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Home  >  Topics  >  Patrol Issues

August 14, 2013
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Police militarization and preserving Posse Comitatus

To ensure the continuation of our historical civilian/military split, police agencies must not fail in their mission to suppress and respond to crime

One thing I haven’t seen in the debate on the so-called militarization of the police is an objective piece of journalism in the mainstream press. 

Reporters pounce on the statistically rare anomaly of a bad police operation gone worse and build a panic based on stories where a closer examination of the facts shows the reasonableness of the police operations if the right questions were asked. 

The reality is that the level of weaponry and military capacity currently in civilian police hands is very low, has a clear defensive and protective purpose, and is necessary to forestall federal military intervention. 

Misinformation
While accusing police departments of instilling fear in the public by overuse of SWAT teams, commentators talk about military surplus helicopters, armored vehicles, and machine guns as though cops should have none of it. The public naturally imagines that those helicopters are still armed with wartime weapons and that the armored vehicles are bristling with machine guns. 

Not only is the weaponry impression mistaken, but according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only about one-fourth of the law enforcement aircraft in service is military surplus. The majority is purchased from civilian markets in normal government commerce. 

Further, only about a third of law enforcement helicopters are used for insertion of personnel in SWAT missions. Of 18,000 police agencies in the United States, only about 200 of them have an aviation unit. 

The armored vehicles are defensive, not offensive, and allow operations in a ballistic environment. Civilian commentators (and others) fail to acknowledge that standard police vehicles provide little protection from bullets and therefore are not viable for entry into a firearms risk zone such as a hostage or suicidal person situation.

Police departments, no matter how well equipped, are still a far cry from basic combat platoons or squad-level fire teams. We aren’t carrying fragmentation grenades, explosive grenade launchers, or belt-fed 750-round-per-minute, tripod-mounted machine guns. 

I concede we may give a general appearance of being military, but our armament pales in comparison to war-ready troops.

Defending Defense
Do we look intimidating and/or militaristic when wearing heavy vests or carrying ballistic shields? Perhaps, but protective equipment looks militaristic because, as engineers, architects, and designers will tell you: form follows function. 

Why would a police officer be suspect for wearing a Kevlar helmet into a situation where he or she wants to prevent a head injury? The same can be said for any other piece of protective clothing. 

Of course some SWAT members like the balaclava because it looks cool, but it has a practical protective function against hazards beyond the hazard of retaliation (otherwise a plain old Lone Ranger mask would do just fine). 

Obtaining and using protective gear and equipment prevents death and injury to police officers and citizens. Isn’t it reasonable that we have more guns and bullets than the criminals who confront us? 

What’s the real difference between three officers carrying 10 rounds in their .45 pistol and one officer carrying a rifle with 30 rounds of .223? 

Without these “scary” assets, entry into a high risk area to enforce an order of the court or to provide rescue would be improbable.

Posse Comitatus
It should be noted that most countries — including western-style democracies — have national police. Some of those are units of military bureaucracies. 

Our American design is local control of police. It results in a checkerboard of badges and jurisdictional lines that can be confusing, but it has a high degree of accountability when mayors and sheriffs and governors must maintain the voter’s trust in law enforcement.

Our founders wisely feared a military that could be used to dominate the population. Thomas Jefferson argued against a standing army because of its threat to civilian liberty. Militarization was so feared that civilian police officers were seldom uniformly attired until after the Civil War, when most of the male population had been in uniformed services and the idea was less fearsome. 

Yet, in 1878, to cement the longstanding concern, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act explicitly prohibiting the Army from conducting domestic law enforcement operations. Libertarians would be wiser to watch for erosion of this law than worry about police departments being militaristic. 

As counterintuitive as it appears at first glance, I contend that if local law enforcement cannot obtain and use low-level, military-grade assets for high-risk operations, we will open the door to federal military force as our first response to major threats. 

Our current, locally based police service must have the tools needed to be effective to prevent the true militarization by politicians catering to public fear. To preserve the civilian/military split, it is necessary that civilian law enforcement agencies not fail in their mission to suppress and respond to crime. 

If we fail, the public cry for help from the federal government may lead to a weakening of Posse Comitatus and an encroachment from which we might not recover. 


About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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