By Doug Deaton
Advocates from every corner of the political compass have produced a mountain of disinformation about the “militarization” of American law enforcement, especially on the Internet. It’s interesting to read anger-infused blogs and Internet forums calling for the rejection of “militarization” and a return to the “good old days” of policing (like Mayberry’s Andy Griffith).
Many writers routinely lament that cops were once “peace officers” instead of “law enforcement officers” or “police officers.” In truth, these titles all refer to the same role, and there never has been a functional difference between them.
If we could ask Wyatt Earp or Bill Hickok whether they kept the peace or enforced the law, they would most likely say the same thing any modern police officer would: “Both.”
Origins of the Argument
The vast majority of claims regarding the “militarization” of American police can be traced to the works of two men: Peter Kraska and Radley Balko.
Their writings, and subsequent conclusions about “militarization” of police, are based on cherry-picking of data, a demonstrated willingness to use incomplete source material (such as preliminary or anecdotal reports of police misconduct vs. final court decisions regarding the same incidents), and extensive use of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.
Their work is rife with confirmation bias and has been used by numerous critics as a foundation upon which to build a large but flimsy body of writings on “militarization” that does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Unfortunately, Kraska and Balko’s work is regularly cited by radicals from both the right and left to support extreme agendas.
The best salesmen of the “militarization” theme write in a way that feeds the grievances and bitterness of readers throughout the political landscape. They provide seemingly solid references to support positions that appear reasonable and logical on the surface. A deeper look at their work usually reveals that they have skillfully combined true stories of legitimately awful incidents with half-truths, innuendo, and generalities to inspire the belief that botched paramilitary raids are business as usual throughout our profession.
The most vitriolic commentary regarding “militarization” is based on deeply flawed thinking by emotional people who tend to believe everything they read. These are the hardcore believers who cannot be bothered to verify the facts reported by their favorite authors. People who read only those sources they agree with (and the sources those sources agree with) can be easily led down a false intellectual path. That’s how otherwise normal people end up believing with all their heart that their local police officer is an agent of the New World Order, the U.N., or President Obama’s shadowy “National Defense Force.”
Valid Questions Exist
What’s not in dispute is that valid questions exist about the proper role of government and the actions of its enforcers. Such questions have existed since the founding of our country. However, an honest examination of the practical “in-the-field authority” of modern police officers compared to that of the 1950s reveals an incredible contrast.
Police in the 1950s could — and did — use serious force much more often than modern officers. Searches, seizures, and arrests that were commonplace in the ‘50s would today be thrown out of court and cause the officer to be stripped of his or her license and become the focus of a criminal investigation.
A review of the available literature reveals a widespread belief that the mere use of protective equipment by police officers signifies a growing police state employing hordes of cops eager to trample on the Constitution.
The use of specialized equipment and protective gear by firefighters, athletes, and race car drivers is seen as a logical response to potential hazards. The cop who uses a helmet, rifle-rated body armor, and an AR-15 to deal with dangerous criminals is deemed guilty of “overkill.”
All too often, accusations of “militarization” are based more on perception than facts (how police “look” instead of what they actually do). Many critics never consider that the use of military-inspired technology and equipment has pervaded almost every aspect of American life. If law enforcement has become militarized, then the same is true for trauma medicine, aviation, video games, deer hunting, satellite television, GPS navigation, and those giant SUVs the soccer moms drive.
The last time I checked, my actions as a police officer — including those undertaken while using a helmet, body armor, rifle, and armored vehicle — were still governed by state law, case law, and department policy, all of which were enacted by lawfully elected representatives who were put in place by the citizens of a constitutional republic.
Those who believe that American law enforcement has become “militarized” should educate themselves about court rulings and laws passed during the past 10 years regarding citizens’ rights to carry firearms in public, use force to protect themselves and their property, and be free from police searches of their homes, vehicles, and persons.
With very few exceptions, those rights have been and continue to be re-affirmed, reinforced, and expanded by legislation and court decisions. Legal requirements for police departments to be transparent to the public (open records requests and FOIA requests) are more powerful than they have ever been.
There are more restrictions and mandates controlling the actions of police authorities now than at any time in American history. The sky is not falling.