Half-truths told about law enforcement and the military

In our constitutional republic, there is a critical distinction between law enforcement officer and soldier


The press sometimes either purposely misanalyses police (and military) operations or just misunderstands them because the publication’s audience accepts the censorious errors. Two recent examples of this questionable journalistic approach appeared in The Atlantic online edition.

The first article, “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” is co-authored by Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman. The article is long on hyperbole but short on facts. The authors claim that police agencies in the U.S. have acquired “bazookas” and “attack helicopters.”

Bazookas. Really? They haven’t been around since the early part of the Vietnam War and the authors don’t provide a single example or photograph of a law enforcement officer carrying one of these hefty and outdated weapons.

From Fanciful to Fantasy
They also didn’t provide a single example or dramatic photograph of one of the many versions of the Cobra or Apache wearing a U.S. police department’s logo or colors and sporting Hellfire missiles, AIM-9 Sidewinders, Flechette rockets, a M230 chain gun, or any of the other available advanced armaments. No doubt many departments have helicopters, but the term of art “attack helicopter” purposely and disingenuously calls to the reader’s mind an image that’s far different than reality and only feeds some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories about police “militarization.”

The article also equates armored vehicles with what the authors termed “mini-tanks.” One would hope Mr. Rizer, who according to his on-line bio is a former armor officer, would know the difference between an armored rescue vehicle and a tank, such as an M-60A3 or M1A1/2. Making that important distinction in both form and function probably wouldn’t sell to some of The Atlantic’s more credulous readers.

Short of (Sort of?) War
The second article, “Asking Our Soldiers to Do Police Work: Why it Can Lead to Disaster,” by Rizer alone, also has several problems, but they are far less egregious than the first. He writes that operations other than war  “are nothing new to U.S. Armed Forces” and then mentions President Truman’s labeling the Korean War a “police action” as well as an allusion to Vietnam. No doubt he’s right, but his analysis is limited in what may be an effort to make the reader believe the trend is somehow a relatively new phenomena.

Operations short of war have been a mainstay of U.S. military operations since The Founding. Jefferson’s wars against the Barbary pirates, our actions in China and Korea in the mid-19th Century, and a large number of conflicts in our southern hemisphere (to name but a few) throughout the 20th Century, shows that US military forces have been almost constantly involved in counterinsurgency, peace keeping, and peace making operations.

As author Max Boot writes in his important work The Savage Wars of Peace, these conflicts are “another American way of war” and have been integral to the rise of American power abroad.

Domestically, the U.S. military has a long history of involvement in policing operations, from quelling domestic rebellion, responding to riots and labor disputes, to policing our southern border with Mexico. As Bill DeWeese of Hocking College suggests, policing in the U.S.may now be less, not more “militarized” that it was in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Rizer also tells the tragic story of Edward Richmond Jr, a soldier who fatally shot a detained and handcuffed Iraqi prisoner. Rizer writes that this act would be seen in law enforcement circles as a tragic but justifiable use of deadly force. Without commenting on the circumstances surrounding that incident, Rizer’s conclusion is doubtful. Just ask former Oakland BART Officer Mehserle, who not only was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but now faces a separate federal inquiry that could also result in a separate prosecution.

Rizer does, however, make an important point. In our constitutional republic, there is a critical distinction between law enforcement officer and soldier: a cop deals with suspects while a soldier deals with threats. Though police officers in many jurisdictions have increasingly and understandably come to see many suspects (and bystanders) as threats, our adherence to the rule of law and constitutional guarantees protects them differently and limits our response more than the rules of engagement in a foreign conflict.

Soldiers aren’t cops and cops aren’t soldiers, despite the desire of the popular media and some law enforcement trainers who think otherwise.

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.

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