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Indiana Law Enforcement Academy

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The Militarization of the Police

by Michael J. Lindsay
Op-Ed

Over the past several months, a number of articles have been published about the militarization of America’s police departments. Immediately after the civil disorders that resulted from the Ferguson shooting, another group of articles surfaced concerning police militarization as well as a number of reports by the mainstream media.

I recently discussed this topic with a group of veteran officers at the Academy, and the overwhelming opinion was that officers need these tactics and this type of military equipment for the threats they face today. I could not disagree.

Where I am sure I will be chastised by fellow officers is in my concern that the use of these tactics and this equipment may not be needed as often as they are used. A video recently surfaced (on August 28, 2014) in which a person playing a combat video game was “taken down” by a local tactical squad after someone called in a bogus complaint saying it sounded like there was shooting coming from that location.

Unfortunately for the police, the other gaming participants were video recording “the victim” through his computer camera when the police came through the door (http://youtu.be/q48j1a_ny-4). Fortunately for the victim, he did not make any furtive move when the tactical team entered. This video was subsequently aired on at least one national news outlet. The notion of “balance” comes to mind in these situations although this is a difficult concept to sell when emotions run high.

The crucial issue is, of course, determining at what point these more extreme tactics are needed. This is an issue of discretion, which is an important issue within the profession, which is shaped, to a degree, by public perception. Regrettably, discretion is not normally exercised through the use of a single bright-line rule.

On the other hand, if we cannot find a balance, “they” rather than “us” will likely be setting the rules for these types of police operations in the future. This lack of internal control has been a shortcoming within law enforcement ever since our first real pushes towards professionalization back in the late 1960s.

Most officers today do not remember the nearly endless stream of Supreme Court decisions that nationalized police procedure and increasingly restricted police conduct in the 1960s and 1970s. Most officers today do not remember the violence of the civil rights riots, the burnings, the college demonstrations, the Kent State shootings, the bloody hostage-takings in our prisons, or the Viet Nam War and draft resistance movements. These were not the best of times for many police departments.

Because of these conditions, police officers in those days were often not held in the highest regard by certain segments within our society, and those public perceptions eventually translated into legal restrictions imposed almost exclusively by outside authorities.

In contrast, officers today enjoy a fairly high level of public admiration. Our post 9-11 society has lulled many police officers into believing that any change—clothed in the fabric of improved security or crime fighting—will continue to be unquestionably accepted by the public.

A decade ago, I remember seeing an armored personnel carrier being used in Arizona by police to crash through the outside wall of a very nice house for the purpose of serving an arrest warrant. I remember seeing officers dressed in tactical gear for normal police patrol duty. I regularly noticed officers cuffing everyone in a car and having them sit on the curb for relatively routine vehicle stops. I notice more of these enhanced tactics now being used by police departments in our heartland. I wonder if these tactics will be as tolerated in the future as they were in the past.

Advanced tactical procedures are definitely necessary in many instances, but there is a cost. This cost seems to increase dramatically when these tactics are only marginally necessary, and these costs, mostly to police autonomy, will undoubtedly increase again as the media becomes more interested in these stories. On one end of the scale, there is the problem of determining when advanced tactics are necessary, but a second challenge comes when viewing the other end of the scale and discerning the point at which these tactics become highly undesirable. Not an easy task!

Officers can nearly always invoke the well worn declaration that it is better to be overly aggressive than to risk injury or death. That claim is virtually impossible to refute, but yet there is a point at which most observers—and even some hardened officers—begin to feel as if we are starting to go too far. Others disagree.

Today’s conditions are, after all, more dire than previous years—or are they? Just watching the news media, one would certainly think this is so, but the fact is our line-of-duty deaths are down to about 100 per year. In the early 1970s, line-of-duty deaths ranged from 219 (1970) to 280 (1974). The same can be said for our “Serious Crime” stats (as recorded through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports).

I suspect that if one were to ask an officer on the street if more officers are dying today from felonious assaults or if serious crime is worse today than in the past, the majority of officers would respond in the affirmative.

Even when confronted with the statistics, there is always the argument that more officers today wear vests and use superior tactics, and these factors alone could account for the differences in officers killed. These claims and counterclaims are tough to prove with any certainty, but the one conclusion that could and perhaps should be drawn from those statistics is that the last decade has not been manifestly more threatening to officers than any other time in our history.

When the Ferguson post-shooting disturbances erupted, my first thought was that I was reliving those nightly news reports from the 1960s and 1970s. This was a déjà vu experience that gave a quick refresher lesson on perspective.

Those of us who were officers in the early 1970s and performed duties in those conditions recognize that one of the good things about history is that it always provides us a lesson to be learned. The discouraging thing about history is that we so often repeated it, without having learned a thing.

[As always, anyone interested in submitting an article to the Journal is invited to do so by emailing: mlindsay@ilea.in.gov with a copy of the article attached to the email.]