Militarized Police: Public Perception and Implications for Law Enforcement

The terrorist attacks perpetrated against the United States on 9/11 sent shock-waves through America’s communities. The threats to our way of life were no longer from abroad; they were right here among us. Those who sought to do us harm lived right next door, not in caves in faraway lands. Consequently, the criminal justice community was faced with new threats to the public they “protect and serve” and, the argument goes, new approaches were needed to deal with them.

In the rush to enhance community security and restore peace of mind to the citizenry, the law enforcement community was encouraged to strengthen their relationship with the U.S. military. Domestic law enforcement organizations began participating in government-sponsored programs that offered counter-terrorism training, military equipment, and tactical advice to apply to the threats in their communities. This approach has been lauded by some as necessary to confront the new challenges facing our communities. Others have scorned this approach as detrimental to community relations, an encroachment on civil liberties, and violation—at least in spirit—of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the U.S. military from engaging in civilian law enforcement duties.

Every discussion of significance begins with a catalyst and the civil unrest—and police response—in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland has forced a national conversation on the issue of “militarized” police departments. The sight of domestic law enforcement officers outfitted like combat troops going door-to-door in Fallujah was unsettling to many—across the political spectrum. Police officers posted on armored vehicles manning .50 caliber machine guns aimed at unarmed citizens raised serious questions about the role of America’s police departments in our communities.

The show of force in Ferguson especially was criticized by many as too confrontational, unbecoming an organization whose motto is “Protect and Serve.” Others stated it was necessary, simply a natural reaction to the challenges our police departments face. The following is an attempt at a fair analysis of law enforcement’s embrace of military training and equipment for use in domestic law enforcement—and a caution for its application in individual communities.

Problems?

In Washington, D.C. in September of 2014 Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) stated during a hearing convened to investigate the perceived blurring of the lines between domestic law enforcement and military tactics, that Americans believe that there is—and that there should be—a difference between a police response and military response. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) offered a stern warning in her assessment of the “militarized” appearance of community law enforcement officers when she opined that law enforcement officers arrayed this way are not going to be viewed as partners in any community; their intimidating appearance “sends the wrong message” to a free society.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), in emphasizing the motto “Protect and Serve,” warned that such militarized approaches to domestic law enforcement were heavy-handed and placed our society on dangerous ground. The American Civil Liberties Union has researched and published a comprehensive, 96 page analysis on the increasing “militarization” of police departments (War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, 2014) and their threat to civil liberties. The findings are, indeed, alarming.

The ACLU concern—and the concern of many critics of these new law enforcement techniques—is that the acceptance of a military influence applied to domestic policing is on the rise, not the decline. This has given rise to concerns that such approaches violate—if only in spirit—the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. The perceived collaboration of military support—whether it is ideological, material, or tactical—with domestic law enforcement is seen as “eroding the separation between military and police” and should be cause for concern (Kraska & Paulsen, 1997, pg. 261). Many citizens feel—and lawmakers are agreeing—that an examination of this relationship, and its effect on the public, is long overdue.

Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, reminds us that the United States, historically, has always maintained a clear division between the military and the police. The boundaries of that division are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish and, the argument goes, when civilian law enforcement personnel and military combat personnel are indistinguishable in appearance and approach—whether on the streets of America or on the streets of Fallujah—then there really is no difference. “What is most worrisome to us,” said Timothy Lynch, Director-Project on Criminal Justice for the CATO Institute in Washington, D.C., “is that the line that has traditionally separated the military from civilian policing is fading away.” Many see this as a disturbing trend.

The Terms

It is important to understand the terms used in the discussion. The hyperbolic rhetoric often employed by the stakeholders engaged in the discussion—from the media, the citizen, and law enforcement community—can get very emotional, regardless of their respective viewpoints. Emotionalism often poisons the discourse and invalidates legitimate concerns expressed from both sides. For the purpose of this review, we will limit the terms to three—militarism, militarization, and police militarization—and their relevance to the discussion.

–Militarism. This is best described as an ideology that is focused on solving problems via use of force and the threat of violence. Militarism perceives the exercise and projection of military power as the most “efficacious means to solve problems” (Kraska, 2007, pg. 3). There is little room or tolerance for negotiation, arbitration, or compromise in this ideology. If there is resistance, force is the preferred method to compel compliance. Military hardware, tactics, organization, operations, and technology are the primary tools employed under this ideology.

–Militarization. Militarization is simply the active application of the ideology of militarism. It refers to the actual process of “arming, organizing, planning, training for, threatening, and sometimes implementing” violent conflict (Kraska, 2007, pg. 3) to implement the ideology of militarism. A threat of force or use of force requires a credible means to carry out the threat. Militarization provides this credibility.

–Police militarization. The specific term ‘police militarization’ refers to the practice of civilian police departments modeling themselves after the principles of militarism and the military model. Police militarization typically exhibits four dimensions:

  • Material—martial weaponry, equipment, and advanced technology that is specifically associated with—or understood to be associated with—military applications. This would include automatic weapons, armored vehicles, drones, advanced radar or tracking systems, or other technology usually used in combat applications.
  • Cultural—martial language, appearance, beliefs, and values. Specifically this would include use of military language (referring to the public as civilians, hostiles, or targets), uniforms that recognize specific tactical achievement or training, value systems that refer to officers as warriors (or like terms), an erosion of the Constitutional presumption of innocence in the citizen (viewing all citizens as potential criminals that need to prove their innocence), or exhibiting an ‘us’ (police officers) versus ‘them’ (the community) mentality.
  • Organizational—martial arrangements (i.e., command and control centers) and elite officer squads modeled after military units.
  • Operational—patterns of activity modeled after the military in areas like intelligence, supervision, and mission.

In its unique context, police militarization accepts the premise of employing military tactics as a way to approach its domestic law enforcement goals—whether it is crime prevention, arrests, pro-active policing, or investigations. It has been documented for nearly two decades that the lines between military/police, war/law enforcement, and internal/external security are rapidly blurring and military-type approaches to police operations have increased 1400%. This while violent crime is on the decrease, reaching a 40-year low in 2011 (“Violent crime,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011).

Does this clearly demonstrate that law enforcement organizations are increasingly leaning on the threat of force and use of force to police communities, with no evidence of an appreciable rise in crime? Does this suggest that there is no longer an expectation of voluntary compliance with the law? Is the new approach to law enforcement suggesting an attitude that compliance only comes from fearing the authorities who police our communities? Considering the answer to those questions is disquieting to many.

Significance

The importance of this concern cannot be over-stated. At the heart of the discussion of finding ‘what is the most effective way of providing community security’ is trying to decide between force and cooperation—and which approach is most likely to encourage and solidify positive community relationships—that lead to greater trust and safer communities. A strong bond between the citizen and law enforcement community is an essential ingredient in this discussion.

That the U.S. military and local police are forging an ideological alliance to combat social problems like community street crime is—according to some—manifesting a cooperation often associated with oppressive governments, not free societies. It reveals a government that does not trust its citizens but, rather, is suspicious of them. It is seen as very out-of-balance, leaning more on coercive authority, authority that many believe strains at the fabric of our civil liberties.

There is the perception—and associated fear—that the attitude of the criminal justice system has drifted away from a “protect and serve” model, which treats all citizens as innocent, to a “suspect and control” model, which treats all citizens as possible suspects, regardless of whether or not guilt has been established. There is the sense that the new philosophy in law enforcement is to view our neighborhoods as simmering pots of criminal activity that need to be kept from boiling over, with all citizens being potential perpetrators of crime who need to be controlled. Communities and neighborhoods should not be viewed this way, according to the ACLU report, and police officers should not be treating members of the community as potential enemies. Given this growing perception, what is an appropriate philosophy for community policing? What does the public expect?

Safety of the Community

Everyone wants a safe community. We want our children to be safe in the parks, in our neighborhoods, in their schools, at community venues, and in their homes. We want to move about freely without fear of becoming a crime victim. Thus, we want to minimize threats and effectively deal with those that arise in our communities. We also want our law enforcement officers to be safe. They are, after all, our neighbors, members of our church, and little league coaches.

What is the best way to achieve this goal? Every community stakeholder wants a seat at the table—to contribute to the discussion. It is imperative that the citizen and the law enforcement community find a balance—between security, good will, authority, and freedom—that protects our communities, our rights, and relationships with authority.

Balance, however, necessitates that we do not sacrifice one to the priorities of the other. The criminal justice professional and the citizen need to reach an agreement. Law enforcement is more dependent on public support than any other function of self-government. Their relationship is symbiotic; one depends on the other, and vice versa. Militarized law enforcement approaches are seen as being in conflict with finding this balance.

Law enforcement community. The law enforcement officer has a difficult job; no responsible citizen disputes that. Even the most mundane calls for service can end tragically. It is difficult to “plan for the worst while hoping for the best” outcome on calls that range from assessing routine parking tickets to confronting armed suspects in the commission of violent felonies. Of the 100% of the population, law enforcement officers deal 95% of the time with the worst 10%. Sadly, it is a perspective that can make even the most optimistic law enforcement officer cynical. Everyone, it seems, possesses the potential to be one of the 10%, and officers never which percentage they are dealing with. Sometimes, they find out too late.

The law enforcement community is a close-knit family that often views the public as adversarial—mostly because of the cynicism the job breeds—and they expect hostility and opposition from the public for enforcing laws the public does not want to follow. Consequently there is not much desire to associate with, or depend on, the public. Whether this caution is well-placed is open to debate but researchers have discovered, in the last fifteen years especially, that there is a growing divide between the law enforcement community and the citizens they serve. The relationship of trust is not as strong as it once was. The cynicism exhibited by law enforcement officers is negatively impacting their relationships with the community and, consequently, affecting their ability to be trusted.

Community-at-large. The community has a different perspective. It sees the best of the community and does not understand—at times—the tendency of a law enforcement officer to assume that an average citizen is the “worst before determining they are the best.” Though studies show that the public has a deep admiration for law enforcement officers, it resents being caught up in the suspicion that police officers exhibit toward the citizens in their communities; they do not wish to surrender their presumption of innocence to allay the vague suspicions of sometimes very aggressive police officers.

Kooken (1947) offered some sage advice: whether a service is respected or condemned depends greatly on what the public thinks of those who provide the service (pg. 62). This cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, an entire police department—or the entire profession, for that matter—can be judged by the unprofessional actions of a few. Research suggests that public attitudes toward the police are significantly affected by the procedures used to deal with them and excessively coercive measures are not the most effective strategy to create the goodwill that gains citizen support for law enforcement efforts. In the context of police militarization—just because one department is doing it does not mean all should be doing it. When a department uses tactics seen by the public as excessively forceful, all departments employing those tactics will absorb some of that resentment.

However, both the community and the law enforcement community can suffer from situational myopia—seeing only the immediate context of their own situation, without taking the time to examine the merits of conflicting viewpoints. The law enforcement community states, “The public does not understand what we do,” while defending their practices as necessary. The public would respond, “I am a law-abiding citizen, and I resent being assumed I am a potential criminal. Where is my presumption of innocence?”

Argument from the Law Enforcement Officers

“We are seeing suspects better armed than ever before,” said William Landsdowne, San Diego police chief and board member of Major Cities Chiefs Association. In reviewing the support for military equipment and training, the law enforcement community usually points to four specific events as justification for embracing some varying levels of militarization. The North Hollywood shoot-out; the Branch Davidian siege in Waco; Texas; the Ruby Ridge standoff in Ruby, Ridge, Idaho in 1992, MOVE standoff and bombing in Philadelphia in 1985 were all incidents where law enforcement authorities were confronted with heavily-armed subjects, where law enforcement officers were seemingly outgunned.

Support for a militarized approach. The police are warriors, whose mission is to protect every life possible, according to some law enforcement professionals. Use of force is a tool to accomplish that mission, they argue, after properly taking into account the context. In apprehending a violent subject, for example, officers do not take into consideration what is fair to the perpetrator, nor should they. The level of force employed should be of a sufficient level that dissuades the resistance that may lead to injury—for the officer or the offender. An overwhelming show or application of force may be necessary to compel a peaceful surrender, while a weak show of force may invite the violent resistance that leads to tragedy.

Police homicides are an increasing common occurrence, says Lance Eldridge (“The debate over,” 2012), and this equipment is necessary. Consequently, says Joel Shults, retired police chief, some military training and weaponry in civilian hands, especially equipment that is obvious for defensive and protective purposes—such as armored vehicles in a ballistic environment—should not be feared by the citizenry (“Police militarization,” 2013). Though they appear to be “militarized,” Shults says, domestic law enforcement officers’ equipment falls far short of battle-ready troops, yet they are still better equipped than the criminals they will encounter on the streets. Deaton (“Police militarization and one,” 2013) cautions against judging police militarization by how it looks, but rather judge it according to how it acts, in logical response to legitimate threats.

Objections to militarization. The militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies is not welcomed by all law enforcement officers or criminologists. Who are the police protecting? Critics of police militarization argue that in their vigor to confront new and legitimate threats, the “warrior-cop” is ignoring the rights and security of individuals to flesh out those deemed “enemies of the state” (Beede, 2008, pg. 59). If this is the case it reinforces a need for a domestic police structure that balances the “rights and liberties of members of the public while fulfilling the policing requirements of the state” (pg. 59).

SWAT commanders surveyed by Kraska and Kappeler (1997) expressed shock and displeasure when they learned some police paramilitary units (PPU’s)—aka SWAT teams—were conducting street patrols in full tactical gear. They believed it was offensive to the community, counter-productive, and an unnecessary “showing off”—or intimidation with no purpose (pg. 11). Some research data reinforces this view, going so far as to suggest the PPU’s proactively seek out and manufacture high risk situations to justify their mobilization (pg. 12). The ACLU found this in their aforementioned report War Comes Home but the support goes beyond that. Law enforcement professionals are admitting to it:

“We’re into saturation patrols in hot spots…we do a lot of work with SWAT teams because they have bigger guns. We send out two, two-to-four men cars, we look for minor violations and do jump outs, either on people on the street or automobiles. After we jump-out the second car provides periphery cover with an ostentatious display of weaponry (emphasis in original). We’re sending a clear message: If the shootings don’t stop, we’ll shoot someone.” (Kraska & Kappeler, 1997, pg. 10).

Conspicuously absent from this tactical scenario is any mention of due process and the presumption of innocence; not everyone living in a “hot spot” neighborhood is a criminal. It seems a bit provocative to react to a minor violation with “an ostentatious display of weaponry.” One can understand why even some experienced law enforcement officers are expressing concern over these seemingly overly-aggressive tactics, especially for admitted “minor violations.” With research showing that violent crime is decreasing, not increasing, are these tactics necessary? Many long-time and retired law enforcement officers are expressing a real concern that the police militarization trend has gone too far, choosing instead to embrace a community police approach that is dependent on a civil society rather than brute force.

Similar concerns have also been expressed in the Pentagon, the seat of the nation’s military apparatus. Militarized approaches to domestic policing, using military tactics and equipment, had one Pentagon official sarcastically opining that it has turned domestic police officers into Rambos. With the increasing proliferation of military training and equipment to domestic police departments, militaristic approaches to community law enforcement efforts should not surprise anyone; if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Militarization represents an uncompromising and provocative approach that is inherently violent and coercion and intimidation cannot be the primary method of gaining citizen compliance.

Though the tragic outcomes of North Hollywood, Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Philadelphia should be carefully considered, these incidents are the exception, not the rule. And some of the data used to defend militarized tactics is based on a shaky foundation. Though every police officer homicide or line-of-duty death is a tragedy, these death rates have remained relatively stable the last fifteen years, with 2013 recording the lowest number of officer fatalities in the last six decades.

Argument from the Community

The public can exhibit a conflicting attitude with the topic of police militarization. In a cursory review of blog comments CNN’s website under an article on the unrest in Ferguson, one poster wrote: “Military gear and armored vehicles? That’s exactly what I want between my home and these protesters!” Others posts were not so understanding: “This NOT Fallujah!” offered another. However, there does seem to agreement on one thing: militarization does have public support in the appropriate context, it does not in others.

Support for militarization. There is data that shows the public supports a police department’s reliance on force. Some aggressive patrol tactics described here have found strong public support, especially in high-crime neighborhoods. Wherever there is strong fear of becoming a crime victim, there is greater support for any approach which brings much needed peace of mind. Is there a cost associated with this peace of mind? Indeed, there is.

Further, as Balko points out, military tactics—mostly visible to the public via SWAT raids, have their place. However, they should only be used for the most dangerous situations where “police initiated violence is necessary for preventing loss of life.”

Objections to militarization. Injecting militarism into domestic law enforcement approaches has changed the way community police officers view their fellow citizens. It creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ subculture, which Northeastern University criminologist Peter K. Manning calls a “siege mentality,” that is responsible for creating a rift between the police and the communities they serve. This adversarial environment can be exacerbated by existing racial or social tensions, as seen in the recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore. Studies have shown that over-zealous or heavy-handed approaches to law enforcement can stimulate a precipitous decline in approval ratings for law enforcement officers.

This disapproval extends to the equipment some law enforcement executives have argued is necessary in some domestic contexts. A Reason-Rupe poll found that nearly 60% of Americans believe that police use of drones, armored vehicles, and assorted military weapons “has gone too far” (“Cops or soldiers?” 2014) and merely the presence of such equipment creates a disconnect between citizens and their local law enforcement officers. What does the law enforcement community think of the citizenry, when it believes armored vehicles are necessary to enforce the law? Does the law enforcement community really think that its neighbors and fellow community members are that dangerous?

Another poll, conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) discovered that the public opposes by a margin of 80-6% against replacing sworn personnel with military equipment or technology. It would seem they would rather have their local cop from the neighborhood and a personal touch to problem-solving. “You can have all of the sophisticated equipment in the world, but it does not replace common sense and discretion in finding ways to defuse situations” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF.

Solution

What is the solution? Where is the balance between the citizen’s desire for peace of mind, officer safety, and Constitutional protection? As stated earlier, there is symbiotic relationship between the public and law enforcement community. Both have to be willing to consider the needs of the other—a balance if you will—to create the relationship that will build a bridge to greater cooperation, trust, and respect.

Responsibility to the Public

Research suggests that citizens’ contact with the police—direct or indirect—influences their satisfaction with the local police. Some would argue that militarized policing directly impacts public perceptions of the law enforcement community—for the worse. Local law enforcement agencies need to heed well the concerns of the citizens they swore to serve and protect; they need to ever cognizant of the effect police militarization has on the public and its relationship to the law enforcement community. More importantly, law enforcement organizations need to avoid the “citizens interfere with police work” mentality that helps to encourage the divide between them. The rights of the police do not come at the expense of those they have sworn to protect. We do not surrender one to find the other; there has to be a balance.

Recommendations

We should be careful not to use a single approach to resolving this question. There are legitimate reasons for an impressive show of force and real emergencies which require quick action by well-equipped and trained law enforcement officers. The public recognizes this, too.

A Balanced Solution

A positive foundation already exists upon which the law enforcement community can build; police are still rated highly in community surveys and community members exhibit a willingness to submit to police authority that they believe is legitimately exercised. Is militarization legitimately exercised authority? In some contexts, yes. However, there is real concern that it is becoming the rule—not the exception—in solving problems. The internet is abound with examples of seemingly cooperative citizens being thrown to the ground and arrested for asking questions they should legitimately be able to ask a public servant. Though these internet examples do not reflect the majority of police encounters, they do tend to reflect the worst of the profession. Further, they seem to represent an over-eagerness to compel a citizen to comply through use of force rather than persuade a citizen to comply. Kraska (2007) cautions:

“To many people…the military model represents constraint, discipline, honor, control, competence, and a type of patriotism. To others it stands for tyranny, state violence, human rights abuses, war, and an ideology that sees social problems as being best handled through state force (pg. 11).”

Force cannot be the only solution to problems and a law enforcement organization that embraces tactics, equipment, or ideology that represents force is risking a serious dismantling of existing good will with their community.

Respect for the Citizen

Community policing approaches that considers the input of the citizenry has been shown to be the most effective form of law enforcement—both budgetary and statistically. It is citizen focused, driven, and interactive. Militarization leads to more citizen complaints and lawsuits, lowers the level of public support, and leads to the impediment of new ideas. When you rely on force—which almost always works—you are less likely to look for solutions that meet public expectations, especially if they call for higher expectations which demand more effort. There is a cost associated with this—financially and relationally.

Conclusion

Uncritical acceptance and ignorance of police militarization has undermined democratic policing. Law enforcement agencies should not reach the point of no return. Pre-violence behavior, exaggerated suspicion, unwillingness to explain or listen, rude and inconsiderate conduct, acceptance of violence because it leads to a speedy conclusion, however just it may seem, seriously damages the law enforcement community’s relationship with the public. The criminal justice profession should guard against this. However, recognize the legitimate need for some training in tactics for such emergencies where an overwhelming response is necessary, but guard against the overuse of such tactics in the name of expediency. Respect the law and it will work for you. Respect the citizen and they will help you.

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