On Police "Militarization" Part 1

Discussion about the militarization of law enforcement is everywhere right now after the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. It can be a contentious topic.

On my Facebook page I posted a link to an ACLU petition calling for an end to the federal military equipment giveaway program to local police. A local police friend of mine took offense to the link saying he had enough of the “hate the police” rhetoric. I took offense at being accused of hating cops. Looking at it now though, the link says things like:  “[T]he police, armed to the teeth, treat us like the enemy, especially if we’re black, young, poor or homeless. Tanks are rolling through our towns. What will it take for police to start protecting communities of color, not waging war on them?” That is “hate the police” rhetoric so, I guess I brought that on myself.

Despite all the racial language that came out of Ferguson, it seems that it probably wasn’t as simple as the liberal media’s narrative of another saintly black youth being wantonly gunned down by a cackling white oppressor. Whatever happened in Ferguson, the debate over the “militarization” of police didn’t begin there and shouldn’t end there.

In Defense of “Militarization”

Although I’m a libertarian with “concerns over militarization” of police, if there’s an active shooter at my kids’ school I want well-trained local cops to be able to respond with potent weapons and grease the bastard before he can hurt my kids. If there were violent riots and looting in my city I would want the police trained and properly equipped to quell it.

In the case of violent looting, I would be quite angry if my city government could support frivolities like municipal golf courses but not be able to protect my family and my property from bands of marauding pillagers, one of the chief reasons why governments were implemented among men to begin with. While I think any free citizen worth his or her salt should be at least somewhat prepared to defend himself and his community, the community will obviously be more productive if those who are skilled at building houses, programming computers, etc., don’t have to spend all their time standing guard over what has already been produced, rather than producing more.

There is an obvious need for police and, when necessary, the violent use of force. As early libertarian writer Rose Wilder Lane said, “The need for Government is the need for force; where force is unnecessary, there is no need for Government.” But in America we rightly have enduring worries about a standing army ruling over us. Therein lies much of the concern over militarization of our police. So, how do we even define “militarization?”

PoliceOne.com recently had a good series of essays dealing with police militarization written by police officers that raise some valid points. In one,  Lt. Dan Marcou explains the definition thusly: “Apparently one person’s militarization is another person’s protective equipment. Kevlar, helmets, vests, and armored personnel carriers are not aggressive, but protective. They stop bullets. The defensive weapons law enforcement carries during the operations are no more deadly than what the criminals are carrying today. SWAT has been an ever-evolving, reactive response to the threats modern officers face.”

In another, Don Deaton writes: “All too often, accusations of ‘militarization’ are based more on perception than facts (how police ‘look’ instead of what they actually do). Many critics never consider that the use of military-inspired technology and equipment has pervaded almost every aspect of American life. If law enforcement has become militarized, then the same is true for trauma medicine, aviation, video games, deer hunting, satellite television, GPS navigation, and those giant SUVs the soccer moms drive.

“The last time I checked,” Deaton continues,” my actions as a police officer — including those undertaken while using a helmet, body armor, rifle, and armored vehicle — were still governed by state law, case law, and department policy, all of which were enacted by lawfully elected representatives who were put in place by the citizens of a constitutional republic.” Deaton may be a bit Pollyannaish here with the constitutional republic stuff. Recent academic study indicates what most people feel in their gut, that America is more of an oligarchy with We the People having little or no real influence (especially at the national level). Nonetheless his main point holds true.

Police Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. brought up an interesting point about preserving the Posse Comitatus Act (which forbids Federal troops from conducting domestic law enforcement). He writes: “As counterintuitive as it appears at first glance, I contend that if local law enforcement cannot obtain and use low-level, military-grade assets for high-risk operations, we will open the door to federal military force as our first response to major threats.” (I contend that active and decently equipped State Defense Forces would provide another buffer before federal military involvement, but that’s another topic.)

So why do the police have all this interest in defensive equipment anyway? Sgt. Glenn French writes: “The fact is, more American police officers have died fighting crime in the United States over the past 12 years than American soldiers were killed in action at war in Afghanistan. According to ODMP.org, 1,831 cops have been killed in the line of duty since 2001. According to iCasualties.org, the number of our military personnel killed in action in Afghanistan is 1,789.  Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war.”

Although being a cop is surely dangerous and stressful (and not something I want to do), the counter-arguments to Sgt. Frenchs’ is that many of those police deaths came from automobile accidents that won’t be prevented with machineguns or flashbang grenades. According to a recent article by the Foundation of Economic Education, “[p]olicing doesn’t even make it into the top 10 most dangerous American professions” and policing would have a murder rate “comparable to the average murder rate of U.S. cities[.]” The 1930’s and 1970’s were statistically far more dangerous times to be an American police officer. The article concludes that police work “just isn’t unusually deadly or dangerous—and it’s safer today than ever before. The data do not justify the kinds of armor, weapons, insecurity, and paranoia being displayed by police across the country.”

Iowa police officer and trainer Corey D. Roberts writes in his own essay: “Law Enforcement has to prepare for and respond to the current threat not the ‘threats’ of a TV show from the 50s. The fact that law enforcement is better equipped and has more training is because we don’t live in Mayberry anymore. The threats are greater than ever and it doesn’t take long on the street for an officer to realize that the dangers are very real.”

Roberts also asked rhetorically on my Facebook page: “What liberties are being taken by a police force who has the same equipment or better than the gangbangers who are looting? How is a piece of equipment infringing on your rights?” This seems to be paraphrasing the old gun-rights slogan, “Guns don’t infringe upon rights, people do.” He has a point. Whether a policeman is carrying an old Brown Bess or a modern AR-15 is far less important than how he uses it.

The debate over specific equipment is less important than debating how it is employed. Sure there should be some limits on police equipment. I think even the most militant cops aren’t pushing for main battle tanks or weaponized aircraft. Most of us probably agree that they don’t need artillery or crew-served weapons. I don’t believe the debate over individual weapons and body armor will be an intelligent one since it will largely be propagated by the media who makes the teeth itch of anyone who has even a rudimentary knowledge of weapons.

My main concern over the militarization of police is over how and why “militarized” police are deployed. Also, I have concerns about the federal government’s role in arming the local police. I’ll discuss these problems in the next post.


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