Police militarization has become a popular topic in the mainstream media — people are even writing books about it. Allegations abound that American law enforcement is becoming an aggressive, over-gunned commando army. Critics argue that our police are becoming militarized, adopting the weapons and attitudes of the battlefield for policing America’s streets.
Is this concern valid?
Do military-looking tactical teams make routine law enforcement more dangerous to the public? Wouldn’t we all be safer if cops looked and acted more like Andy Griffith than Rambo?
The Ethical Warrior
Regular readers of this column know the authors don’t define “warrior” merely as “one who engages in war.”
That definition lumps together mercenaries and terrorists with U.S. Marines and legitimate freedom fighters. We define a warrior as a protector of life: ourselves, the innocent, and even our enemies when possible. A warrior cop’s mission is to protect every life possible and to only use force when it’s necessary to accomplish that mission.
Does the life-protecting definition of a warrior include the submachine gun wielding cop dressed head to toe in body armor? We think it does. Properly equipped, trained, led and inspired, this cop is more likely to keep self and others safe in a dangerous situation.
The explanation is simple: conflict is not a sport. Fair fights are dangerous. Fairness may be a basic human value — a common American value — but it is a relative value. It must be qualified as good or bad based upon its contribution to protecting life.
An Unfair Fight Is Safer for Everyone
The reality is that fairness can be deadly under certain circumstances. Fair fights are dangerous because both sides have a reasonable belief they can win. Fair fights last longer because the sides are evenly matched. We question people’s courage when they quit a fair fight — we tend to forgive surrender against overwhelming odds.
There are too many variables in a dynamic conflict situation to keep a fair fight safe. Because the “good guys” have to win, there has to be a healthy margin of error.
For example, during the arrest of a possibly violent subject, the last thing we want is a “fair” fight. We want the arrest to be lawful, safe and respectful of the subject’s civil rights. We don’t want to give the subject the impression that escape through violent resistance might be an option. We want the subject to instantly recognize that resistance is futile and surrender peacefully.
A well-trained and equipped tactical team actually makes everyone in the arrest situation safer. The officers are safer because they are executing a frequently rehearsed scenario. Bystanders are safer because, should deadly force be necessary, the team is likely to only hit what they are shooting at. Tactical weapons may appear more dangerous, but they are actually safer because they are very precise. Finally, the subject is safer because resistance is less likely.
The Life-Protecting Mindset
No situation is free of possible problems. Although a well-trained tactical team is safer, there may be temptations to overuse the team in situations the public may not perceive to be appropriate. More concerning is the possibility that tactical operators will start to view themselves as fighters against an enemy force instead of officers enforcing the law on behalf of their community. This temptation makes it vitally important for tactical operators to activate, clarify and sustain the life-protecting mindset of the Ethical Warrior.
It comes down to training, leadership and ethics. Just putting on a bunch of tactical gear (or getting a surplus tank — yes, TANK!), doesn’t mean that you are an Ethical Warrior making your communities safer. That kind of gear demands commensurate technical, tactical and philosophical excellence.
Fortunately, the intense physical nature of tactical training is the perfect environment to clarify, activate and sustain the warrior ethic. The shared adversity of training is a key ingredient for reinforcing the protector mindset. We have recounted several Ethical Warrior stories in previous columns. These types of stories clarify and remind us with emotional impact why we wanted to be protectors in the first place. The perfect time to use these stories is at the end of a tough day of training.
One point worth considering is that for years our military has been evolving counterinsurgency (COIN) operations that are far less “militarized” than those employed in the past.
COIN has the goal of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people in the areas of operation. Creating mutually respectful relationships facilitates cooperation and collaboration between our forces and the locals to root out enemy insurgents. This approach requires respect and hard work, and looks a lot more like community policing than an assault on Mount Suribachi.
While Rambo may not be a great role model for today’s law enforcement officer, the public has nothing to fear from well-trained tactical teams made up of motivated Ethical Warriors.