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The Blue Brief: Militarization of the Police

You’ve likely heard the buzzword, “militarization of police” at some point in the last year.

It’s a hot topic, so of course, that means discussing it here on The Blue Brief.

It is my sincerest hope to communicate a side of the discussion/argument that is not heard very often — the law enforcement perspective. 

Squad car

I’ll be upfront, we don’t always get it right and there are always areas where we can improve. But considering how tough this job is, I think most LE does well on the whole.

So delving deeper into policing, I think it’s time we address the militarization of LE. While I aim to present the officer’s side, I have also reviewed the ACLU’s standpoint to gain a greater perspective on the topic.

With that said, let’s dig in and look at the military’s influence on modern police units.

Table of Contents

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A Cop’s Perspective

Okay rookie, strap on MY boots, you’re coming with me. 

Many, many years ago I received a call over the radio and I could tell by the dispatcher’s voice, it was a bad one.

Police Dispatcher
Dispatchers, like police, are only human and working a tough job, too.

Some type of domestic violence call happened in a restaurant west of town. The suspect armed himself with a rifle and already fired shots. He was waiting for responding officers.

I arrived on the scene and quickly ran behind a state trooper’s car positioned in front of the restaurant, across the highway.

At one point, we established verbal communication with the subject and he appeared out the front door.

Some of you reading this have had guns pointed at you. I’m hoping most of you have not. It is an unforgettable experience, and this was my first of a few.

As I peered over the top of the state car, the subject casually pointed his deer rifle at me. I found out later, he had a .243 equipped with a scope, easily capable of defeating my vest.

rifle pointing downrange
I was used to this point of view on rifles until someone pointed one at me, made me think about how I might increase my survivability.

Even if I had an AR, I was outgunned. Talk about a terrible feeling.

Luckily, we were able to take the suspect into custody and everyone walked away alive.

Militarization of Police

An emerging theme I hear repeatedly is “militarization of the police.”

I am one, among a number, of law enforcement members who never served in the military.

Mistakes were made…

By age 20, I was in the police academy. So, I can’t tell you the difference between a military career and that of law enforcement.

I know we share some similarities, though.

Military & Police Commonalities

Most police agencies describe themselves as “paramilitary,” meaning similar to a military force.

We often wear uniforms, have a rank structure, and adhere to a chain of command hierarchy. Also, we drive vehicles to conflicts in order to engage and resolve them.

Rarely, these are very specialized like Bearcats or MRAPs. But mostly we use a miled-out grocery-getter like everyone else drives. 

odometer
Man, I drove some busted police cars.

In the ’70s and ’80s, you could still get a bad-ass pursuit package vehicle with an enormous motor and some 100+ MPH rated tires. 

These days, most police packages have suped-up electrical systems (enormous alternators) to deal with the demands of all the electronic devices.

This grows more and more true as police pursuit policies decline to do just that.

And yes, we use weapons.

Weaponry

We have lots of handguns and for years we also carried shotguns. Granted, this practiced slowed as patrol rifles replaced shotguns.

AR-15 Patrol Rifle
AR-15 Patrol Rifle

In the last few years, we really tooled up on less-lethal options too.

This is an entire category of weapons that is well above an intermediate weapon such as a PR24, or straight stick, but not as lethal as gunfire.

Sometimes we use sniper rifles — though most of our engagements are well within 100-yards.

Occasionally we opt for fully automatic or burst-fire capable weapons. Truth be told, though, these typically are reserved for SWAT-type units.

Sporadically, we have grenade launchers. That’s right! Freakin’ grenade launchers!

terminator grenade launcher
Nothing like this mind you, always tear gas or some other irritant.

But the most frightening thing launched from these is often pepper-based products, tear gas, or impact projectiles.

If this is the extent of law enforcement’s massive arms race to outdo the public, where does this argument of police militarization come from?

1033 Program‘s Impact on LE

Starting in 1990, the U.S. government created the 1033 Program which gave excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies.

The original intent seemed fixed toward combatting the apparent rise of drugs in America though this later abated. 

drugs are bad
Right, we get it, drugs are bad.

I can tell you I have worked for an agency that received many items from the 1033 program, over a span of years. 

My office received two pickups, two SUVs, a boat, a tracked vehicle, tents, jackets, an ancient starlight scope, and a few AR-15s.

supposed to do
My office, trying to figure out why on earth we’d need tents.

Most of the vehicles went to wildland fire service. We never got an MRAP or a Hummer.

The program has received critical press, but few agencies (especially those strapped for cash) reject items they receive for free from the government.

Colbert Gimme
Hand-me-downs? Sure. We’ll take it.

Modern Policing

Take a look at cops today. See them at protests. Look at their uniforms.

Sure, we might look like a Roman Legion standing in formation at the protest with our shields, helmets, batons, etc.

But stop for a second and consider this fact — law enforcement is almost wholly reactive.

Police at protest
The tactical turtle look

There is very little proactivity in this profession, in my opinion. We react to the things we encounter.

Harken back to the call you joined me on earlier. 

Imagine, some years after that you had a choice in how you made your approach to the “man with rifle” call.

Think you’d wear soft body armor, a sweaty uniform shirt, and roll up in a dilapidated SUV? 

MRAP from the Douglas County SD
MRAP from the Douglas County SD

Probably not. You’d pick an MRAP, rifle rated body armor, and a helmet.

Self-preservation is not a difficult concept.

At protests, officers face thrown projectiles ranging from frozen bottles of water to rocks, bricks, flammables, and, yes, even bodily fluids. (Gross!)

Police leaders have a responsibility to protect their employees. As such, this equipment is dispersed to protect lives.

The ACLU

How we word things is of critical importance.

The ACLU did a study of police militarization and the first few pages are laced with terms that are evocative, and I think, border on unfair. 

They describe the police as having received an “arsenal” from the military and that we adopt a “warrior mentality.”

They say we use grenades, ride around in tanks, and describe law enforcement as “dangerously militarized.” 

SDUS MRAP
We uh, aren’t quite sure why the school district needs an MRAP though.

While I do tend to agree that SWAT was overused in the early days, I think that improved significantly with the implementation of pre-approach workups and threat level matrixes. 

No doubt, law enforcement made mistakes in the past, but the change in policy reflects growth.

We learned from those errors.

I truly lament the loss of any innocent life that resulted from a raid, I think any officer would. We are not invading conquerors, though. And I think this is where the ACLU gets in wrong.

The gear we use is almost completely defensive

Portland Police In Riot Gear N17 Protest
Pads, pads, and more pads.

Any “tanks” we drive simply offer ballistic protection.

Guess what, people shoot at the cops! The APCs or MRAPs don’t have turrets with 115mm cannons.

The “arsenal” is rarely more heinous than what can be purchased at your local gun shop.

“Grenades” we use are flashbangs. While they can be dangerous in certain scenarios, the primary intention is a distraction for officer safety purposes.

Regarding the warrior mentality…There are few jobs in the world I can think of that force employees to be capable of so many different mindsets in one single encounter.

Portland Riot Police 2
It can be hard to remember that there are people in those uniforms.

We are asked to be community leaders, counselors, parental instructors, neighborly and marital mediators…and yes, on occasion, in defense of our lives or the lives of others, we must be warriors. 

Why? Because the suspect always has a say and often drives the tempo and direction of any contact.

That said, I think there is a constructive balance in differing opinions. I am glad the ACLU is there to point out when they think law enforcement has gone too far. 

Read some Phillip K. Dick novels and you’ll see what can happen in a dystopian future when the government isn’t kept in balance.

But balance is the keyword. 

Easy there, Judge Dredd.

Conclusion

I struggle to imagine anyone who faces the danger police do on a daily basis asking to roll up in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops when safer options are available.

CCW PPT Shirt
Probably not the best way to roll up on scene. Though the PPT tees will keep you comfy.

That said, I acknowledge mistakes of the past and understand the complicated feelings surrounding “military gear” on police. It’s a tough topic, for sure, but one we should discuss.

What other topics would you like to see me write about? Any questions for me? Let me know in the comments! Want to read more on policing? Check out back issues of The Blue Brief!

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22 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Dean

    Sean, I appreciate you putting yourself on the line, serving the public, and being brave enough to write these articles.
    I don't believe most people have any issue with Police having the defensive and protective gear necessary to keep them safe when responding to violent situations.

    That said I'd like to hear your thoughts 'from the trenches' on how much having the military gear available changes the mindset of the officers. Does rolling up to serve a warrant in your beat up SUV lead to a different approach than rolling up in an MRAP?
    I'd also like to hear your thoughts on what sort of policy or process should be in place to decide 'when' it is appropriate to use that gear - stories of cops destroying peoples houses using their military surplus breaching vehicles because they 'could' rather than because it seems reasonably necessary.

    May 12, 2021 11:38 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      S.

      Hi Dean,
      I may not be the writer, but as a former LEO I could shed some insight for you as per how my department handled things like this. Our department was one that was highly under funded, and never received any of the old military equipment like other departments around us (all they received was beaten up riot gear and some ancient M4's). We had one armored vehicle that was only for use when responding to incidents where there was a serious threat posed to us, or to citizens. We werent allowed to just take it to any warrant, but instead had to show that there was an actual need for it, and that the force would be justified. I know of only very few instances where teams have used armored vehicles to damage a house, and 9/10 that is for a unique reason such as someone being a threat from within the home. But, mistakes can happen as LEO's are still humans aswell, and sometimes things get damaged (adrenaline doesnt help). As for "military equipment" such as level 4 hard plates and M4's, this is simply to match force shown towards us. Firearms that can defeat L3 soft armor (what we wore) are beyond common in America now. We even now have handguns that are capable of defeating this with ease (5.7). So we wore steal plates to help mitigate risk to some level where we felt slightly safer. As for the M4's that some departments get issued, these simple bring us on par, or often slightly below, what can be used against us. Imagine if you will, being told to go into a building where you know there are 5 hostiles with AK-47's, wearing steel plate body armor. Most departments issue a 9mm handgun as our duty weapon, so taking that inside is a death warrant. And I know the argument can be made to wait for a "SWAT" team, but we didnt even have one, and most departments dont. If we needed SWAT, we had to call a different department over 45 minutes away, and they had to respond. Then youre stuck waiting while people could be dying inside, and that wouldnt look good on the officers either. Sorry for the long reply, but I wanted you to get a good idea of our policies and reasons for things, and maybe it will help others understand aswell.

      May 14, 2021 9:10 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        Sean Curtis

        S,

        Maybe you should consider writing! This was a great response and I couldn’t have said it better myself. My first AR-15 was fully auto, from the Vietnam era, and I never ended up using it but for SWAT callouts. The agencies I worked for were also small and did not have a great deal of resources. Thanks for your service, glad you made it out.

        May 15, 2021 12:11 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Sean Curtis

      Thank you Dean,

      I’m going to speak for myself here, and no other cops out there, but I experienced a great deal of fear while working on the road. It wasn’t continuous, but ran in the background like a subroutine that would leap to the foreground during a bad call.

      Despite this, you are obligated (swore an oath) to respond and do the best you can with whatever you have. Wearing better gear helped mitigate that fear a little, but it did not make it go away. I could see the argument of appearance driving mentality, but only in the younger, less-seasoned officers. Because of processes, tradition, and good sense, it’s rare these officers make the SWAT team. This is a profession where you can do everything right, have all the best gear, and still get killed.

      I’m a big fan of policy and procedures that lend guidance to the use of these higher levels of officer presence. The SWAT matrix, for example, is a great tool that lists a series of questions about a situation. Each answer “yes” generates a score. One question might be “Does the subject have a history of assaulting officers?” Each answer in the affirmative adds to the score. In the end, there is a number the team and administration decide upon that suggest a SWAT response. This shows a deliberative, methodical, approach. However, a SWAT matrix can have ALL the boxes checked in the first radio call out so it can happen quickly.

      May 15, 2021 12:07 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Michael

    Perception is often viewed as reality. It seems to me the fear critics and others in the public have isn't about militarization per se but the appearance of the local beat cop looking and/or behaving more like a soldier. This perception drives the fear and critiques. The AR-15 is a physical example of this. The AR is just a rifle. Not much different from non-tactical looking semi-auto Rugers or Bennellis. The AR is an arguably ugly rifle that happens to look like a military weapon. The nuances of why the civilian AR is not a true "assault rifle" is lost on the public and politicians. The same holds true for LE that get Bear Cats. The perception becomes not one of law enforcement and protecting the public but of an occupying force. Of course this isn't a fair description. But again, what is the perception?

    May 11, 2021 5:04 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Sean Curtis

      Michael,

      Thank you for your thoughts, I couldn't agree more. I think that is a huge part of the issue. A lot of people who don't understand the profession are weighing in right now. This doesn't excuse mistakes, but I would feel a lot better about the future of law enforcement if people had a good idea of the challenges it faces.

      May 15, 2021 12:14 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Robert A Macnabb

    Riots in the streets, you get to wear a plastic shield, so you don't get AIDS! That is 1980s technology gear! Crowd Control is impossible, if the Crowd is better equipped! The FBI, was initially created to investigate crimes against our nation on USA soil! Communism became it's number 1 target! Appears to be a shift in focus...

    >

    May 11, 2021 4:18 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Sean Curtis

      Robert,

      You make some good points. In the Seattle riots, suspects used umbrellas to hide the fact they were using lithium powered saws to cut apart barricades. When the police found this out and opened up with pepper spray, the narrative ran that it was an "unprovoked attack".

      May 15, 2021 12:16 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Mark

    Good article presenting a bit of both sides of the issue. Thanks! Some of the comments here seem to imply cops shoot first and ask questions later. FBI statistics not only don't support this, they don't support the notion that cops kill lots of people. I think the most important thing you say is,"...the suspect always has a say and often drives the tempo and direction of any contact." If the suspect is looking for trouble when the police approach, he will get it. If he reacts calmly and responds appropriately, he will be generally treated with respect. BTW, I am not LE, but have had guns pointed at me, and been shot at. It is a terrifying, helpless feeling. I can't imagine having to EXPECT IT everyday as our police do.

    May 11, 2021 10:08 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      David, PPT Editor

      In regards to the FBI statistics, I disagree and believe there is a lot of information missing that I would like to add. The biggest of which is that the FBI statistics are grossly incomplete and that is 100% the fault of local law enforcement. The FBI collects data about civilians being killed by the police through the National Use of Force Data Collection. This is a voluntary program that started in 2015 but only started collecting data in 2019. This data is driven by local departments submitting their information to the database, this is completely voluntary on their side. Looking at the data collected -- it's disturbing how incomplete it is and how little of it is reported. According to the FBI "In 2019, 5,043 out of 18,514 federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies throughout the nation participated and provided use-of-force data. The officers employed by these agencies represent 41% federal, state, local, and tribal sworn officers in the nation". Even based on that data though, there were disturbing trends. In 2019 there were 790 reported instances of police use of force that resulted in death or serious bodily injury. Since this only represents 41% of law enforcement, it's reasonable to assume that the actual number is at least double that putting it in the ballpark of 1,580+. On the other hand, the FBI has been collecting data about LEOs killed in the line of duty since 1937. The data is also far more complete. In 2019, there were only 48 sworn law enforcement murdered. The difference between those two numbers is staggering. One more stats is worth knowing -- The Washington Post has been collecting an independent record of police fatal shootings since 2015, by their count, there were 999 people shot and killed by police in 2019. None of these stats paint a complete picture, but they should at least raise a lot of questions about how we handle law enforcement in this country.

      May 11, 2021 10:44 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        S.

        Im struggling to see what point you are attempting to raise here. Is the point that cops kills too many people? You posted a lot of statistical numbers, but no actual point behind them. FBI statistics paint many things in bad lights, hence the 13/50 comparison that is often made. And as a point, yes only 48 were killed in 2019, but in 2020 that number rose to a staggering 264 (as per CNN article posted 01/21/2021). As a former officer myself, when you go to a scene with someone who is a threat to society, you dont go with a mindset of "oh I dont want to add to the statistics", you go thinking, how will I get home tonight.

        May 14, 2021 9:01 am
        • Commenter Avatar
          David, PPT Editor

          Statistics, even ones from the FBI, require more analysis than simply stating them and relying on them. Such as the 264 officers killed in 2020 that you mention, which is actually not accurate when related to the 48 murdered in 2019 I listed. 264 officers died in the line of duty in 2020, but most of those were actually from COVID-19. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund who published the report that CNN used for their article, 145 of the 264 officers died from COVID-19. Officer deaths due to murder in the line of duty were similar to 2019. As were all of the other forms of officer death such as auto crash, accident, 9/11, and personal health.

          May 14, 2021 10:02 am
          • Commenter Avatar
            S.

            So are you going against the writer of this article, or just stating a fact that you believe should have been included? I still do not see the purpose of your original comment, except as potential bait?

            May 14, 2021 6:04 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Sean Curtis

      Thank you Mark,

      Your general premise has absolutely been my experience over the course of my career. Agatha Christie once said people who look for trouble usually find it.

      I'm glad you survived those experiences! Without a doubt, the possibility of encounters like that weighs on you daily.

      May 15, 2021 12:21 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    P

    Thank you for serving in a very difficult job. I personally believe that everyone should be able defend themselves with the tools necessary for the threats. My concern with LE arming themselves with military gear is it turns 'merica into one step away from being like any other 3rd world country. I understand isolated SWAT teams with the necessary gear. But as we get closer to having everyday officers in uniform carrying a sub-machine guns "for our protection" then the country I love is fading. Another concern is all that gear can change the thinking of people. You can become what you wear. I still remember studying the Zimbardo Stanford Prison experiment where they took ordinary people and dressed them as prisoners and ordinary people and dressed them as guards and had them pretend prison. Eventually it got out of hand and people assumed the fictitious roll. I just hope we don't have some young rookie LE pretending to be military with that awesome gear and some stupid kids reacting and pretending to be the enemy. If that happens we can lower the flag.

    May 11, 2021 7:23 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Sean Curtis

      Thank you P,
      I still think we’re quite a ways from the third world country scenario, though I am disturbed at the binary nature of our current politics and the growing gulf between the two sides.

      I’m familiar with Zimbardo, and I’m guessing you’re familiar with the Milgram Experiment where people were told by authority figures to administer shocks to people. Both of these experiments give us a peek into the human psyche and have applications in law enforcement. However, there are a colorful array of (internal and external) consequences for officers who step out of line.

      The uniform, whether traditional or modern, is supposed to represent authority—an authority granted by the people. It also is a component of something called command presence. This is a tool law enforcement uses to try and bring calm and order to chaos. I think the scenario of rookies pretending to be military rarely, if ever, happens. Granted, young boots make mistakes every day.

      May 15, 2021 12:44 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    R

    @L: Or the lack of use of force against openly violent "mostly peaceful" protestors.
    Put the rioters down. They've been allowed free reign, and we've seen the results as our cities have burned for over a year now.
    @Original Poster: Policing is according to recent surveys merely the #22nd most dangerous job in the country. Try working in a warehouse (#5), or Logging (#1). Heavy machines will mess your day up a lot faster than a pistol.

    May 10, 2021 7:11 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Sean Curtis

      R,

      This year has been trying for all of us. A lot of the societal angst created by a pandemic, lockdowns, and other issues led to an explosion of sorts. Law enforcement has to do its level best to differentiate between rioters and people exercising their 1st Amendment rights. This has proven difficult in scenarios where antagonists embed themselves amongst non-criminal elements.

      I wouldn’t dream of arguing about what profession is the most dangerous. In the end, we all pick our own poison. The only point I would make is the fear of working with unpredictable people, or openly hostile people hits a little different than an inanimate object taking you out in some accident. Like I said though, we choose this life.

      May 15, 2021 12:52 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    L

    It's easy to say this is all for "defense" but that's ignoring the blatant use of these weapons against peaceful protestors and the media when it doesn't suit them. I'm all for using it to tame actual rioters, but we've come to see that officers are using these easier means rather than de-escalation and other tactics.

    May 10, 2021 5:34 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jeff

    Nobody ever says "fuck the fire department". Maybe police should stop killing people for little to no reason and they wouldn't "need" all that gear.

    May 10, 2021 4:50 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Geoff

      Arsonists say it.

      May 10, 2021 6:52 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Bob

      Except when rioters shoot at Firefighters. Go respond to a person with a gun or a mental with a pipe With no gear, see how it works out.

      May 11, 2021 4:48 am