Law Enforcement Militarization is Complex, Polarizing—and Useful, in the Right Circumstances

In a time where even the smallest political gesture can be divisive, it is unsurprising that the so-called militarization of law enforcement is a hotly debated topic. Duly capable of provoking ugly emotions from a spectrum of beliefs and political leanings, the term by itself—even with no debate attached—has lost all meaning beyond the act of equipping law enforcement with military tools, tactics, and training programs. Images of law enforcement personnel using tactical or military equipment, such as those released during the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt, routinely draw unfavorable comments from onlookers, who view it as a symbol of authoritarianism and overreach; in the end, no minds are changed and, somehow, even fewer ideas of value are exchanged.

In practical terms, however, no topic as complex as militarization can be broken down into a binary political debate. From the culture within law enforcement agencies to the tools, techniques, and strategies they deploy on the streets, the trend is multifaceted, long-lived, and effectively impossible to paint as wholly “good” or “bad.” While an individual may grumble at the sight of a SWAT-clad responder or laugh at a humorous news story about small-town departments purchasing helicopters and amphibious tanks, the true story goes down to the spectrum of opinions surrounding American law enforcement. This spectrum includes their role in a rapidly evolving society, how they should ultimately fulfill it, and the tools they should have to reach their goals.

How an early Trump order reopened the militarization discussion

The past and current presidential administrations have been diametric opposites in their philosophical stances and administrative actions on the matter, which is another unsurprising relic of the militarization debate. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13688, a decree prohibiting the sale of certain types of military surplus to law enforcement organizations, including:

  • Tracked armored vehicles
  • Grenade launchers
  • Large caliber weapons and ammunition

The executive order, which also prohibited agencies from spending federal dollars on these sorts of purchases, further moved several items into a “controlled equipment” category. Items under this provision, including riot gear and specialized vehicles, could be purchased if the acquiring agency provided “additional information, certifications, and assurances.”

Today, law enforcement access to military surplus is back to the status quo, with President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order (Presidential Executive Order on Restoring State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement’s Access to Life-Saving Equipment and Resources). This order effectively neutralized 13688, and restored the provisions set by the highly popular “1033 program,” signed to law under the 1996 National Defense Authorization act by then-President Bill Clinton.

At high level, this bout of executive-order political football reflects the main philosophical and practical arguments proponents and detractors submit when discussing militarization. Though Obama’s list of restricted items was ostensibly designed to keep law enforcement agencies from accessing tools they would likely never need, it also arguably covered items with real tactical value. If there are few valid use cases for a grenade launcher or bayonet in the average agency, for example, other items on the banned list may offer substantial utility when the rare need does arise. Such was the case in Houston, when a surplus of military vehicles helped save lives in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Five-ton, semi-amphibious vehicles granted via the 1033 program were able to access areas few other vehicles could, and carried a much larger human payload than the average truck.

Most departments were aware of 1033 program acquisitions when Executive Order 13688 went into effect, and it is reasonable to assume most were not severely impacted by the banning of certain items.  Having to justify purchases that were previously easy to procure complicates matters in a field where time is tight and additional paperwork is always unwelcome.

However, there is also room to consider the line between PR and practicality. The above-linked piece on Hurricane Harvey quotes Sgt. Jimmie Cook, an officer who, “helps oversee the Harris County Sheriff’s Office 1033 program,” as saying:

“‘They tend to think that we’re militarizing ourselves. No, we’re not […] It’s useful gear that helps supplement our budget and it doesn’t cost the county anything except for the tank of gas to go pick it up.’”

In other words, there is a marked difference between the “humorous news” example presented earlier—read: small-town agencies purchasing helicopters—and departments utilizing government surplus tools for limited, but extremely useful, circumstances. While law agencies would be wise to consider the alienating effect certain acquisitions may have, and the outrage and/or mockery it may earn them if they are unable to adequately justify them. The thought of a department passing on a tool or technology that suits their community’s risk profile for the fear of looking “too militarized” is just as worrisome.

Evolving criminality effects militarization of police tactics—but certain concerns loom

It is posited that the cultural and tactical trend towards law enforcement militarization started near the end of the Vietnam War, when an influx of men with relevant skills and the ability to work under a chain of command filtered back into the workforce. Whether this anecdote is true or not, there is little doubt veteran and ex-military personnel comprise a substantial population of law enforcement rosters nationwide. People who have served in the military comprise only six percent of the population, U.S. Census research from The Marshall Project says, but they represent as much as 19 percent of law enforcement rosters nationwide.

On this basis alone, it makes sense that the internal culture of the average department takes a somewhat militarized bent. An office full of ex-military personnel is bound to shape its workplace to its former professional experience, with civilian coworkers who hold a deep respect for the armed forces further facilitating the change.

On the streets, however, it is arguable that the evolving nature of crime and the paramount need for safety have contributed more to militarization of law enforcement tactics than any other factor. Alongside the Boston Marathon bombings, several notorious events illustrate just how worrying the current crime climate has become. For instance, the 1997 “North Hollywood Shootout”—in which two heavily armored bank robbers effectively rendered the first wave of responders powerless. This permanently “changed the course of policing,” according to an LA Times write up. The 2015 San Bernardino attack saw two assailants murder 14 and injure 22 others before law enforcement could reestablish control. On a more recent timeline, we are all aware and deeply concerned about events like the Las Vegas concert shooting, the Sutherland Springs (TX) church shooting, and numerous others.

Drawing from examples like these are not an appeal to fear, as horrifying as they are. Instead, they illustrate the fact that law enforcement’s enemy is illusive, deadly, and ever changing. Military tactics (and equipment), while unappetizing as images in the media, may be the best way to mitigate loss of life for responders and the public at large.

However, the problems that come with equipment-based and tactical militarization should not be ignored. Studies have shown a potential correlation between militarization and deadly law enforcement activity. Furthermore, military-style activity like SWAT “no-knock” raids have resulted in the wrong locations being raided, persons and property suffering excessive damage, and even unnecessary loss of life [PDF link]. These are all concerns of grave import, and something agencies everywhere should give serious thought before taking military tools or equipment into serious consideration.

Indeed, “no-knock” raids are among the most potentially troubling artifacts of police militarization, and arguably the most deserving of added scrutiny. As the above-linked PDF document notes, the relative effectiveness of this tactic may have led certain departments to use it when less extreme measures may have been more appropriate. Besides the real risk to suspects and people they share a home with, personnel tasked with carrying out these raids may find themselves at extra risk, particularly in states where shooting an unidentified officer may not result in criminal charges. A suspect who knows they can fire and claim ignorance, for example, would be more likely to shoot than one worried about catching a charge for harming or killing an officer. In Indiana, at least one department changed its policies in reaction to the state’s Castle Doctrine laws, requiring uniformed assets to accompany plainclothes officers to any home visits.

Barring these extreme examples of militarization, however, it appears the best approach for agencies considering new tactics mirrors the philosophy behind equipment acquisitions: employing the right tool for the right circumstance.

A hypothetical example may illustrate this stance. Let us say a small-town department, fearing a mass-causality active shooter event, trains its officers in military-style flanking tactics. The majority of officers on the roster may never need to recall this training, and while the department would almost certainly subject itself to scorn and mockery if news of the decision leaked, the lesson could be extremely useful in the rare event that a large-scale shooting did erupt. Even if a team of officers would never need to know how to perform a flank on the average patrol, the knowledge has value because of its potential mitigating effect.

The same idea applies for many forms of tactical militarization, 1033 acquisitions, and other situations where agencies have the ability to utilize military technology at low or no cost. In this instance, foregoing certain upgrades because the event they are designed for “probably won’t happen” is quite disheartening. So, too, is the opinion that all military-style activity must be bypassed for fear of alienating the public, many members of which aren’t bothered by the thought of officers using military tools. While there is certainly room for moderation and a measured approach, saying militarization is bad prima facie because of potential image problems ignores nuance, context, and common sense—and places communities in unnecessary danger.

Posted on Feb 12, 2019