Police… or Military?

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have reignited a question that has surfaced time and again since the first SWAT units were established in the 1960s: “Are the police becoming too militaristic?”

Credit: Public Affairs Books/Jenna Pope
Credit: Public Affairs Books/Jenna Pope

Images of police officers dressed head to toe in tactical gear, including helmets and carrying military style weapons, can be unsettling – especially after years of seeing similar images from the war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not something that the average citizen is accustomed to seeing on their front lawn. It is not what our American culture is accustomed to accepting.

So, why is it becoming commonplace?

First, there is the question of need. A common complaint among law enforcement officials for decades has concerned being outgunned by the criminals. When officers carried revolvers, criminals carried semi-automatics. When officers switched to semi-automatics, criminals started wearing body armor. There has always been a need to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

Second, there is the concern over worst case scenarios. Since 9/11, there has been an obvious concern over possible terrorist attacks. Add to this the ever increasing occurrence of school shootings and other active shooter events, and it is easy to see why departments would feel the need to be prepared for “worst case” occurrences.

MRAP VehicleThird, there is the fact that the equipment is now available. With the recent drawdown in not only the military presence in active war zones, but also overall military numbers, there is a larger amount of surplus gear available. This gear includes not only first aid kits and AR magazines, but also Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

The end result is that departments across America, through a DoD program designed to provide state and local police with surplus equipment, now have access to a wide variety of equipment they otherwise could not afford. In many cases, such as hostage rescue teams or bomb disposal units, it is easy to justify the use of these items. It is equally justifiable for a small department to obtain HUMVEEs for disaster response. The problem is some departments are obtaining, and using, such equipment simply because they can.

I am not claiming this is the case in Ferguson. I have no direct knowledge concerning what specific equipment is available, or how it is being deployed by local or state officers in Missouri. In fact, the images I have seen appear to depict commercially available armored vehicles and officers wearing standard riot gear – modern versions of what has been utilized for decades. But that does not negate the fact that many citizens in many jurisdictions see what they believe is an occupying force, rather than a police department, responding to their 911 calls. When the use of such equipment is justified, as the case may be in Ferguson, citizens are less tolerant and more prone to cry foul.

Do not misunderstand me; I am a long time law enforcement officer and I am 100% in favor of protecting officers whenever possible. If a MRAP vehicle will allow the rescue of a downed officer or the safe capture of an active shooter, then bring 10! But is an 18 ton armored vehicle manned by officers dressed in camouflage, with their faces covered in black balaclavas parked outside a college football game really the best “show of force?”

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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