Taking on the So Called “Militarization of Police”

James Slate
Jan 14, 2018 · 73 min read

As police officers are increasingly criticized for their appearance and actions, the mass media have highlighted — and demonized — law enforcement’s use of armored vehicles, heavy ballistic vests and other equipment, some of which is allocated to agencies through the Department of Defense. Critics argue that law enforcement has become militarized in both its equipment and its tactics. A more accurate analysis, however, is that our nation’s law enforcement agencies have simply acquired modern-day equipment to meet modern-day threats, utilizing advanced training techniques to save lives in any type of situation that may strike their communities, from conflicts to missing children to natural disasters.

The 21st century has provided many watershed moments for law enforcement agencies and officers, and how they operate. Changing and dangerous times have caused them to have to adapt their tactics and obtain new equipment, which better allows them to deal with these changing conditions.

Of late, an issue has arisen that has caused concern, and understandably so, among some civilians who are otherwise firm and ardent supports of law enforcement. They are concerned about the changes that have been occurring in the way they conduct various operations, as well as changes in the equipment they bring to bear on situations that are handled by day-to-day patrol units. However, here is some perspective

The use of military-proven equipment and arms by law enforcement agencies is nothing new. Hanging in the hallway of the Columbus, Ohio, Police Academy is a photograph from the Prohibition era. It shows an open-top roadster occupied by four Columbus police officers. The passenger officer is indeed riding shotgun — armed with a 12-gauge Winchester 1897 Trench Gun (a military weapon).

But the real attention-getters are the two officers in the rear. They are both armed with Browning BARs! Imagine patrolling or going on raids today with that magnificent, 23-pound, fully automatic arm chambered in .30–06 caliber and loaded with FMJ loads — especially in an urban area! It was truly a time of need for the cops of that era when facing the heavily armed and desperate crooks of the time, and as the need arose officers upgraded their weapons to deal with the threat.

After WWII, a large number of surplus weapons ended up in police armories. For many years, the Ohio Highway Patrol had Thompson submachine guns available in their armories (although they weren’t deployed on the road). During my employ at the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Police Department, there were two M1 Carbines and two Winchester Model 12 shotguns in our armory that the department had obtained. At the same time, surplus M1 Carbines were the standard entry weapon of the Columbus Police SWAT team. The use of military-proven weapons by civilian law enforcement officers and agencies is nothing new.

Those who are concerned about the use of semi-automatic AR-15s in place of the traditional 12-gauge pump action have fears that are understandable at first glance. Law enforcement agencies need to explain to those they serve that the reason the AR is deployed more often than the shotgun involves increased safety — for officers, crime victims and innocent bystanders. Sending one single, precise projectile downrange that has a low ricochet and over-penetration potential can be better than sending nine to 24 shotgun pellets downrange with a higher ricochet and dispersion potential.

It is important to remember what Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the London Metropolitan Police, said nearly 200 years ago, “The police are the public, and the public are the police.” As long as we strive to keep those words in mind, we can help keep the public’s attitude towards us positive.

The Roots of so called Police Militarization

The media, and public are outraged that law enforcement officers are becoming militarized. They discuss how police get top notch military equipment, uniforms that are more militaristic, and training that is more militaristic. Why is this such a bad thing? The military has been protecting this country for decades. It is an honor to be a military solider, someone who selfless serves to protect our way of life. However the reality is that equipment and technology is getting better, safer and more streamlined.

50 years ago, police officers had hold over military flak jackets for protection against small arms fire. Today, they have breathable body armor, high capacity pistols as opposed to six shot revolvers, radios as opposed to police call boxes and computers as opposed to type writers. Are you starting to get the picture? When football originally started to be played in the United States, what was the equipment that was used for protection? By today’s definition, it wasn’t much. Pads are now sleek looking, provide exceptional protection, are modernized, and guess what they protect the players more than they did in the past. Law enforcement officers are experiencing the same thing which is nothing more than advances in technology for the protection of the person wearing the uniform. Yet we condemn those that want to protect the police with better technology. For those of you who do not understand this concept here is one final example. Take a look at lifesaving technology that is utilized by medics to treat people who have been in a car collision. How about someone found dead but were revived and brought back to life? Those same people 20–30 years ago would have died at the side of the road, or at their home. Advances in technology must be used for the safety of all.

There is an incredible amount of misinformation being spread about the “militarization” of the police on the right and the left.

While 9/11 did massively accelerate the amount of security funding going to police departments and the two wars led to a lot of surplus gear being offloaded onto local forces so that you have cops driving armored vehicles, that’s not where it began.

All 9/11 did was create an opportunity for local forces to solicit money and gear. That sort of thing has been going on forever. When the drug war was “hot” every police department was looking for money to get drug sniffing dogs and choppers. If aliens invaded tomorrow, they would be asking for spaceships. If the Ebola epidemic gets worse, they’ll all be asking for quarantine facilities and labs.

Despite all the talk about the militarization of the police, there is very little discussion of why. The police and the prisons are a societal immune response to an infection

Talking about the immune response as if it exists entirely apart from the infection is how we ended up with hysterical coverage of the unarmed teen shot in the back by a crazed racist officer. Not only was the media take on the story a lie, but it removed the context of the crime from the response to the crime. That was what made Brown’s shooting seem senseless and insane.

Stripping away the rioting and looting from the police in riot gear made the law enforcement response seem deranged and insane. It’s only when we see the rioting, the looting and the arson, the shots fired and Molotov cocktails thrown that the heavy gear suddenly has a context.

The police are the common defense we use to protect ourselves against the kind of society where store workers have to fear being killed. They are not perfect, but they are far better than the rule of the Michael Browns who take what they want and attack anyone who tries to stop them.

This is a trick that the left has been playing for a very long time. In Ferguson or Gaza, in Afghanistan or New York, it focuses on what soldiers and police do without the context of what they are responding to. Watch a few hours of media coverage from Gaza and you’ll conclude that Israel is fighting a war against crying children. Without footage of Hamas terrorists or Israeli children under fire, the Israelis seem like murderous lunatics.

And that is exactly what the media wants you to think.

If the United States continues bombing ISIS, the media will stop showing photos of crying Yazidi refugees and instead show us the crying Sunni Muslim children of the families in Mosul who support ISIS. And then the United States will be accused of murdering crying children for no reason at all.

This happens all the time.

The media gave us every detail of Clayton Lockett’s suffering after his botched execution. It didn’t tell us how he raped one teenage girl and shot her friend and buried her alive while she begged for her life. It didn’t even tell us that Lockett died horribly because opponents of the death penalty had been working overtime to cut off the supply of reliable lethal injection drugs.

Without that context, the justice system seemed monstrous for making a man suffer while the monster was passed off as the innocent victim of the senseless brutality of the system.

All systems and people are flawed, but our law enforcement and military are reactive. When we don’t talk about what they are reacting to, then there is nothing meaningful to say.

We have SWAT teams because of race riots and urban guerrilla warfare. Without Watts, the Black Panthers and the SLA, the police militarization would probably never have existed.

The militarization of the police was a response to left-wing violence and terror.

If the left hadn’t spent much of the last century inciting race riots and setting up terrorist groups, there wouldn’t be police officers armed for war.

If not for the left’s disastrous social experiments, the War on Drugs would never have been necessary. Instead the left trashes social values and criminal laws and then complains about the authoritarian rebound from the crime waves that follow. The wealthy liberal who snorts cocaine and dashes from sexual encounter to encounter can walk away with little damage done. The same behavior in the ghetto leaves behind shattered lives and destroyed communities because there is no safety net for it.

Finally, if the left hadn’t shifted immigration over to the Third World while sympathizing with Islamic terrorists, September 11 and its law enforcement and military aftermath would never have been necessary.

This is why the left tears away the context from a crisis. If we began to genuinely discuss why there are police officers dressed like soldiers or TSA agents examining your shoes, the line would trace all the way back to the left.

Communists realized how useful race riots and the authoritarian backlash could be to their agenda. Terrorists don’t just aim for the target; they also exploit the fallout to polarize a society.

That is what the left has been doing for generations since.

From the Weathermen to September 11, the left polarized the response while removing the context. The left plants the bombs and then acts as if the security men running around are insane fascists.

Ferguson is more of the same. The left’s army of activists and reporters troop down to the city. The activists start the violence while the reporters dramatize it. The coverage polarizes Americans and gives the left another hook for hanging on to power long after its economic policies have been as thoroughly discredited as those of the Soviet Union.

The left isn’t just covering up for the rioters and the looters, the terrorists and the murderers. It is covering up its own role.

That is why its cultural apparatus snips away the context, reacting to the reaction as if it were the cause. The left keeps yammering about finding the root cause, but it is the root cause.

The root cause isn’t poverty. It’s not racism. It’s the left.

After all the lectures about militarization, there was no better solution to the violence than the military. The police were never the problem. The looters and rioters were.

Polls consistently show that two of the institutions in which the general public has the most confidence are the military and the police. In both cases, men and women have volunteered to place their lives on the line to defend society from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And many military veterans become police officers to continue their service. The vast majority of us know which side of that “thin blue line” we want to be on when trouble starts. Historian Victor Davis Hanson has observed that “the more complaints against the so-called militarization of the police, the more some radical groups seem to have been empowered to commit violence.” This was the case in Ferguson. Though the police were well equipped and brandished their weapons and armored vehicles, they did not deter the arsonists and looters who quickly discovered that the political fix was in. No one would be shot, and thus the mob could not be stopped.

In most large municipalities, street gangs outnumber the police. Middle class flight to the suburbs was a reaction to the deterioration of security in the central cities. The police needed to acquire better arms and equipment in the face of gangs who by the 1990s could outgun local law enforcement and render entire urban sectors as “no go” areas for the authorities. A state of nature reigned again fully as Thomas Hobbes described, with the lives of too many residents “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It was to address this dire development that the Defense Department started providing equipment to local authorities in 1997. So there is nothing new about this story. It is just a left-wing diversion which more savvy conservative commentators should have dismissed.

Everyone should read or at least scan the FBI’s 2011 Gang Threat Assessment Report before claiming that the police are the problem. The key findings section of the report summarizes the situation thusly,

Gangs are expanding, evolving and posing an increasing threat to US communities nationwide. Many gangs are sophisticated criminal networks with members who are violent, distribute wholesale quantities of drugs, and develop and maintain close working relationships with members and associates of transnational criminal/drug trafficking organizations. Gangs are becoming more violent while engaging in less typical and lower-risk crime, such as prostitution and white-collar crime. Gangs are more adaptable, organized, sophisticated, and opportunistic, exploiting new and advanced technology as a means to recruit, communicate discretely, target their rivals, and perpetuate their criminal activity.

There are an estimated 33,000 gangs operating in the U.S. with over 1.4 million members. Yet, even they only commit about half the crimes. We are very, very far from a “police state” and much, much closer to anarchy. It is far safer to walk down the street at night in Beijing than Chicago (I have done both).

Consider the liberal response to this situation. On August 18, John McWhorter, an associate professor of English at Columbia University, posted a column at The New Republic (where he is a contributing editor) calling for a “pullback in the War on Drugs” as the way to halt confrontations between police and gangs.

He writes, “Without that policy-which would include that no one could make a living selling drugs-the entire structure supporting the notion of young black men as criminals would fall apart. White men with guns would encounter young black men much less often, and meanwhile society would offer young black men less opportunity to drift into embodying the stereotype in the first place.” If this is what left-wing intellectualism now produces, it is safe to call it ignorant and irrational and dangerous.

How does ending the war on drugs make it impossible to make a living selling drugs? It simply removes obstacles (risk and expense) to the business. It will also increase the victims of the drug culture, especially within minority communities. Drugs destroy everything they touch. There is no upside to addictive poisons that ruin the character as well as the lives of those seduced into using narcotics for “recreation.” Yet, even if we indulge in McWhorter’s nonsense, it won’t be enough.

As the FBI report states, “Gangs are increasingly engaging in non-traditional gang-related crime, such as alien smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution. Gangs are also engaging in white-collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud, primarily due to the high profitability and much lower visibility and risk of detection and punishment than drug and weapons trafficking.” So we would have to quit enforcing laws on a wide variety of crimes to avoid police-gang confrontations. If the police are the problem, then legalize everything and the police can not only be disarmed, but disbanded. Though it would not be long before reports appeared about the “militarization” of neighborhood watch groups which would have to quickly take on a larger role in defense of homes and property.

Some liberal journalists tried to spin the issue, rather than just blame the police for being prepared for drug gangs, heavily armed criminals and terrorists. “Police today are much better armed because it’s the only way they can keep up with criminals,” noted Michael A. Cohen, a fellow at the Century Foundation, in a Boston Globe column. “When powerful semi-automatic and military-style weapons started to appear on the streets, police departments began moving from six-shot revolvers to semi-automatic weapons. That trend accelerated after several high-profile incidents where officers were simply outgunned by criminals, the most infamous being a 1997 shoot-out at a North Hollywood bank in which the robbers were toting automatic weapons and wearing body armor.”

Cohen, a liberal, insisted that “Our toxic gun culture and permissive gun laws are crucial factors in the ongoing militarization of America’s police departments.” But the Second Amendment cannot be blamed for the criminals’ ability to get these weapons and break the law. That is why they are criminals.

What is missing from the coverage, however, is the evidence that the police need and deserve better weapons to cope with their armed adversaries. That evidence was apparent in Ferguson, Missouri, if only the media would take note.

The “de-militarization” of police, as proposed by the publicity-hungry Senators McCaskill and Paul, would leave the officers at a distinct disadvantage, leading to more law enforcement personnel cut down in the line of duty, and their families left without husbands and fathers.

Does a more Militarized Police reduce Crime?What are the Benefits?

A Common Myth for those who oppose the Militarization of Americas Police Forces is that Militarizing our Police does nothing to combat Crime. This is a Myth.

The 1033 program was created by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. This program allowed the Defense Department to transfer excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies.

As of 2014, approximately 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have participated in the program resulting in more than $5.4 billion in previously purchased, surplus military gear including computers, air conditioners, clothing, medical supplies, flashlights, ammunition, rifles, helmets, helicopters, and armored vehicles being recycled for domestic law enforcement purposes.

In the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13688, which established a Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group.

That group subsequently issued a report recommending that the military be prohibited from transferring certain equipment, such as camouflage uniforms, high-caliber weapons, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles, with additional controls placed on the transfer of other equipment.

At the time he signed the executive order, Obama stated, “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting and serving them.”

He continued, “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”

While there have been occasions where law enforcement officials have overreacted and have unwittingly inflamed a situation, it is also true that there are occasions where law enforcement authorities need such equipment in order to protect the public for instance, during terrorist attacks, search-and-rescue operations, or in the wake of natural disasters.

In news footage of the French police in action in Paris after the Paris Attack in 2015, they looked “militarized” because the situation demanded it, and I didn’t hear Parisians complaints about them using helicopters and armored vehicles to quell the violence.

Equipment provided through this program was deployed in Texas to save lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Such equipment also resulted in lives saved during police operations in response to the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino in 2015 and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016.

A study released earlier this month entitled, “Police Officer on the Frontline or a Soldier: The Effect of Police Militarization on Crime,” concludes that a “10 percent increase in the total value of military aid [given to a community] leads to a decrease of 5.9 crimes per 100,000 population” and that such aid is associated with a reduction in complaints about crime from local citizens.

The authors of this study estimate that $5,800 worth of military gear can result in savings to society (based on the average cost of a crime) of $112,000, thereby making military aid “a very inexpensive crime-reducing tool” compared to other types of law enforcement expenditures.

Retired Police Chief Jim Bueermann, President of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., cited several examples at the hearing about the benefits of the Pentagon’s 1033 program. His testimony included the following (in his words):

  • Two weeks ago, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department used armored vehicles to get officers to the scene and extract six children and two adults being held hostage after a home invasion. Two officers were shot during the 20-hour standoff, but the equipment prevented further injury to law enforcement and helped with the safe recovery of the hostages.
  • The Los Angeles police recently used an armored “Bearcat” tactical vehicle to protect officers as they apprehended a heavily armed suspect who was firing a high-powered rifle at them and had wounded an officer.
  • In West Bloomfield, Michigan a suspect barricaded himself in a residential neighborhood and engaged in significant gunfire with law enforcement, ultimately killing police officer Patrick O’Rourke. During the 20-hour standoff, law enforcement used their armored vehicle to safely evacuate neighborhood residents from the area.

In the last case, the media learned that the cop-killer, Ricky Coley, a military veteran, had “a fully automatic Uzi” in addition to high-powered rifles, handguns, knives, a bullet-resistant vest and protective goggles. About 15 families were evacuated from nearby homes during the 20-hour standoff that ended when Coley was found dead. The local Fox TV station reported that the confrontation started after Coley’s marriage ended in divorce and he was accused of adultery and physical and emotional abuse. He had lost custody of his child and had been ordered out of his house. But he refused to be evicted.

The slain officer, Patrick O’Rourke, is survived by his wife, four children, parents and three brothers. Perhaps some additional “militarization” might have saved his life.

Wiley Price, a staff photojournalist at the St. Louis American newspaper, was allowed to testify at the Senate hearing and claimed, “What police used to defend themselves at the early stage of the confrontation was a high level of military weaponry not often seen on city streets in the United States. What we saw were large military style weapons including armored vehicles normally seen on the national news during conflicts in Middle East war zones. Most Americans would not be so shocked if this were a response to an overt terrorist attack on an American city, but not during a spontaneous protest over the shooting of a young African American male by a white police officer while walking in the street in the middle of the day.”

The notion that this was a “spontaneous protest” was never challenged, even though independent journalists and the police themselves documented the presence of outside agitators. The police presence became even more necessary after violence and looting erupted. Eventually, the National Guard was called in. So more, not less, “militarization,” was clearly required.

According to a local TV news report, the looted businesses included:

  • Zisser Tire and Auto
  • AutoZone
  • Quik Trip
  • Family Dollar
  • Walmart
  • Footlocker
  • Ross Dress for Less
  • Walgreens
  • Shoe Carnival
  • Hibbett Sports
  • Taco Bell
  • Sprint Store
  • KMart
  • DTLR
  • Phillips 66
  • Meineke

In total, it was reported that more than 20 businesses suffered damage.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the riots cost John Zisser, the owner of the tire store, about $100,000 in damaged and lost merchandise. St. Louis County Chief Operations Officer Garry Earls is quoted by Fox 2 News as saying that the final price tag of the riots could be as high as $6 million.

Let the media and the politicians tell these business owners, who lost everything, that the police were too “militarized.”

Why don’t we hear from them in a Senate hearing? Or would that contradict the “militarization” narrative promulgated by such “experts” and media favorites as Radley Balko?

Obama certainly had a point that law enforcement authorities must be vigilant as to how and when they deploy such equipment, and should guard against overly aggressive approaches that might unduly and unnecessarily alarm the public.

Law enforcement officers should establish guidelines governing such usage and should be adequately trained in using it.

Nonetheless, one cannot deny that when law enforcement authorities need such equipment, they really, really need it and we need them to have it.

Are Militarized Police misused Far too Often?