Police militarization is not a thing

Police have always been organized as a paramilitary force, and better discipline, equipment, and crime-fighting strategies are actually good.

On this blog, I try to avoid just tearing down bad ideas because I would rather have a broader conversation about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to policing. Also, if I only wrote about bad ideas, I would never write about anything else because there are just so many bad ideas when it comes to policing and crime that I can’t possibly get to them all.

But today, I’m going after one of the dumbest, most harmful, and most commonly repeated tropes in the criminal justice conversation: The idea that police are now more “militarized” and that this is in some way causing police misconduct or increasing the number of police shootings. This claim has no basis in empirical reality and never did. It’s based solely on a combination of libertarian sophistry, nostalgia for a “good old days” of policing which never actually existed, and a misunderstanding of how modern tactical equipment is actually used by police departments. Yet it gets serious attention in the mainstream media and among self-styled police “reformers.”

Defining police militarization

The first major problem with “police militarization” is that it is hard to define. What does it mean to say police are becoming “militarized”? I’ve found that when I ask this question in a casual conversation, I get a wide variety of different answers.

I think it’s helpful to start by remembering what the military is designed to do. The military is an organization that kills our foreign enemies when our political leaders think it is in our national interest to do so. During World War II and the Korean War, it wasn’t uncommon for the military to level entire cities. Our military is still definitely able to do this. But we now routinely send soldiers to do “nation-building” missions where troops consciously attempt to avoid civilian casualties, build schools, and try to apprehend insurgents without killing them. This looks much less like the “kill people and break things” military of old, and more like a military that has been asked to do something similar to police work. The last twenty years have revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the military is not especially good at this mission.

But most people are not worried about the military becoming policeified - they’re worried about police militarization. So what does that mean? Peter Kraska, one of the academics most responsible for popularizing the concept of “police militarization” defines it as “the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.” Kraska says that police militarization can be measured using four indicators:

  • material—military-grade weaponry, equipment, and advanced technology;

  • cultural—martial language, style (appearance), beliefs, values;

  • organizational—martial arrangements such as “command and control” centers (e.g., COMPSTAT), or elite squads of officers patterned after military special operations patrolling high-crime areas or conducting routine warrant service work;

  • operational—patterns of activity and training modeled after the military, such as in the areas of counterterrorism, high-risk situations, or militaristic war/restoration programs such as the U.S. Weed and Seed program.

So now we have criteria that can help us define whether police are becoming more militarized. But do they actually mean anything?

Police departments are paramilitary organizations

Looking over Kraska’s criteria, one thing is immediately obvious: Police have always been militarized in the “organizational” and “operational” sense, both in the United States and elsewhere. American police have always worn uniforms, carried weapons, and used military ranks. Specialty units and marksmanship training date back at least to the days of August Vollmer. So when Kraska says police are adopting a martial “style” or creating specialized units (“elite squads of officers”) around the military model, I pretty much discount it entirely because that is not a change. Police have been “militarized” in this sense for hundreds of years.

Kraska obscures this by identifying “indicators” of contemporary militarization that are “martial” only in the shallowest sense of the term. For example, Kraska apparently considers COMPSTAT a martial “command and control” system. I’m no fan of “stats-based” policing, but COMPSTAT generally involves police commanders sitting around a table, looking at Powerpoints about statistical crime trends, and trying to react to them. I’m sure the military also has meetings for commanders and I bet they also sometimes use statistics to measure performance, but unless the generals are talking about crime trends, repeat offenders, and community engagement, the comparison here is entirely superficial.

Another example Kraska gives of militarization is the Department of Justice’s “Weed and Seed” program. I guess maybe this title sounds kind of intimidating, but the DOJ describes the program as just another flavor of community policing:

The strategy is based on collaboration, coordination, community participation, and leveraging resources. Weed and Seed sites maximize existing programs and resources by coordinating and integrating existing Federal, State, local, and private sector initiatives, criminal justice efforts, and social services. The strategy also puts heavy emphasis on community participation. Residents of Weed and Seed neighborhoods are actively involved in problem solving in their community. Neighborhood watches, citizen marches and rallies, cleanup events, drug-free zones, and graffiti removal are some of the common programs that encourage community participation and help prevent crime.

I’m admittedly struggling to understand how graffiti removal, cleanup events, and integrated social services are indicative of creeping militarism.

It’s also important to note that having a paramilitary police force (at least in the operational and organizational sense) is not obviously a bad thing. Soldiers are generally physically fit and well-disciplined. They handle stressful situations well. Having specialized units to deal with high-risk situations or solve certain kinds of violent crime is obviously safer and more efficient.1 Having officers wear visible uniforms that the public can easily identify helps prevent tragedy. And in terms of public legitimacy, the military is the most trusted institution in America. If militarization means having highly disciplined police officers who react well under stress and are popular with the public… then isn’t it a good thing?

This obfuscation makes sense when you realize that Kraska (like many police critics) doesn’t have an issue with “police militarization” per se. What Kraska dislikes is state coercion, and if you read his work, he barely bothers to conceal this fact:

Of course some police analysts, including myself, are aware that the distinction between police and military can be viewed as mere window dressing that operates to veil the underlying essence of state power: violence and the threat thereof.

If you are an ideological libertarian and think state power is bad, then the observation that the military and police share an organizational structure might appear trenchant.2 You might be alarmed by a system like COMPSTAT that tracks crime trends and helps the state apply coercion more efficiently. But if you don’t start from the assumption that state coercion is always bad, and recognize that coercion is a key part of the police function and always has been, then it turns out the degree of coercion applied and the justification for applying it are what actually matters.

My beef with libertarians like Kraska is that they are using the boogeyman of “police militarization” to scare people about programs that are actually very effective and have nothing to do with the military. This is a politically effective play both in nostalgia terms (Americans always think things are getting worse) and because Americans are generally very libertarian and react negatively when they are told the state is getting more powerful. But for those who actually want better policing - the kind of policing which reduces violent crime while also minimizing the use of deadly force - this kind of rhetorical sophistry is tremendously destructive. The Weed and Seed program, for example, was associated with significant decreases in violent crime.

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Well-equipped police are better police

Kraska also associates police militarization with the adoption of “military-grade weaponry, equipment, and advanced technology” by police. And he is not the only one: many people who decry militarization are upset about police departments are buying “tanks” and “weapons of war.” They especially dislike the Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 Program, which disposes of excess military equipment by giving or lending it to local police. Kraska is against it, and Campaign Zero claims it "suppl[ies] federal military weaponry to local police departments” and should be shut down.

The only problem is that when the Obama Administration reviewed the program a few years ago, they discovered almost all the property the 1033 Program transfers to the police is really boring non-military stuff:

Excess property transferred to LEAs is designated in two ways, as either controlled or non-controlled. During the 12-month period ending August 2014, approximately 96% of the property (1.8 million pieces) provided to LEAs was non-controlled property. This is property without military attributes, such as commercial vehicles, office furniture and supplies, generators, tents, tarps, tool kits, first aid kits, blankets, safety glasses, hand-tools, vehicle maintenance equipment, storage containers, lockers, shelving and forklifts. Approximately 4% (78,000 pieces) of the property provided was controlled property, i.e., military designed equipment on the Department of State Munitions Control List or Department of Commerce Control List, such as small arms, night vision devices, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled 8 Vehicles (HMMWVs or Humvees), Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), aircraft and watercraft.

The Pentagon is notoriously good at buying things, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise they have tons of extra office chairs and storage containers lying around. What is the point of forcing them to throw it away? Is there a serious argument for why local police departments should not be allowed to receive office furniture, tents, and generators for free from the federal government? If so, I have never heard it. Given that the 1033 Program has probably saved billions of dollars, it would seem that totally abolishing it is just a stealthy way of defunding local police.

But what about the military equipment police do get? Well, it turns out that military vehicles and equipment are really versatile. For example, surplus MRAPS acquired via the 1033 Program have been regularly used to rescue people during flooding.

Another subject of complaints? Bayonets. Smart people love to wonder why a police department would request surplus bayonets from the DOD. Cops getting bayonets from the 1033 Program sent Rand Paul into a fit of pique a few years ago, and the Obama Administration even temporarily banned their transfer. But turns out that if you actually call up police departments and ask why they need bayonets, you learn cops are just using them as big knives:

“I guess they call it a bayonet on the inventory,” said Sheriff Jeff Shaver of Cherokee County, Alabama. “But it’s actually a knife. We are out in the woods doing rescues. We use them for cutting rope, cutting seat belts, things like that.”

Even if we set aside “warm and fuzzy” uses of military equipment, giving police better protective equipment to use during a high-risk tactical situation is a good thing.

Let’s consider a basic tactical scenario that police sometimes face. Imagine some officers are attempting to help with a suicidal man holding a gun. They are trying to talk him into surrendering so they can help him, but he is holding the gun to his head. The IACP’s model de-escalation policy says that officers should use time, distance, and cover to minimize the chances of a deadly shooting. Which officers will be better able to apply those principles?

  • The officers armed with rifles (effective range: several hundred yards); standing behind mobile, bulletproof cover (an armored vehicle); and armed with a less-lethal 40-millimeter launcher (also known as a “grenade launcher”) OR

  • The officers armed with only handguns (effective range: 25-25 yards); without bulletproof cover; and having access only to a Taser (effective range: 12-25 feet) or OC spray (effective range: 7-15 feet) as less-lethal options.

The reality is that forcing officers to get up close to an armed, suicidal subject without appropriate cover is far more likely to end in a fatal shooting, whereas giving police the appropriate tools to create distance and cover means it is more likely the situation can be safely de-escalated. If you don’t believe me, here’s a (safe for work) video of Seattle Police officers doing exactly what I’m talking about and saving a man’s life:

Finally, I have to note that mass shootings, militant uprisings, and terrorism are real things that do happen. If you think police shouldn’t have any access to things like armored vehicles, helmets, or rifles, then in practice what you are saying is that the National Guard should respond to these kinds of incidents and not the police. We know from January 6th that this takes hours, which means that people will probably die in the meantime. Perhaps that kind of trade-off really is what people want, but we need to at least be honest about what is actually being proposed.

What about police culture?

Once we set aside hand-wringing about armored vehicles and desk chairs, all we’re really left with is complaints about police adopting a “military mindset.” The theory goes something like this: If you give police the military equipment, they will psychologically change and start thinking of themselves as an occupying army. Kraska claims he has actually personally seen this happen:

Each agency procured a large cache of heavy weaponry, armored personnel vehicles, and paramilitary garb from the U.S. Military (1033 program) and through Department of Homeland Security grants. Within 2 years of establishing [Special Response] teams—intended only to be employed for the rare hostage or active shooter situation—the following changes took place in every agency observed…. Significant cultural changes evidenced by a change in uniforms (BDUs), language, hair style (“high and tight” U.S. Marine look), and a high value placed on hypermasculinity.

I guess the theory here is that if your local police get stuff from the 1033 Program and create a SWAT team they will all become proto-fascist stormtroopers and cut their hair really short. Scary! Other libertarian commentators make the same argument:

By treating cops like service members, militarized policing reinforces the idea that the police exist above and apart from civil society, and invites cops to see themselves as essentially different from—and superior to—ordinary citizens. The idea that officers are "sheepdogs," superior beings whose role is to keep naive, unthinking, and possibly criminal "civilians" in line, is ubiquitous in policing subculture.

The only problem with this pop psychology is that if you talk to actual police officers, they overwhelmingly do not see themselves this way. In 2017, Pew Research actually surveyed police officers about how they see the community. Here’s what they found:

  • 67% of officers agreed that most people respect the police, and Pew’s data suggested that “police views of the public have gotten more favorable in the past year and a half.”

  • 72% of officers surveyed disagreed with the statement that police “have reason to be distrustful of most citizens.”

  • 97% of officers said that it is “very” or “somewhat” important for police to understand the people, places, and culture of the area they work.

  • 68% of officers said they shared values and beliefs with people in the neighborhood they routinely patrol.

Only 8% of officers said they saw themselves primarily as enforcers, with most seeing themselves as being both protectors and enforcers:

It’s worth noting for context that this survey was taken not long after the Ferguson protests, the assassination of NYPD Officers Liu and Ramos, and the Dallas Massacre. 2016 saw a five-year high in murders of police officers. If we were going to see a trend toward a culturally militarized police force in the United States, we probably should have seen it by 2017. But we did not.

Pew’s survey results are also consistent with studies of the 1033 Program finding the exact opposite of what Kraska predicts. One study found that police departments acquiring tactical items via the 1033 Program saw “reduced citizen complaints, reduced assaults on officers, increased drug crime arrests, and no increases in offender deaths.” The most recent study I could find on the subject found that the effect of the 1033 Program on police use of lethal force likely depends heavily on the dataset used, but ultimately concluded:

there is no link between 1033-based measures of militarization and police lethal force. In fact, for large agencies, the only significant predictor of police lethal force is the violent crime rate, suggesting that police in larger cities were more likely to use lethal force when the overall violent crime rate was higher.

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A more serious conversation

It should be really obvious that what matters is not what police look like or what equipment they have. What matters what police do and how effectively they do it. For example, is it really safer for police to use tactical teams and “dynamic entry” strategies when serving search warrants? Serious people in policing are having serious conversations about it. There are risks when an agency uses tactical teams to serve search warrants and also risks when they decide not to use them.

Those who are ideologically committed to the idea that all policing is a bad thing don’t want to have this conversation. They’d rather paint police as weight-lifting wannabe stormtroopers driving around in tanks because that will lead people to view police in a negative light. That’s why they make sweeping generalizations about police culture and rely on armchair psychology instead of hard evidence.

For people who are actually serious about better policing, the discussion cannot be about whether armored vehicles look scary or magically turn cops into stormtroopers. Serious people should ask: Do officers have the training, tactics, and equipment that they need to safely do what they have been asked to do? Are police using strategies and tactics which reduce crime while also keeping officers safe and minimizing the use of force? Answering these questions will improve American policing in a way that empty sloganeering about police “militarization” will not.

1

For example, having teams that specialize in gun violence is obviously good. Portland Police were forced to eliminate their gun violence unit last year, and the city has subsequently seen a massive and predictable spike in gun violence.

2

I should give Kraska some credit here and note that he does recognize that police have always been a paramilitary force. But he apparently considers every technological innovation and new crime-fighting strategy to be an increase in “militarization.”