standard issue firearms and training for their officers.

The early 20th Century and Prohibition Era, 1919-1933, saw great changes to policing in the United States. During this time, corruption, political influence, and unprofessionalism were still very rampant in most major US city police departments. The enacting of Prohibition led to a massive increase in organized crime, which contributed greatly to the corruption, bribery, and political influence of police departments and officers. Prohibition also led to an increase in general crime rates throughout major cities. However, there were also some positive changes that came out of this era as well. Calls by the public for police reform, and investigations on police corruption, during this time were growing. This led to the creation of many different investigative commissions on police policy and corruption, most notably the Wickersham Commission in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover. There was also a growing movement within large police departments to clean up their own ranks as well.

These commissions and calls for reform led to many positive changes in US policing during the 1920s to 1950s. These changes included: forcing out partisan politics, higher standards for the hiring and training of new officers, incorporating new technology into policing, improving the command and administration of police departments, merit based promotional processes, higher standards of ethics and accountability, specialized units for crime fighting, and the equal enforcement of laws. Although these commissions and reforms moved police departments in the right direction, they were still far from perfect.

The 1920s to 1950s also saw a huge increase in new technology being incorporated into police work. From finger printing, photography, and improved forensic investigation, to the widespread use of automobiles, telephones, and radios, police departments were modernizing and embracing new technology. Police departments were also increasing the amount of firearms that they had available as well, in order to combat heavily armed organized crime gangs. These additional heavy weapons included things like basic shotguns, but also military weapons like BARs, and the legendary Thompson submachine gun as well.

"Militarized" Police And Their Military Automatic Weapons, Circa 1920

“Militarized” Police And Their Military Automatic Weapons, Circa 1920

The early 1900s and Prohibition Era also saw a sharp rise in the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. The end of Prohibition, and the period during WWII, saw a slight decrease in the number of law enforcement line of duty deaths, but following the war those numbers began to rise again sharply.

During the post-war years the trend of improving police professionalism, accountability, and ending corruption continued. Perhaps the most well-known authority on police reform and professionalism during this time was Orlando Wilson, who served as the Commissioner of the Chicago Police Department from 1960-1967. Wilson, who had served in the Army during WWII, based many of his reforms around increasing military style organization and discipline. He also believed in a more centralized command of the police department, closer supervision of officers, the increase in vehicle patrols, and an emphasis on “crime control” and pro-active policing. Wilson also raised the hiring standards, increased the racial diversity, and instituted a non-partisan oversight board. Wilson’s reforms, as described in his book “Police Administration”, became the gold standard of police professionalism and reform during this time. Were these reforms perfect and without unintended consequences, of course not, but again they were a step in the right direction. Perhaps the biggest unintended consequence of centralizing police command and bureaucracy, which was intended to isolate it from the earlier decades of politically influenced corruption, was that it made police departments powerful institutions unto themselves, often isolated from the public.

The Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and early 70s was a volatile and tumultuous time for the police in the US. Although the general trend of police professionalism was an improvement from past decades, there was still much left to be desired. Police brutality, racism, and corruption were common criticisms, as well as criticism that the police were isolated and out of touch with their communities. Police were often seen as the causes of tension, especially in minority communities, instead of as being the peace keepers. As protests, marches, riots, and unrest were common during this time, so too was the legitimate criticism of the various police responses to them. Police across the country were frequently used to intimidate the Civil Rights movement, a fact which will forever be a stain on US policing.

With these criticisms of the police, again came calls for additional reforms and improvements. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized a commission to comprehensively investigate the police and the criminal justice system in the US, and to suggest reforms to improve them. Many of the reforms suggested by the commission were similar to the earlier reforms of the 1920s, but also advocated for higher standards of police hiring, training, and the increased racial diversity of police departments. The progressive reforms under President Johnson also led to more Federal oversight of local law enforcement agencies, as well as the availability of Federal grant money for local departments. The first major legislation of this reform movement was the Omnibus Crime Control and safe Streets Act of 1968.

The unrest of the late 1960s also led to the creation of the first SWAT units in many large city departments, with the LAPD generally getting the credit for the first official SWAT unit in 1967. Along with the creation of special tactical units, many large city and state departments also began to incorporate the use of helicopters into their departments as well. It was also during this time that departments very slowly began transitioning from their standard issue police revolver side arm, to newer semi-automatic handguns. The Illinois State Police may have been the first large department in the country to make this transition in 1967, when they switched to the new S&W 39 semi-auto 9mm handgun. The national transition however was a rather slow one, over the course of several decades, before the more modern semi-automatic handguns replaced revolvers as the standard police side arm nationwide.

During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, police professionalism, diversity, and higher standards continued its trend of improvement. Departments also began transitioning from the “crime control” models of law enforcement, to more “community policing” oriented models, designed to rebuild ties with the community, address social problems, build community outreach, and decrease police isolation. Many police departments also began to become less centralized administratively, choosing instead to spread command among smaller districts, incorporate more political and civilian oversight committees, and become more transparent and accountable to the community. Each new decade also brought with it technological advances as well, such as computers, camera systems, and advances in forensic sciences, which were also incorporated into policing.

The 1960s and early 1970s also saw an alarming rise in the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, but by the late 1970s on into the 80s and 90s, this trend began to decrease, with law enforcement line of duty deaths generally on a downward trend. This is in large part due to the increase in police training, as well as the incorporation and regular use of police body armor. Police training academies in the 1970s were often no longer than a few weeks, but by the 1990s the average police academy was 6 months long, with often an additional several months of field training tacked on after it.

Were these decades of policing perfect, again of course not, but they were a far cry from where policing had come from. Yet with each new decade, there also came new challenges and issues to overcome. The 80s and 90s brought with them the crack epidemic, the war on drugs, and the increase in gang violence, issues that I will address later in this paper.

Modernization or Militarization

First off, I think that these two terms, while not at all synonymous, are often confused. As we examine the modern era of policing in the US, it is important to remember this distinction.

Policing in the US, even from its inception, has never been without criticism and controversy. The history of policing and police relations in the US has always been a contentious one. This is nothing new, but people tend to forget that. All too often people make the mistake of analyzing present day issues while confined in the box of their own time. They fail to look at the historical context, or big picture. This seems to be especially true in the current criticism of police in the US.

From the establishment of the first police departments in the 1800s, to the present day, law enforcement in the US has been on a steady trend of increasing professionalism, accountability, and public trust, while at the same time trying to eliminate corruption. It has not been the other way around. This is not opinion, this is historic fact. Have there been bumps, setbacks, and atrocities along the way, absolutely, however the overall historic trend has been that of improving professionalism and accountability. Sometimes policies of reform had unintended consequences, but the path has generally been in the right direction.

I did not spend all this time laying out the history of US policing to disparage the police, but rather as a source of historical context. As the Peelian Principles state, the police should derive their authority from the consent of the public, and therefore it is fair that the public is allowed to criticize and analyze the police. However, this analysis should also consider the big picture historical context. This historical context is in no way meant to excuse or downplay modern examples of police wrong doing, but merely to act as a measuring rod before making gross generalizations.

The fact is that police today are the most professional, ethical, accountable, and well trained that they have ever been in history. Police officers today are also the most educated that they have ever been in history, with many holding 2 year degrees, and an ever growing number holding 4 year or graduate degrees. Police department administration has become more transparent, not less, with more civilian, non-profit, and elected political oversight than ever before. What was once seen as a contributor to police corruption, political involvement, is now generally seen as an oversight. Police chiefs are accountable to elected city officials, and county sheriffs are elected by the people in a general election. Police department policies today are written with greater accountability and oversight in mind. Greater statistical analysis is also tracked, in order to provide accountability as well. The news media today also holds the police accountable more than ever before, as does the average citizen with a cell phone camera. Most police departments have also incorporated modern technology, such as in-car cameras, audio recording, and GPS, to further improve accountability. Is this to say that mistakes or abuses don’t happen, or that the current system is perfect, of course not, but to think that there is a systemic problem with police accountability in the US is absurd. If and when abuses do occur, they are not given a blind eye by the public or by the media, nor are they tolerated. Again, view the modern police through the context of history.

On to my second point, is the use of new technology considered militarization. The use of new technology has historically always been incorporated into the field of law enforcement. Not only is this prudent, it is common sense. With any organization that spans decades and even centuries, it is only natural that the organization will change and adapt with the times. From automobiles, to radios, to computers, police departments have always kept up with the latest technology of the day.

So, does police uniforms and personal equipment evolving with the times indicate militarization? Does the use of body armor for officer survival indicate militarization? Does an increase in training in tactics, survival, and combat skills indicate militarization? Does the use of police vehicles indicate militarization? Does the use of helicopters indicate militarization? Does the use of newer weapons indicate militarization? Does the creation of tactical units indicate militarization?

As I said before, police have always adapted their technology with the times and situations that they were dealing with. In the 1920s, police automobiles became more prevalent because the organized crime and mafia gangs were using them. Police firepower increased as well during that time, in order to deal with the increased level of violence being perpetrated by the organized crime gangs. Yet it was not just the technology of guns, cars, and equipment that police departments incorporated,it was also the science of forensics, identification, investigation, and communications.

The “increase” (I say that sarcastically) in police firepower is one of the most prevalent arguments cited in the “militarization” of police claim. This claim is completely ridiculous however, and devoid of any historical context. For over 100 years, law enforcement officers have always had access to modern or military weapons as a counter to the criminal threats that they faced. Whether it was the modern revolvers of the day, or the slow transition to modern semi-autos, police have carried modern side arms. Police have also historically carried various types of shotguns over the years. I hear the argument about modern police carrying military style AR15 rifles as somehow indicative of militarization, but again this claim is completely devoid of historical context. The police have always carried, or had access to, rifles and long guns. From the days of the western sheriff or marshal with a lever action rifle or cavalry carbine, to the prohibition era lawman with a BAR or Tommy gun, to the latter half of the century when police were equipped with M1 Garands, M14s, Mini 14s, and eventually AR15s, police have carried or had access to military rifles. This is nothing new, and it is not some alarming new trend. Many violent encounters in the modern era, most notably the 1986 FBI Miami shootout and the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, have illustrated the practical need for police rifles, and not just for SWAT units. The growing trend of school and active shooter situations, coming to a boil in the late 1990s, is also illustrative of this need. These weapons are not tools of oppression by a “militarized” police force, but rather practical tools based on real potential threats.

Police With A Rifle, Circa 1960

Police With A Rifle, Circa 1960

The use of armored vehicles is also often criticized as an indication of the “militarization” of police, but this too is ignorant of reality and history. Since as early as the 1920s, many major police departments all across the US have experimented with armored vehicles, or “up armored” improvised vehicles. This desire for ballistic protection on vehicles did not stem from any desire to militarily oppress the public, but rather as a tactical counter to the real life violent threats faced by the officers. The same exact same principle still holds true today. Police armored vehicles, whether an MRAP or a BearCat, are primarily used only by SWAT units, and are generally only for high risk situations. These vehicles provide moving ballistic cover and protection during potentially violent situations, and can be used to transport officers safely under fire, or to evacuate the wounded (cop or civilian) under fire. During the North Hollywood shootout, an armored money truck had to be borrowed to evacuate the critically wounded under fire, because a police armored vehicle was not readily available. These armored vehicles are not used for routine patrol, or for normal police operations. They are used for special circumstances and operations, and as I said above, possibly for violent riot control. Again, this criticism of armored vehicles is completely devoid of any historical context. Police were using armored vehicles long before the MRAP was ever invented.

Armored Police Van, Circa 1960

Armored Police Van, Circa 1960

Another common criticism I hear is that new police uniforms now make the police indistinguishable from soldiers. This claim is also rather ridiculous, because the majority of police officers on regular patrol duty still wear what could be considered a traditional police uniform. Granted, the uniforms and equipment may have evolved slightly with the times over the years, leather may have been replaced with nylon and plastic in some cases, but the average police uniform still looks like a police uniform. In fact, to the average officer who still has to wear these traditional uniforms, most would actually consider them to be rather outdated. The dress shirts, dress pants, leather belts, and pinned on badges are not exactly practical for the realities of modern policing. Most officers would prefer a slightly more practical and tactical uniform for patrol, not because they are trying to look like soldiers, but simply for ergonomic, practical, and health reasons (traditional police belts have been shown to cause lumbar back pain issues in the long term, therefore many officers would prefer a load bearing vest instead). The so-called “soldier” uniforms that draw this criticism are mainly only worn by SWAT units, or during very extreme and uncommon situations, like riots or active shooter situations.

This Uniform Is Still Practical Right?

This Uniform Is Still Practical Right?

Pretty much any “militarized” tool that police may have, from helicopters, to ballistic helmets, to gas masks, to night vision, has real world practical law enforcement applications that don’t involve oppressing the public in a Gestapo-esque manner.

Perhaps the biggest recent claim of police “militarization” stems from local police departments acquiring surplus military hardware, most notably surplus armored vehicles, (such as MRAPs left over from the Iraq War) and surplus rifles, from the Federal government. The Federal program which is largely responsible for making this happen, The National Defense Authorization Act section 1208 and 1033, has been in place since 1990, yet is just recently being criticized. Yes, this program corresponds to the “War on Drugs” as well as the “War on Terrorism” (which I will get to later), but it does not change the fact that police departments have real world practical applications for some of this equipment, that does not involve the police oppression of the public. Where a police department purchases or acquires this equipment from, whether direct from the manufacturer, a store, a Federal grant, a private donation, or from Federal surplus, is rather irrelevant if there is a legitimate need for the hardware. By acquiring these items through Federal surplus, all it is really doing is saving departments money or allowing smaller departments an opportunity to acquire them. And although this program sounds scary and “militarized”, in reality the majority of surplus items tend to be rather benign and boring, such as radios, computers, and office equipment.

Us Versus Them

Another often widely touted criticism of the police in general, and one that is often used as evidence to support the claim that the police are a “militarized occupation force” instead of community peace keepers and public servants, is that the police have an “us versus them” mentality. I am not going to spend a lot of time explaining this one, because quite frankly, if a person has never served than they just won’t understand no matter what I say. That, and many men far better than I have already covered this topic far better than I ever could.

I will start by once again pointing out that the history of policing and police relations in the US has always been a contentious one. This is not just some new 21st century observation. Any person, who somehow thinks that police/public relations were once nothing but rainbows and lollipops, is either looking through nostalgia goggles or is completely naïve. The fact is that this was never the case, except perhaps in a Norman Rockwell painting. There has always been a degree of tension, or at the very least strain, between the police and the public. The very nature of policing, law enforcement, and authority, no matter how much community outreach, will always lead to this strain. Even when police are professional, ethical, and in good standing with the community, they still represent authority and limitations on the public. Even something as simple as directing traffic, and ordering a motorist to stop and wait when they are in a hurry, reflects this authority, limitation, and strain.

It is also true that many police officers do have a warrior mentality, which is often looked down upon by many critics as a sign of police “militarization” and an “us versus them” mentality, but what is often ignored by these critics is the character and intent behind that mindset. I am not even going to try and replicate the genius behind the words of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his famous essay “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs”, suffice it to say that he is spot on. Yes, many police officers do have a warrior spirit, and yes, many military veterans naturally transition to police work following their military careers, but this is not indicative of the “militarization” of police. It is merely an indication of the kind of people who are drawn to law enforcement, and it is also exactly the kind of people that law enforcement needs to be successful. These are the people who “long for the fight with the wolf”. Fighting very bad people takes a certain kind of strength and character, and that character is often one that can appear rough, scary, and off-putting to the average person. The difference is, as Col. Grossman puts it, that the criminal is devoid of morality, ethics, and conscience, while the warrior is grounded in morality, justice, and the desire to defend the weak. In today’s modern soft culture, a warrior ethos is frowned upon as dated and barbaric, yet all it really means is a core belief in honor, courage, integrity, and compassion, all qualities that a good police officer should have.

Are there bad police officers, bullies, or people who become police officers for the wrong reason, yes absolutely, and you will never hear me defend those officers. If and when situations of abuse arise, they should be properly dealt with. But again, this should be viewed through the context of history, as well as percentages. How many officers are decent honorable people, has the quality of officer been improving over the years, and have systemic problems been moving in the right directions.

I will never say that the situation between the police and the public is perfect, or that there is never room from improvement on the part of the police, but I also know that this is a two-way-street. If there is a rift on the part of the police, than a part of that is due to the public’s support and attitude towards them. This is not to take away from the police’s role in building this relationship, but merely to say that like any relationship, it is a two-way-street. The police draw their authority from the consent of the public, and therefore should represent and support the public’s attitudes and values, the majority of who desire a civil peaceful society regardless of their feelings towards the police. Conflict and tension can arise when certain segments of the public’s values no longer reflect those that the police seek to maintain, or worse yet, are in direct opposition to them. To be successful, the police require the support and confidence of the public, which they should always strive to maintain, but the public too should be respectful and appreciative of the police. If there comes a time when the overwhelming attitude of the public towards the police is that of contempt and depreciation, than many good officers will quit, leaving only a lower caliber of officer behind. There is also a certain percentage of people who will outright hate and fault the police no matter what the police do, or how professional they are.

What is True Militarization

I find it laughable and hypocritical that some of the most vocal anti-police critics, are the very same far-left progressives that support more government control, more laws, more regulations, and more centralization of government power. The very same people that are bitching about our current “police state” are the same ones voting to empower it through progressivism. The far-right anti-police people are just as bad, because their anti-government anger is grossly misplaced. The law enforcement community is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionally patriotic, and I stand by the claim that the average cop has more respect for the constitution than the average politician. Most officers do not want the progressive centralized statist utopia that so many progressives dream of, yet at the same time they also understand the need for the police in a civil society. In the end, people get the government that they deserve and vote for. To steal a line from the film “End of Watch”, “I did not write the law. I may even disagree with the law, but I will enforce it”. If the critics of the police have a problem with the laws which the police must enforce, than quit voting for the progressive morons (on both sides) who continue to pass more laws and regulations which limit individual liberty and empower the state.

So then what is true police militarization? Simple, it is the centralization of power. Now I don’t mean centralization in the terms of an individual police department’s organizational and administrative structure, for example running a department through a centralized chain of command, what I am referring to is centralization in terms of centralizing and consolidating the power of the state (in a national sense of the word). This could include the consolidation and centralization of law enforcement power and authority within fewer, more powerful, agencies, or it could also include the establishment of a nationalized police force or direct Federal control. A free society’s check on law enforcement power is the division of law enforcement authority between various state, county, and city agencies. This is not an example of greater government bureaucracy, rather quite the opposite, it is a system of checks and balances. Much the same way that the government (in theory) is divided into 3 co-equal branches of power, police authority should be divided as well. As the saying goes, power divided is power checked.

A police chief and department are accountable to elected city officials. A country sheriff is generally elected by the people, and often holds certain oversight over law enforcement agencies within that county. Depending on the state constitution, there are also measures in place to hold a sheriff accountable as well. Finally, state law enforcement agencies are generally overseen by appointed officials chosen by the elected governor of the state, and state attorney generals usually have oversight over all law enforcement agencies as well. As we have seen in Ferguson, the Governor of Missouri Jay Nixon has placed the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge of the situation, as a means of calming the tensions. Whether you agree with his decision or not, this is an example of how checks and balances and police oversight should work. An all-powerful centralized state and law enforcement authority do not allow for this, and that is the definition of true “militarization”.

This is not to say that local departments can’t merge to form larger metro type agencies, especially if there is a budgetary benefit to doing so. But I would be wary of the formation of very large regional, state, or national agencies, at the cost of dissolving smaller ones. The expansion and centralization of Federal law enforcement and power is also something to be wary about, but I have already written about this topic at length. This is not to say that there is not a need for certain, limited, Federal law enforcement agencies, but we have now reached a point of bloated centralized bureaucratic power to where every single Federal department and agency has a law enforcement and investigative branch. Even the Federal Department of Cuddly Puppies has a SWAT team.

Now didn’t I just say that law enforcement authority should be divided, so what is the problem with many various different Federal law enforcement departments? The difference is, that on a state and local level, the hundreds of different departments are controlled by hundreds of different local governments, whereas on a Federal level, the hundreds of different departments are still controlled by the all-powerful centralized Federal government. Get it?

Problems That I Do See On A Local Level

This is where I may lose some people, but again I am guided by my Libertarian values, and I want to be objective.

I do feel, as many critics have pointed out recently, that the use of SWAT raids tends to be overused. This is in large part due to the overly aggressive nature of the failed war on drugs. This topic in and of itself is an essay all its own, but it is clear that the drug laws and enforcement in this country need to be seriously re-examined. The desire of local police agencies to aggressively enforce drug laws, and to clamp down on drug suppliers and distributors, is probably the single most contributor to criticisms about police aggressiveness and “militarization”. Whether right or wrong, public opinion is a powerful factor, and police should strive to maintain their community’s confidence. The desire for aggressive drug enforcement is also the single most likely cause for constitutional or civil rights violations claims, as well as establishing new case law precedent. The fact remains, that without intelligent drug laws and serious enforcement of the national borders, the war on drugs will forever be a losing battle. Just trying to make a dent on the local level is rather futile, and often not worth the cost to public opinion. I also know from reliable sources, that even on the large-scale international interdiction level, we are barely making a dent. It is like trying to stop the Titanic from sinking with an eyedropper.

Along with the overly aggressive nature of drug enforcement, there are also issues of overly aggressive surveillance, spying, privacy, and 4th Amendment violations. We may not be able to stop our overly powerful centralized Federal government agencies from illegally spying, but on the local level we should strive to set the example.

There still is an absolute necessity for SWAT type units and raids. These usually involve high risk warrant services or other extreme circumstances, and as I have said, there is also a need for SWAT type equipment. Yet I personally feel that the easing of aggressive drug enforcement would go a long way towards building community support and a “de-militarized” image, at least until such time when this country becomes serious about re-examining its drug laws and enforcing its borders. I also feel that these resources could be better spent aggressively enforcing other areas of violent crime.

If you read nothing else in this section, read this! I am not at all soft on crime. I despise criminals and those who prey on the weak. Nor I am or am I saying that drug enforcement should be ignored completely. What I am saying however, is that drug enforcement should be conducted intelligently, and with regard towards public perception, and also a cost benefit analysis of such. The question should be: is what we hope to achieve worth the potential price, or can our resources be better utilized elsewhere.

Conclusion

If you made it this far, than I am not going to rehash all that I just wrote. All I can say is that I tried to present this topic intelligently, objectively, factually, and through the context of history. You may agree with me, or you may disagree, but I have tried my best to lay out the facts in an objective manner and to opine on them intelligently.

Policing is far from perfect, but it has come a very long way from its inception. The overall historic trend has been that of increasing professionalism, oversight, and accountability towards law enforcement, not the other way around. The police in the US are not some kind of oppressive militaristic tool as some would have you believe. Most of the common claims of “militarization” that get thrown around, can be debunked with facts, logic, and historical context.

Divided power, and a system of checks and balances, both in government and law enforcement, is the greatest protection against “militarization”. Police militarization is a real possibility in this country, but it is not likely to come from city hall. The very same progressives who are crying about this issue, are the ones working and voting every day for more centralized statist power. That my friends, is the real militarization and police state.

© 2014 by AB Nihilist, All Rights Reserved

 

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