Militarization of the police has become a hot topic in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. Something one which I’ve held off giving an opinion. Militarization of the police? Yeah, absolutely against that. It goes far against my generally libertarian principles. I don’t see where this is a new story. It’s been discussed in conservative and libertarian circles for years. The increasing no-knock SWAT raids with their trail of bad shoots, dead dogs and injured kids makes that police state danger clear.
However, what I’m seeing here in Ferguson – not far from me – is very different.
For starters, we’re not seeing cops with “machine guns.” There are police with the very same semi-automatic modern rifles and standard magazines that pro Second Amendment people have been defending for decades. Using body armor? Yeah. As does any cop with a brain, regardless of the uniform. Military UCP or MARPAT dress? Now that, yes, I can see a problem there. It might be cheap. It may be “tacticool.” But it sure doesn’t help calm matters. Field blues or khakis would be a less threatening presence without giving up situational control.
One thing that I call just plain dumb is stuff like the photo circulating of the officer on top the vehicle with his rifle. The press keeps reporting this as a sniper atop a MRAP. Sorry, but all I see is a dangerously exposed cop with his rifle on the roof of a BearCat. A mobile rest for a light rifle like an AR15, wielded by a lightly armored officer in an extremely exposed position doesn’t come close to being called a “sniper.” I actually feel sorry for him. It’s a good thing the police there were just worrying about looters. If the situation were real civilian unrest, even with minimal organization, this guy would be first casualty right before the BearCat was neutralized.
And that goes to a dirty little secret people – especially the media – are not considering. Outside places like NYC, Chicago and New Jersey, even with gear like this the police are massively outgunned with respect to the law-abiding populace at large. Even with body armor, you do *not* want to get hit with a .300 Win Mag. Or .30-anything from a rifle, for that matter. And I sure as heck wouldn’t want to have to cross that 200-500 yard kill zone the public has to get in the effective range with the officers light 5.56 rounds.
Yet, even though a police force may not be better armed the general public, they certainly outgun individuals. That is one area where “militarization” is often seen. A SWAT no-knock raid with overwhelming force on an unconfirmed report is a military response, not a police response. “SWATing” someone has become a deadly means of revenge. Unapologetic shooting of a family pet when it is the officer moving into family property is seen as unacceptably authoritarian. An expectation of unquestioned and abject obedience such as Sunil Dutta expects will be seen as the actions of a police state. While most Americans are unwilling to submit, you’ll find almost all of us quite cooperative when asked respectfully. Especially here in (most of) the U.S. where rugged individualism is still the norm. Or to put it another way, “militarization” is a matter of attitude, not equipment. In the military, you are conditioned to not ask “Why?” when told to jump. In most civilian life, the person who doesn’t ask “Why?” is considered unthinking.
My point in this? The reality is that their authority is granted to them by the public they serve. The effectiveness of police as peace officers is proportional to the trust the public is willing to give them. Militarization is more of an attitude. If you don’t understand the difference between cooperation and obedience, then you will have problems with the public. If you don’t understand the difference between being in control of the situation versus being in control of the people, well actually, I’d say you’re foolish. The differences are extremely subtle but also extremely important to maintaining the peace.
This is significantly different than policing in much of the rest of the world. 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.
Frankly, this particular subject is personal for me. I have three good friends who are law enforcement officers, not to mention numerous LEO acquaintances over the years. I’m picky about who I call friend, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are all good people committed to serving their fellow citizens. I want them to be safe and the reality is that militarization actually makes them less safe.
While a well-equipped police force isn’t a threat to an organized community in most of the US, excessive militarization undermines that confidence and trust by the community. The result is disrespect and contempt on both sides. Once all of that is truly gone, the only result will be chaos.