The Militarization of Our Police

By | December 29, 2021 | 0 Comments



The photo on the left is of two New York City police officers from the 1960s. The photo on the right is of two Los Angeles police officers from today. Yes, I know this is an unfair comparison. The officers from the 1960s were relaxed and smiling. The current officers are responding to some serious situation, or at least practicing for one.

But look at the uniforms and equipment. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, many American police officers wore tunics that covered their equipment belts. In order to draw their revolvers, the officer had to pull up the hem of his tunic. This slowed his draw, but it also made his revolver harder for a criminal to snatch. And it kept the gun out of sight. He or she was still an authority figure, but less threatening – and more likely for a child or a person from out of town to approach for help.

Things have changed. Today, instead of revolvers, almost all police departments issue semiautomatic pistols. As a result, officers are better able to fire multiple rounds in a desperate situation. On the other hand, they are less likely to aim their shots carefully. When you know you have only six shots, and your revolver is slower to reload, you ration your shots.

But when your pistol holds up to 17 rounds and is quicker to reload, you are likelier to “spray and pray.” In data I reviewed from the 1980s, in violent confrontations the average number of rounds fired per officer was 1.7. Currently the average is between 3.6 and 5.0 or more. That is, over two times more rounds are being fired. The interpretation of this fact I leave to experts in the use of force, but it does concern me.

As a secondary weapon for use against violent suspects, police used to carry shotguns in their cars. A shotgun is very intimidating. But now many carry rifles. A rifle bullet is more likely to penetrate body armor or a car door and disable an armed suspect. But it is also more likely to penetrate an interior wall and kill a young girl trying on dresses for her 15th birthday – as just happened in Los Angeles.

It is hard to deny that cops today look less like cops and more like military personnel. But that’s merely a matter of appearance. The real problem is that cops are more likely to act like military personnel. If I put on a suit and tie, I am more likely to act politely. If I put on a white coat, I am more likely to act professionally. And if I put on combat gear, I am more likely to act aggressively. This is not complex.

Who developed the first SWAT team is disputed. The LAPD developed the first team so named in 1967, but the NYPD Emergency Services Unit fulfills a similar purpose and is older. Still, what is important is not how old SWAT teams are, but how many there are. Clearly police departments in large and medium cities need specialized units to handle emergencies like active-shooter situations. But even small towns now feel the need for SWAT teams.

When it comes to federal agencies, obviously the FBI, the DEA, and the departments of Defense and Homeland Security need SWAT teams, as well as the Bureau of Prisons and the Secret Service. But what about the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Office of Personnel Management, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service?

In the unlikely event that these agencies need help, could they not call on the FBI or local police and sheriffs? Could they not compete on the basis of how well they do their assigned jobs, and not on the basis of how militarized they are? Predictably, as John Fund pointed out in National Review Online, having paramilitary units creates an irresistible urge to use them:

Take the case of Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was “visited” by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 am, dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who hadn’t been living with him and was suspected of college financial-aid fraud.

In what country does alleged college-loan fraud justify use of massive armed force? Surely not in America. At least not in the America where I grew up.

The Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights forbids the government to quarter troops in private homes without the owner’s consent. But the underlying objection of the colonists was to the use of British troops for routine law enforcement. Clearly, we do not want troops to be used in this way. But at the same time, we do not want our local police or nonmilitary federal agencies to be turned into the equivalent of troops. Indeed, which is worse: The military performing routine law-enforcement duties, or local law-enforcement personnel being turned into paramilitary units? To me, both seem abhorrent.

A case could be made that it is preferable to turn to the military when local police prove inadequate in an emergency. Years ago I saw a film loosely based on the takeover of the Iranian embassy in London by terrorists. In the film, a hostage situation developed that proved too much for the police to handle. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police talked to his boss, the Home Secretary. That person secured the permission of the Prime Minister, and then called the Defense Minister, who in turn alerted the Special Air Service – the British equivalent of Delta Force. In fact, the first commander of Delta Force, Col. Charlie Beckwith, trained with the SAS to learn their methods.

In the movie, the SAS unit arrived by helicopter. The senior police officer “turned over” to the SAS officer. That is, after top-level officials gave their permission, the police formally handed over control of the situation to the military.

Would this work in our much larger country, where military SWAT units might be many hours away? Probably not. But the idea of a formal turnover is appealing. This would make the gravity of the decision clear to all concerned.  Instead, currently local police forces and miscellaneous federal agencies have their own SWAT teams, and use them whenever they want – or whenever the teams need practice. I would dislike being practiced on by a rusty SWAT team as much as I would dislike being practiced on by a rusty surgeon. Either one could kill me.

And of course, the more SWAT teams there are, the more practice they need. And who will they practice on? Not Martians. Us. There is an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Similarly, if your shiniest, most impressive tool is a SWAT team, more and more events will look like violent confrontations justifying its use.

We don’t want military units running around doing routine law enforcement. So we reluctantly put up with local police and federal agencies forming paramilitary units. But we must insist that these SWAT units do not proliferate endlessly. And we must be very clear that they be used only when necessary. Otherwise, America as we knew it will disappear. It already is disappearing.

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