You are here


Police militarization

Policy areas: 
Rick's thoughts: 

Yes, I was a police officer. No I was never a member of a big city police force. And no - Ferguson MO is not a big city - only 21,203 vs my home town of Maquoketa that had about 6,000. Not that different, except for one thing. Since I left the Maquoketa Police Department in 1974, law enforcement agencies (city police, sheriff's departments, state police) have become heavily militarized, from top to bottom.

What does militarized mean? Roughly this - they have acquired military technology, and they have acquired a military attitude.

The military technology has been widely on display in Ferguson. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs). Police body armor (bullet proof vests and crotch protectors, knee pads, arm pads, gloves, gas masks). Short barreled 5.56 mm rifles (assault rifles - real assault rifles, not AR-15s, which anyone can purchase). Long Range Accoustic Devices (LRADs), designed to dissuade through 149 decibel noise.

Many people have commented on this military gear in Ferguson, but in fact it is well dispersed all across America. In Iowa we know of at least eight MRAPs (Buena Vista County, population 20,260, has two). I live in Linn County, and we have received at least 85 assault rifles from the Defense Department. So far only three Iowa counties have grenade launchers (but Buena Vista - those little rascals - has five of them). 

As for their military attitude this has more or less been trained into law enforcement since I left the MPD. Back then we were all supposed to go to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Des Moines for training, but there was a waiting list so long I never even attended. In other words training was a bit on the light side. Nevertheless we did OK - investigations were made, suspects were identified and interrogated (no knuckles rapped in the process), confessions and convictions were regularly forthcoming. If you'd like to take a look at what the ILEA offers today you'll see everything from 'Bicycle Maintenance for the  Bicycle Patrol Officer'  (2 days) to a 'Less Lethal Munitions Instructor' course (4 days).

As I see it the number one problem with all this training is the near universal acceptance of the concept of overwhelming force. Remember 'shock and awe' in Gulf War Two? The strategy was to scare the Iraqis into submission from day one. And it worked (sort of - the Iraqis seem to have recovered a bit of their nerve in recent years).

This same concept has infiltrated Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Most of their 'action' is on drug busts - a far cry from the shoot outs and hostage situations originally used to justify SWAT team creation. In the United States there are over 50,000 SWAT deployments annually - that would be an average of 1,000 per state per year - but when was the last actual Iowa shoot out or hostage situation you can remember? Hint - there aren't very many of them. There are just a lot of drug busts by Iowa SWAT teams.

The members of SWAT teams are trained for extreme situations, but practice their tractics during ... ordinary encounters with civilians. Like a couple of people sitting around their house with a bong. Flash bang! Gotcha ...

This tough guy training rubs off on the rest of the police force. Officers want to 'man up' so they aren't perceived as runtlings by their comrades. This causes the tough guy attitude to trickle down into the considerably less exciting daily police routine. Suddenly a stop for a minor traffic violation becomes an opportunity for the police officer to demonstrate 'shock and awe.' It works, of course, so the officer takes that positive feedback and gradually learns to apply it in all situations. Shock and awe. Shocking, and awful.

Over time this has an insidious effect on the public. They quit wanting to have any interractions with police officers, because they don't like being shocked and awed. Better to turn your head and walk quickly in the opposite direction. The police are no longer Officer Friendly, they have turned themselves into your enemy.

Shall we throw in some racism? Why not - the Drug War started with racism and has fed on it for a hundred years. There are dozens of articles out there describing the problem, what it boils down to is this - being black in America messes you up with the police. 

In the kind of depressing tinderbox police militarization and racism create, a small spark like the Michael Brown killing brings out the worst of everybody. Police bring in MRAPs and assault rifles. Citizens bring in molotov cocktails and small arms. Whoops - things get out of control.

It's not just whiners and moaners that make these observations. When The Economist starts writing about the militarization of our police, you know you have to start taking things seriously.

So what to do about it?

I have two easy to implement solutions. First - disband all Iowa SWAT teams immediately. Replace them with a single state wide SWAT team, to be composed of volunteers (absolutely no extra pay) from any Iowa law enforcement agency that wants to have someone on the team. And an absolute maximum of one person from any city or town. 

This creates a SWAT team that works a bit like a volunteer fire department. Instead of the firefighters hanging out at the fire station all day long playing checkers, they go about their normal daily activities elsewhere. And on the rare occasions when their services are needed, they drop what they are doing and drive directly to the fire. Volunteer fire departments are amazingly effective, and virtually every small Iowa town has one.

It also means there is only one 'tough guy' in each law enforcement agency. From personal experience I don't think that guy (let's be clear here - she could be a tough gal) is going to exert undo influence on the militariastic thinking of the rest of the force. And it could be quite the opposite - the rational officers could tamp down the tough guy's daily demeanor.

My second proposal is to simply collect all the military hardware that's out there now and destroy it. The military obviously doesn't want it and the police obviously don't need it. Let's have a bonfire.

Now, when crowd control seems necessary, law enforcement is going to appear exactly as they do in every day life. No helmets, night vision goggles, jackboots and assault weapons. Just your friendly neighborhood police on the scene to keep a bit of a lid on public exuberance.

The former Chief of Police of Seattle, who had a bit of experience with public demonstrations, seems to think I'm on the right track. More likely, of course, he's on the right track, and I'm just following him. Because I don't have original ideas, I just steal good ones every time I find one.

Here's to a de-militarized police force, in Iowa and across the nation.

Here's a one minute video, saying the same thing as above, without the hoo-hah.



Aaron's picture

Rick, I would like to know what you think about war and the ways that our nation interacts with other nations. Thank you for the time you have put into explaining what you think. Not many candidates have given such thorough explanations. Thanks.
Nicole's picture

I'm curious about where you draw the line. I mean, if someone is making meth in their house, and they are unstable, have weapons and there is evidence worthy of a search, how much force would you say is necessary? I mean, do you expect your "friendly neighborhood" police man or woman to go in their with their normal gun and no bullet proof vest? Or would those instances be considered SWAT worthy? If so, is just one SWAT team enough? I guess I have no idea how many violent criminals are arrested each month in SWAT raids, or how long it would take for the SWAT team from all different cities/counties to get to any given location.

First of all I would end the Drug War, so there would be no one in their house making meth (or if there were, we wouldn't care about it). SWAT teams now are used simply because they are available, not because they are necessary. When I was a police officer in 1972/3 we had no SWAT team, nor do I believe did anyone else in Iowa. Since that time violent crimes both in Iowa and in the entire country have gone down, not up, so there should be less of a need for SWAT teams now, than there was then. As for your ´friendly neighborhood´police wo/man yes, I do expect them to take risks in their work. More risks, in fact, than they currently take. It is useful to remember police work doesn't even make the top 10 list of most dangerous jobs in America, whereas garbage collector and UPS driver both do. We have let emotions and myths set public policy - never a good idea.

Add new comment