I’m sure most of you have read countless articles in the mainstream media about the so-called “militarization” of law enforcement in the U.S. – it’s a hot-button topic these days, but most of those articles have centered around the concept that the acquisition of military equipment by domestic LE agencies somehow poses a threat, in and of itself, to civil rights and liberties. There are, of course, legitimate questions which must be answered around that, but I’d like to take a closer look today at the LE side of the coin in terms of why it is we’re acquiring these items, and the realistic aspects of their use.
What Do We Look Like?
There’s been a lot of controversy in recent years around the way the public perceives our approach to the law enforcement mission – specifically, questions around whether or not we as police officers are coming at our calls with the mindset of a solider “versus” that of a police officer. (Even some of our elected officials are throwing their hats into the ring.) It’s interesting that so many seem to have such a clear idea that such a line is so clearly drawn in the sand – but if we take an honest look at the reality of our world on the street every day in terms of not only the situations we face, but those which it’s possible that we’ll face, that line isn’t always where people think it would be.
One of the primary items that agencies have been acquiring, and one which has drawn the most attention, are armored vehicles such as MRAP’s (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected military personnel carriers) and BearCats (a primarily law-enforcement oriented vehicle most commonly configured for SWAT operations). It’s easy to see why the public might be scared by seeing one of these driving around their neighborhood – because to them, they see it as an offensive capability rather than what it really is, a defensive protection for officers who, yes, may be going on the offense, but only against a threat to that same public. Therein lies the first perceived crossing of the officer/soldier line, because of the association between war vehicles and a war mission.
Why Do We Look Like That?
But why are we actually using these? Does your agency have a legitimate possible threat that they might respond to which would require military-grade shielding? And, more importantly, how are we using them? The first two questions are pretty easy: we’re using them because the line between civilian and combatant has been blurred as well in terms of offensive capabilities (the “militarization” of civilians, if you will), and as a result, it’s quite possible that yes, we will in fact be facing a .50 caliber weapon that anything short of full battle armor just won’t stop. No officer, regardless of where in the country they are, or the nature of the jurisdiction they serve, should be expected to face down a life threat without proper protection if that protection can be acquired for them.
The third question, however, is a little more difficult to answer, but probably the most critical, and goes back to the concept I just mentioned regarding offensive versus defensive perception on the part of the public. Here, much more starts to come into the picture, including how you look in terms of the uniform you’re wearing, the weapons and equipment you’re carrying on you, and, most importantly, how you project yourself outwards as a result.
How Do We Look To Others?
Now, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of us will have a slightly different presence when dealing with an armed individual (lots of verbal commands given at volumes designed to be heard clearly) as opposed to a parking violation (I certainly hope we’re not screaming at these guys, even though sometimes I’m sure it’s tempting when they’re parked sideways across a disabled spot and a crosswalk in front of a school.) Likewise, you’re probably going to be dressed differently if you’re expecting to be on a traffic assignment as opposed to serving warrants.
That last point – the fact that we do make a distinction as to how we look – needs to also be carried over to how we act and present ourselves if the civilian world is to understand the real reasons behind why we might be seen as becoming “militarized.” That means scaling your response level not only in terms of the use-of-force continuum, but also in terms of the equipment you bring to bear as a result – the simple answer to these civilian inquiries is that we’re getting prepared to counter the realistic highest level of threat that we anticipate on a given call.
For its part, the realistic highest level means even such basic things as whether or not you bring out your AR or shotgun, let alone whether or not to utilize a tactical team with an armored vehicle. Just like with the parking violator above, considering the appropriate response level is paramount, because If we come to over-utilize these tools, the perception will continue to shift towards police as soldiers in an oppressive, not a protective, sense, and the more firmly that line will be drawn in the minds of the public.
The more that happens, the greater the likelihood is that the resultant backlash will deprive us of those tools which we do, in fact, need, to protect and serve – when the simple fact of the matter is that being a cop means shielding others as a warrior when necessary, even as we obey the constraints which liberty necessitates, and which our military soldiers nobly sacrifice to protect. Being properly equipped today means being properly prepared to counter even those threats which were, in the past, only seen by those soldiers, but being responsible means knowing when, and how, to do so.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.