Analyzing the issue of police militarization

Introduction

Police militarization has become a hot-button issue in recent times with the nation tiring of the seemingly constant deaths at the hands of police. Many of these unnecessary and wrongful deaths have disproportionately affected African Americans, sparking nationwide protests which have further emphasized an underlying issue in our country: police militarization. Law enforcement has been consistently growing its collection of military equipment and using it in a wider variety of situations that do not warrant such excessive force.

Members of the community deserve to be treated with respect by the officers sworn to protect them and should see repercussions against police forces that inappropriately utilize military equipment against them. Police officers also deserve to have departments focus on things that improve their jobs and protect them rather than giving the appearance of protection. Why those things do not happen now is a whirlwind of different factors. Not everyone understands why police have this equipment in the first place and tend to assume it is due to overfunding. Many assume that police are just always aggressive and have gotten out of control, requiring more restraint. Police have even been misled into believing that all this military equipment is protecting them and aiding in their abilities.

The real reasoning behind everything can be explained by anomie theory, which posits that instability stems from the breakdown of rules and standards which govern societal behavior. As standards have continued to deteriorate, police have grown more and more accustomed to doing as they please, giving them a sense of immunity from the law. Certain stakeholders would like to continue to see those standards degrade, while other stakeholders argue that the standards are virtually nonexistent already.

Position

Police are not out of control, but many of them have been severely misguided and have strayed too far from their path of serving a community. Military equipment is not the solution to any problem in a modern city that needs simple law enforcement. It is eroding the faith and relationships between community members and officers and causes some to live in constant fear of police. Military equipment also gives police a false sense of security and simultaneously diverts funding and attention away from more important issues that could improve the lives of officers who put their lives at risk every day. Overall, police militarization has only caused problems, for both civilians and officers.

Specialized Forces

One of the most common stereotypes out there is that all police are as aggressive as the photos we are bombarded with showing militarized police forces. They all want power, and they all want big guns to intimidate people. But that is not true in the slightest and many officers have never participated in such a photo opportunity or outright oppose the use of military equipment in police departments as much as civilians do. What is often being seen is a photo of a specialized unit, such as SWAT, fully dressed in their gear.

It helps to understand the history of SWAT because that is where police militarization could be said to have planted its roots. These teams were originally trained as highly specialized teams which responded to only the most severe cases, such as hostage scenarios. They used tactics and thinking so refined that it did not make sense to train all officers on them. After all, officers were meant to protect communities and their jobs rarely encounter a hostage situation.

After the War on Drugs began, though, the line of severity for the use of SWAT teams dwindled drastically and started being used more and more to conduct simple raids of residences in search of drugs (Oliver, 2021). It may make sense logistically to a department to find more uses for a specialized team to justify its existence, but one cannot even argue that someone selling drugs out of their home is on the same level of severity as someone holding a hostage at gunpoint.

One extreme example of how a SWAT team trains versus how it is used comes in the form of a “religious cult mass murder scenario” put on as a training exercise. In this scenario, officers are infiltrating a religious cult and because of the police presence, the cult leader is in the process of mass-murdering everyone inside, putting a time crunch on police (Oliver, 2021). Now to put that into perspective, cults are already extremely rare, let alone a cult leader that would start murdering all its members at the first sign of police. Couple that with the fact that a local police department would likely never get involved with such a scenario, as the jurisdiction for such an extreme case would likely fall under the FBI and ATF. So why are local police training on a scenario they will never encounter?

Anomie theory helps to explain the chaos surrounding these specialized teams. Police departments, and especially these teams, often operate under no real standards. The standards for the use of SWAT in real situations have eroded so much that they might as well not exist and there are no standards for the kind of training these teams should be receiving. Without the proper throttles put into place to prevent these teams from flying off the guard rails, they are essentially free to do whatever they want and train however they want.

Because of this lack of rules and regulations regarding police conduct and use of military equipment, many people nationwide have lost all trust in police regardless of the officer or department (Jacobs, 2018). The communities they are sworn to protect believe they have gotten out of hand and need to be reigned back. Many also believe that police do not face appropriate accountability when they do something wrong or destructive and that they are above the law.

Police Funding

Another common stereotype in circulation contends that police are overfunded and have far too much money to spend on things that communities do not deem necessary. This incorrect assumption has even led to modern movements like Defund the Police, demanding that funding be slashed or departments abolished altogether so that they can be reformed or completely restarted from scratch.

This mindset stems from a fundamental lack of understanding for police budgeting because the media never discusses the federal programs where departments acquire their military equipment. The federal government currently operates two programs that allow for the dispersal of used military equipment that the Defense Department no longer needs to local police departments around the country.

The 1122 initiative allows police departments to purchase the same military equipment used by the military at steep discounts, or the price paid by the military itself, while the 1033 initiative allows departments to receive excess equipment free of charge so long as they can pay for the shipping and ongoing maintenance costs (Lee, 2020). However, most departments utilize the 1033 initiative to get free equipment, which means that slashing a department’s budget does nothing to prevent them from acquiring further military equipment.

This program is not without its extreme examples either. It is excessively easy for departments to convince the federal government that they are worthy of receiving military equipment for just about anything, as demonstrated by a small town in New Hampshire. This town applied to receive an armored personnel truck – which most people would describe as a tank – to defend their annual pumpkin festival out of concern that it may be targeted by terrorists in the future because terrorism is inherently unpredictable (Oliver, 2014). That application was approved, and that department has a tank now to defend a festival that occurs once a year and whose attendance does not even climb into six digits.

Again, the lack of standards and regulations regarding the existence of these programs is to blame, tying back into anomie theory. These two initiatives seem to be content providing high-grade military equipment to departments that can stretch their reasonings far enough to include the word “terrorism” in their application somewhere.

But by the very reasons provided in this example, terrorism is inherently unpredictable and can occur at any time in any place. Using that logic, every department is eligible to receive military equipment regardless of their demonstrated need, reinforcing the necessity of stricter guidelines on who gets this military equipment and why.

Police Perspectives

As the modern climate continues to shift against the police and their practices, it is important to review the perspective of law enforcement as well. If all officers are not pursuing military weaponry for power and control, then why are departments so keen to have it? What is the motivation behind militarization?

That is exactly what Meitl, Wellman, and Kinkade wanted to find out in their research. They surveyed all the sheriffs in Texas and asked some questions to gauge their perceptions of police militarization. According to these responses, 92% of them believed that the equipment would improve the safety of their officers (2020). More interesting numbers showed that two-thirds of the sheriffs questioned identified the “war on police” as a strong motivator for why officers needed more protection, but that only 17.6% of them believed this militarization created a “we versus them” scenario between police and the public (2020). Yet those two statements are contradictory. If one believes there is a war on police, how can one also believe that there is no second party to such a war?

There is another major problem with this rationale though: it is simply not true. Research has repeatedly shown that officers having access to military equipment does nothing to improve officer safety or the safety of the communities they serve, nor does it help to reduce crime rates (Mummolo, 2018). Leaders making policy and directing their departments based on intuition rather than fact brings about the strongest example of anomie theory yet. There is no standard or basis for a police department to be able to justify a policy decision. If the leader of a department wants to do something, then there is little standing in the way of them doing so especially in the case of elected sheriffs.

This creates a bit of a cycle where a department perceives a situation as problematic, enacts policies to address that perception, and then reinforces their decision when the community reacts negatively to that situation. The cycle could not be clearer in this instance, where some leaders are using their perceived “war on police” to further fuel their ambitions for militarization which is exactly the thing that people are protesting.  

Anomie Theory

The issues outlined have repeatedly pointed at a lack of standards and regulations leading to police militarization. While some standards never existed, others have degraded over time. While analyzing the relationship of anomie with police militarization, it is important to understand the various stakeholders of the issue. The most obvious ones are the police departments and officers under them as well as the communities they serve. Due to how disproportionately they are affected, African Americans and other minorities also have a large stake in the issue. Others include the United States Department of Defense and the corporations which produce military equipment and would like to continue selling it.

How do all these stakeholders get tied together? The answer is almost always power. And power comes in multiple different forms. More directly with regards to police, power represents their literal control over the community and the respect that comes with the uniform as well as their ability to complete their jobs. Yet power corrupts and that corruption has resulted in departments smashing away the rules that apply to them. In the case of SWAT teams, the rules governing when they can be utilized have continued to be whittled away over time.

Power is also present within the nation’s military. The Department of Defense wants to show power and strength to the world and is willing to spend massive amounts of money to acquire the latest equipment. The corporations are all too eager to help and continue making modifications to their gear so that the military will keep buying new things. This leaves the military in a situation where it is constantly upgrading or overbuying and needs to get rid of old or excess. Preferably, it would find other uses for it so as not to waste taxpayer dollars, and their solution was to give it away to the police.

Through all this pursuit of power, there are many stakeholders involved and almost no standards in how any of the parties interact. The lack of standards in all these processes has some unfortunate side effects that need to be addressed. The communities and minority groups no longer feel safe and that can only mean the police are not doing their jobs correctly.

Conclusion

Law enforcement officers are not members of the military and should not have military equipment. Their job is to protect the communities they serve, and they need to have the appropriate tools to do so. Military equipment only evokes fear and intimidation and has not caused any statistically significant increase in officer or community safety (Mummolo, 2018), even though that is the perception proponents would like to portray.

The most straightforward and expedient solution to this problem would be ending the 1033 and 1122 programs run by the federal government. Barring additional funding from their local government, shutting these programs down would make it effectively impossible for police departments to acquire new military equipment and halt further militarization. There is no ethical reason for police to be acting or arming themselves as military personnel and the government should have been more responsible in dispensing old equipment.

Ideally, the next best goal is addressing the need to establish more national standards for how police behave and what things they can do. These standards should better reflect the expected role of police within communities so that both our officers and citizens can be better protected. One standard that needs heavy focus is the use of SWAT teams. This standard has degraded much over the years and needs to be reinforced so that simple drug violations are not being met with such overwhelming and disproportional force.

The hardest solution involves more of an ideological shift. Unfortunately, some officers believe that there is an active war against the police. On the flip side, we have departments literally gearing up like they are going to war against their communities. Outside of eliminating this “us versus them” mentality on both sides, there also needs to be a dramatic shift in the core philosophies of policing.

A great example would be the use of deadly force, which is justified if the officer’s life has been threatened. Yet if more money was put into researching better non-lethal weaponry that could quickly eliminate a threat without any risk of life, then we could easily eliminate deaths as a whole and greatly reduce the tension. In essence, aim for a reality where the loss of life is seldom justified.

Another example of a philosophical change is getting departments to admit they are not equipped to do something and asking for help. Police are trying to take on too many tasks they are not trained for and then get confused why people are angry when they do those tasks poorly. Acting as a military force is one such task. Riots are better handled by the National Guard, which is explicitly trained to handle those situations, just as counter-terrorism operations are better handled by federal agencies.

This country does not need one department that can do everything in a mediocre and unsatisfactory fashion. It needs multiple departments that are specialized in different tasks and can work together to accomplish their objectives as effectively and peacefully as possible. None of that is going to happen unless some serious thought is put into expanding policing standards and regulations and outlining who is responsible for which tasks.

Jacobs, T. (2018, August 20). The Militarization of Police Does Not Reduce Crime. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/social-justice/militarization-of-police-does-not-reduce-crime. Lee, N. (2020, July 9). Why police pay nothing for military equipment. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/09/why-police-pay-nothing-for-military-equipment.html. Meitl, M. B., Wellman, A., & Kinkade, P. (2020, August 13). Armed and (potentially) dangerous: exploring sheriffs’ perspectives of police militarization. Policing: An International Journal, 43(5), 845-859. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1108/PIJPSM-05-2020-0079. Mummolo, J. (2018, September 11). Militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(37), 9181-9186. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1073/pnas.1805161115. Oliver, J. (2014, August 18). Ferguson, MO and Police Militarization [Video]. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUdHIatS36A. Oliver, J. (2021, March 1). Raids [Video]. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYdi1bL6s10.