“Protect and Serve”-“Pride, Integrity & Commitment”-“Service above self”-“Safety & Service”-“In partnership with the Community” – These are all slogans on the side of various Police cruisers. With the events in Ferguson, MO; the question comes up – Have the Police forces in the United States become too militarized? I have real mixed feelings on this, I don’t think it is as clear cut as many would make it out to be.
I have a couple of friends (yes, I really do have a couple!!) that serve in law enforcement. I would like to take this moment to stress to everyone that I believe very strongly that those in civil service rightfully have an expectation that everything will be done to ensure they make it home safely to their family at the end of their shift.
So, what do you think of when you see a policeman? Do you see a person that is there to protect and serve the public, or do you see something else? I’m not saying every policeman should be like Andy Taylor or Barney Fife in Mayberry; but I think there has been an excessive increase in the amount of violent police activity over the past couple of decades.
The increase in SWAT style raids is troublesome. These style raids were once only deemed necessary in the most extreme of circumstances. But now seem to be more common, especially in urban communities. How many of these SWAT raids have been botched, whether by bad intelligence or what have you? Take a look at this interactive map from the CATO Institute. There are only three (3) states that have not had botched SWAT Raids (The great state of ND is one of them).
SWAT and “Special Action” raids have become far to commonplace. Prior to the 1980s, the use of SWAT and other paramilitary units were only used in volatile, high-risk raids. The primary types would be bank robberies, hostage situations or drug raids with known militaristic gangs. I don’t think part of the problem is the ease of the proliferation of military equipment from the Pentagon. While we must remember the North Hollywood shoot-out that happened between LA Police and two bank robbers on 28 February, 1997. Both robbers died trying to escape with $300K. 11 Police Officers and 8 civilians were injured during the 44 minute shootout.
“As soon as I saw that guy [a responding SWAT officer], I knew everything would be OK.” Sgt. Larry Haynes said about the North Hollywood shoot-out. This is what SWAT is intended for – response to volatile, high-risk situations.
Speaking of tactics, an article about the top 5 most influential gunfights that changed law enforcement is a good read. I think I got more out of the comments section of this article. This warrior mentality has its place in law enforcement. However; this type of mentality can also bite your butt if you let it. Poor investigation, too much reliance upon shady (at best) informants, and a citizen’s inherent right to defend themselves can lead to disaster.
A couple of good examples include a local gentlemen from Chesapeake, VA. This young man had had a SWAT style raid on his house (“no-knock” warrant). He did not hear the Police announce themselves and was startled awake thinking he was being robbed; he shot at, and killed, a Policeman. This particular raid was for drugs, specifically Marijuana production. No significant amount was found. I’m not here to declare his innocence nor his guilt. I am here to ask why? Why was a SWAT style raid used when this gentleman had no history of violence, the detectives could easily have picked him up for questioning on his way to work. There was absolutely no need for the heavy handed raid (needlessly putting multiple people into a volatile situation) that took place. As a result two lives were ruined, and their families scarred. For what? Sad.
Another senseless death occurred in North Carolina; where a Police Officer mistook the sound of the battering ram as a gunshot; fired and killed an unarmed man while he was answering the door. I believe the police raided the wrong house.
It’s not the weapons by themselves that are bad. I think there is a place in most police departments for military grade equipment that the citizenry does not possess. While Fargo, ND’s possession of a mine resistant armored vehicle may be a bit overkill, it does have its purpose (it’s has yet to be used in its intended function). I think also that it is ok for college campuses to have rifles and armored vests, albeit in small numbers. They should be locked up, out of view, until needed – but a case can be made for the schools to possess them. Just ask VCU. As advocates of the 2nd Amendment love to state, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I think the basic problem is one of communication and training. All people act in the manner they are comfortable with. In time of stress; you don’t think – you act. If all of your training is militaristic, you’ll respond in a heavy handed way.
I think we can all agree that the military training model doesn’t fit well with the skills required by the police in America. In Washington state, the executive director of the state’s Police Academy has taken the position that there needs to be a decrease the amount of military type training, and increase an officer’s soft skills; critical thinking, learning how to initiate a conversation, and how to continue showing respect while enforcing the laws. Police Officers, according to Officer Russ Hicks, need to go back to our foundation of treating people with dignity and respect and giving people their Constitutional rights. They also need to, not begrudgingly, but wholeheartedly embrace their constitutional role. The Seattle Times did a good write up on her new training program. In The Dispatcher, the Criminal Justice Training Commission for Washington State had a good write up also, which goes further in-depth into why she made the changes she did.
Mr. David Couper runs the website www.improvingpolice.wordpress.com. What are his qualifications to merit his input? He has been (and since retired) a Police Officer and Police Chief in the state of Minnesota. He makes the connection between why the Police are here — to aid us, the citizens, in honoring our part of the social contract. Until this moment, I had never considered where the Police fell in the social contract – his statement hit home with me, as citizens, we not only have rights- we have responsibilities. He is co-author of the petition: Policing our Nation, which is a good read and sheds light on what 12 actionable qualities of a free and democratic police force. He has advocated for years on shifting the focus away from the military “stress model” instead of community policing. Some of his writings include “It’s Time to Change Police Training” and “A Better Way to Train” (I encourage you also to read the additional articles and comments), in which he discusses Washington States decision. In his article “Let’s Here It Once More..” where he discusses the importance of training.
There is an interesting article written by Jack Kerwick. In the article, Mr. Kerwick suggests we (as a culture) are making the wrong assumptions. Our society is armed, why wouldn’t the police be? My issue with his article is not that the police are armed, but how they are utilizing their responses to situations in a more militaristic fashion- not the disarming, quiet policeman of ages ago. User RaulYbarra responded to the article with the comment: “In much of my world travels, the police really are a para-military organization. They often have a power and authority that goes far beyond anything that would be acceptable here in the U.S. In contrast, American police are – or should be – the most direct reflection of the concept of government with the consent of the governed most citizens will encounter.” I simply cannot say it any better than that.
I think Mr. Couper, Ms Rahr, and the State of Washington are on point. I hope more states take the approach that the State of Washington is. I would like to see more of the “Guardian” spirit plugged into the new police recruits, I’d rather have a smart, thinking police officer on the streets than a person who has been trained as a warrior. When an officer responds and assesses the situation, calls for assistance – then, by all means, if the situation dictates; send in the cavalry [SWAT]. But we should always default to solutions that lower the risk of volatility when possible.
My conclusion: We have warriors in the Military, we need smart thinkers in the daily interactions between police and the community they have sworn to protect. Have our police forces become too militarized? In equipment I say no, in mentality I say it depends on where you were trained. I believe we have a serious training issue. In the military we trained as we fight. Our Police should also be highly trained in soft skills. The SWAT style teams are like the special forces in the military- they should be used sparingly and only when [truly] required. What say you?