War on Drugs

The Militarization of Police is More Than Just Weapons and Tactics


In article that begins with a rehashing of the killing of former Marine Jose Guerena, The Atlantic describes a topic familiar to Reason readers, the militarization of police; not just the tools or tactics, but also a mentality that is different — a divide between "peace officers" that were and the warriors who now exist:

The primary mission of a police officer traditionally has been to "keep the peace." Those whom an officer suspects to have committed a crime are treated as just that – suspects. Police officers are expected, under the rule of law, to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the "bad guys." For domestic law enforcement, a suspect in custody remains innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, police officers operate among a largely friendly population and have traditionally been trained to solve problems using a complex legal system; the deployment of lethal violence is an absolute last resort.

Soldiers, by contrast, are trained to identify people they encounter as belonging to one of two groups—the enemy and the non-enemy—and they often reach this decision while surrounded by a population that considers the soldier an occupying force. Once this identification is made, a soldier's mission is stark and simple: kill the enemy, "try" not to kill the non-enemy. Indeed, the Soldier's Creed declares, "I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat." This is a far cry from the peace officer's creed that expects its adherents "to protect and serve."  

The rest here.

Soldiers, of course, should also be defusing situations and risking their lives and bodies so that they don't hurt innocent people. But it's still a good point about the correct mindset for police officers. If protesters, or whoever, are blocking streets or preventing bystanders from moving, police should perhaps step in. But not to instantly break out the batons and Tasers, but to try their best and defuse a situation without violence, even if one party is in the wrong. Otherwise, what good are police?

What's odd about The Atlantic article is its strong implication that the war on terror is the cause of this militarization of police. As Radley Balko has researched and reported, this started happening long before 9/11. It's strange that a tragically useful example like the case of Guerena is used by The Atlantic writer, but the war on drugs is never mentioned.

And realistically, the war on terror is often just an excuse to further the war on drugs. And more to the point, terrorism need not be involved in these military-style reactions at all.

Much more Reason on this subject, including Radley Balko noting that some soldiers think that calling police "militarized" is an insult to the military.

Note: That photo is mine. It's from last February in Pittsburgh. In preparation for football riots that did not happen, all of the Pittsburgh police's fancy toys were on display, including the LRAD sound canon and several hundred riot cops, some of whom, like those above, looked a lot like they were dressed for a war.