30 Nov 2006

The Militarization of American Police

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Joseph D. McNamara reflects in the Wall Street Journal, in connection with those 50 shots fired in the Sean Bell affair, on an increasing dangerous phenomenon in American life: the militarization of our police.

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on “officer safety” and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

There have been a lot of police in my family, and I grew up around the older school police culture and mentality.

When I was a boy, I once complained to my father that his injunctions about standing up to bullies were impractical when one was outnumbered, and he assured me that the man who knows that he is in the right has a natural powerful advantage over those in the wrong, which is usually decisive in and of itself. Moreover, he observed, criminals and bullies are basically all cowards anyway, and are generally scared to face anyone willing to stand up to them.

There are some limits to the theory, of course, but my life experience persuades me that my father was perfectly correct.

When I was a boy, I also commonly heard the Pennsylvania equivalent versions of the Texan “one riot, one Ranger” story. Policemen typically believed, like my father, that moral ascendancy and personal courage counted for a lot more than brute force.

And, in the old days, police were trained to shoot only as the last possible resort, and to take good aim and hit what you were intending. The idea that police officers required “firepower” would have been laughed at by the men I knew back then. “Firepower?” they would have said. “For what?”

I knew men who served as policemen for thirty years, who never fired on another man once, but who had taken many an armed criminal into custody. If it had ever come to shooting, none of them would ever likely have needed more than one shot per man.

About ten years ago, when I was still living in Connecticut, you could already see the Barney Fife-ification of small town police work setting in. In Brookfield, one day, I saw a local cop stop at McDonald’s for a meal. He was armed with a 15-round Beretta pistol, and was carrying an extra five loaded magazines on his belt. Was he anticipating an attack by a Zulu impi? I wondered. It seemed like an awful lot of weight to carry around, considering the fact that no police officer in Brookfield’s history had ever previously needed to fire a shot in anger.

In my own Connecticut town, the chief of police was always junketing off to remote locations for special FBI training. The Board of Selectmen rained on his parade a bit, when they declined to fund his proposed sniper team. But the federal government nonetheless graciously provided him with a large variety of expensive toys, running the gamut from full-auto M-16s to night-vision devices.

One day, I needed to drop by the Newtown police station to pick up the form for my gun permit. I found myself talking to a secretary hidden away in a bank teller’s window behind bulletproof glass. The police station was now locked up, and fortified. You never know, some aggrieved citizen offended over a parking ticket might drop in one day and attack the poor cowering Newtown cops. The FBI, you see, had told our chief that security was important. You can’t just let ordinary citizens walk in on you.

And so it goes. We increasingly have a bunch of self-important paranoids, practicing and posing in the latest and most expensive hi-tech military gear, trained by some kind of totalitarian Gestapo to fill the air with lead at the slightest provocation.

And we see the results in cases like those of Amadou Dialolo or Sean Bell. Incompetence and cowardice increase with precise proportionality to the increase in police play-pretend militarization. We need to fire all those FBI blackshirts who disseminate these crazy and un-American paranoid procedures and philosophies of firearms use. And we need to turn police work back over to sensible human beings. We need to end the War on Drugs, which supplies most of the pretext for current undesirable trends. And we should take away all the semiautos, the .40 calibers, the 9mm Parabellums (especially the Glocks), and give those cops back nice old-fashioned six-shot .38 Special revolvers and billy clubs.

4 Feedbacks on "The Militarization of American Police"

Dominique R. Poirier

One may wonder why in the hell police officers are increasingly inclined to recklessly shoot such amounts of ammunitions to stop a simple suspect or a person guilty of minor prejudice.
That’s something that seems irrational and that calls for further explanation, let alone justification.

I don’t think so that poor training in target shooting is the main cause. In revenge, and jokingly apart, I underline two facts which I hold for certainties.
The first is that criminals in America have an easy access to firearms and even to powerful and modern firearms likely to supersede police equipments. The second is the subsequent effects of the first. That is, law enforcement personnel are well aware of that point and so further stress happening during intervention ensue, exactly as it happens during wartime.

There are more policemen who have been shot and wounded by criminals in America that in any other developed country in the world. As a predictable result, American police officers just don’t want to be shot or killed while attempting to enforce law. Who would? It’s all about psychology, and it corresponds to a legitimate and laudable concern. Typically, it’s what happens in wartime, once more, when the more logical way of doing things is to shoot as much ammunitions as possible in order to overpower the enemy, and so not to let him much opportunity to hit us. In the case of law enforcement intervention such behaviour is somewhat reminiscent, I think, of the notion of pre-emptive strike. Such behaviour may be resumed under the form of the following sentence: “I know from experience, of from my colleague’s, that I will run higher risks of being shot if I don’t shoot first.” If this notion is justifiable when following careful analysis and risk-assessment performed by the best specialists at the scale of the defense of a whole country, it isn’t justifiable at all when those highly intellectual and well documented preliminaries are unlikely to take place. One just does not take the decision, in a matter of seconds, to shoot at someone in a crowded street on the basis of mere and undocumented assumptions. That’s all.

With all due respect for those policemen, I think they behave like this because they are afraid. That doesn’t mean they are wimps. It means danger and risk to be killed during duty is real.

Such ways of reasoning, or such uncontrolled impulses, are of course quite likely to be the cause of the repeated accidents and exaggerations touched on in this article.

Now, in the light of those facts, and at the defense of the police, what surprises me the most is the unexplainable behaviour of some people who, during usual police controls or routine interceptions, suddenly attempt to get away, or behave in a threatening or dangerous manner, thus strongly increasing their chances to get into such troubles. I cannot but assume that in many of those case, those persons are perhaps drunk, on their nerves, under the influence of narcotic substances, or else.

All this doesn’t question the right of the U.S. citizen to own guns, I think. In Switzerland, there is a modern and powerful Sig army assault rifle in each family, because all male Swiss citizen are soldier citizens and as such are supposed to be ready to defend their country anytime. However, incidents involving firearms in Switzerland are very rare, and nearly do not exist at all. That’s why I think that the problem is certainly much less about firearms than about domestic policy or society in general.
Last but not the least, right of the U.S. citizen to own guns is a fundamental feature of freedom, and I will go as far as to say that I see no reasons to impose technical restrictions on firearms, such as assault weapon or magazine capacity ban. Criminals in United States use mostly handguns, and more especially cheap handguns (the so called “junk guns,” or “Saturday’s night guns”) made available on the market by some unscrupulous arms manufacturers.

Criminality is present in all rich countries, and what make the difference between Switzerland and America owes rather to tighter control on immigration and to rate of literacy. Poorly educated and poorly civilized people rank high in the pool of criminals, especially when they live in a fast and complex society that overwhelms their intellectual capacities.

On another plane, I don’t think so that returning to five or six shot .38 Special revolvers would help the police to get its good marks back. Instead, it would tantamount to give the criminal society an advantage over law enforcement capacities.

Perhaps it is easier to say it than doing it, but I think that law enforcement personnel has to find a compromise (through training, better recruitment, or else) between apprehending a suspect and transforming a crowded area into a battlefield. It’s just all about critical judgment and no-nonsense. If this need appears to be impossible or is turned down, then it will be highly detrimental — as it is already – to the image of the United States abroad. In France, where I live, for example, media are always prompt at commenting such incidents and they never miss to make good use of them in order to give emphasis to their claims that Americans are violent and born warmongers.

I believe that when such critical cases arise it is perhaps better to wait for another opportunity to apprehend a suspect (or even an identified criminal) than to attempt to stop him in a hurry without any consideration for possible dire consequences. As a matter of fact, the U.S. police and the U.S. law enforcement apparatus in general are the best in the world and they benefit of countless equipments and technical possibilities to tail or find a suspect or a criminal on the loose.


In the 1990’s, I received both basic and advanced training at the nationally renowned Lethal Force Institute (of Grantham, NH) and, prior to that, all of my basic training from a very erudite, very tough, and VERY skilled British ex-Para (with more actual verified fighting experience than any 3 other men I know!). These firearms courses totalled well over 150 hours (compared to the 40 hours of a police academy); had very small class sizes with one instructor per 3 (or 2!) students; and were taught by experienced, truly expert instructors. I DO NOT say this to bring attention to myself but rather to emphasize a point made by all of the best trainers in defensive/law enforcement firearms use (and please allow me to shout):
Without discipline, you can’t have control.
Without control, you can’t have judgement.
Without judgement, you’re just another excited/panicked trigger-puller.
And if you’re another excited/panicked trigger-puller, you’re going to be filling the air with as much jacketed lead as you can until you calm down or run out. Regardless of your motivation, regardless of whether you have a badge.
Lives (both guilty and innocent) are UNNECESSARILY lost when the air is crackling with bullets. There is no debating this. Period.
There are only two practical solutions, both of which are not mutually exclusive:
IMPROVE the training on HOW not to shoot, not just when not to shoot. And…
REDUCE the sense that dangerous problems can be most efficiently countered by having multiple shots/fire superiority available. It is precisely this increased availability of shots (especially given the light trigger pull on second shots from most autoloaders, and on all shots from Glocks and their clones) that has encouraged the truly huge increase in the numbers of shots fired AND the decrease in the tendency to aim precisely on those follow-up shots. The loss in emphasis on single-shot results causes well-meaning police officers to fill the air with more potentially-random shots than the criminals.
Lastly, you’re right; the emphasis on “officer safety” is creating a barrier between the police and the public they must protect. I must confess that every time I see the armored, masked men with the MP5SDs, I feel distant from them…and, regrettably, very much convinced that if my family or I am in trouble, it’s going to be up to me to solve the problem if I don’t want any bloodshed. That’s a pity because I was raised to trust the police and their training.
The militarization (MP5-ization?) of professional law enforcement is probably 80% unnecessary. But it happens when everyone is telling current officers how dangerous the world could POSSIBLY be for unarmored, unarmed, unsupported officers in the past, rather than emphasizing how dangerous it LIKELY is for them in the present. Besides that, the overuse of intimidation tactics (like having SWAT sweep a neighborhood looking for a possibly-armed suspect) is extremely less likely to save lives of armed/armored officers now than it is to alienate civilians now; in the future the resulting mistrust is dead-certain to lose the lives of both officers and the people they protect because of worse relations between the two.
The job of a police officer doesn’t need supermen or kamikazes, but it does involve interacting with people, not just “civilians” or suspects; it’s not the faint of heart or bullies. If someone feels he has to hide behind a gun, he shouldn’t be a police officer.
Finally, the axiom that “If all you have is a hammer, all your problems start looking like nails” can be applied to firearms: If your training emphasizes shooting a lot, a lot of your confrontation situations will look like they need a lot of shooting.
They don’t; you need good discipline to save lives: innocent lives, suspects’ lives, and certainly your own life, now and in the future.


BTW, for six years in the 90’s I trained people how to shoot. Today I train real estate sales people how to actually earn what they’re being paid…and thusly avoid being shot. Hehe.

Dominique R. Poirier

I have been sincerly pleased to read your comment, which I find is as interesting as no-nonsense spirited. It brings further worthy contribution under the form of a knowledgeable person’s viewpoint.


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