A Philosopher's Blog

Police Militarization

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2017

After America’s various foreign adventures resulted in a significant surplus of military equipment, there was a need to get rid of this excess. While this had sometimes been done by simple disposal or mothballing in the past, this time it was decided that some of the equipment would be provided to local police forces. While this might have seemed to be a good idea at the time, it did lead to some infamous images that showed war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians—an image one would expect in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.

While these images did fan emotional flames, they also helped start an important debate about the appropriateness of police equipment, methods and operations. The Obama regime responded by putting some restrictions on the military hardware that could be transferred to the police, although many of the restrictions were on gear that the police had, in general, never requested.

As might be expected, Trump has decided to lift the Obama ban and Jeff Sessions touted this as a rational response to crime and social ills. As Sessions sees it, “(W)e are fighting a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism, combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law.” Perhaps Sessions believes that arming the police with tanks and grenade launchers will help improve family stability and shore up discipline.

While it might be tempting to dismiss Trump and Session as engaged in a mix of macho swagger and the seemingly deranged view that bigger guns are the solution to social ills, there is a very real issue here about what is appropriate equipment for the police.

Obviously enough, one key factor in determining the appropriate armaments for police is the role that the police are supposed to play in society. In a democratic state aimed at the good of the people (the classic Lockean state) the role of the police is to protect and serve the people. On this view, the police do need armaments suitable to combat domestic threats to life, liberty and property. In general, this would entail engaging untrained civilian opponents equipped with light arms (such as pistols and shotguns). As such, the appropriate weapons for the general police would also be light arms.

Naturally enough, the possibility of unusual circumstances must be kept in mind. Since the United States is awash in guns, the police might be called upon to face off against opponents armed with military grade light weapons. They might also be called upon to go up against experienced (or fanatical) opponents that have fortified themselves. They are also sometimes called upon to face off against large numbers of rioters.  In such cases, the police would justly require such things as riot gear and military grade equipment. However, these should be restricted to specially trained special units, such as SWAT.

It might be objected that police should be more generally equipped with this sort of equipment, just in case they need it. I certainly see the appeal to this—my view of combat preparation is that one should be ready for almost anything and meeting resistance with overwhelming force is an effective way to get the job done. But, that points to the problem: to the degree the police adopt the combat mindset, they are moving away from being police and towards being soldiers. Given the distinction between the missions, having police operating like soldiers is problematic. After all, defeating the enemy is rather different from protecting and serving.

There is also the problem that military grade equipment tends to be more damaging than the standard police issue weapons. While a pistol can obviously kill, automatic weapons can do considerably more damage in a short amount of time. The police, unlike soldiers, are presumed to be engaging fellow citizens and the objective is to use as little force as possible—they are, after all, supposed to be policing rather than subjugating or defeating.

Of course, the view that the police exist for the good of the people is not the only possible view of the police. As can be seen around the world, some states regard their police as tools of repression and control. Roughly put, the police operate as the military, only with their fellow citizens as enemies. If the police are regarded as tools of the rulers that exist to maintain their law and order and to preserve their privilege, then a militarized police force makes perfect sense. As just noted, these police function as an army against the civilian population of their own country, serving the will of the rulers. Militaries serve as an army against the people of other countries, serving the will of the rulers. Same basic role, but somewhat different targets.

It could be argued that while this is something practiced by repressive states, it is also suitable for a democratic state. Jeff Sessions characterizes policing as a battle and it could be contended that he is right—there are interior enemies that must be defeated in the war on crime. On this view, the police are to engage these enemies in a way analogous to the military engaging a foreign foe and thus it makes perfect sense that they would need military grade equipment. This does endorse the view that the police are an occupying army, but it is regarded as a feature rather than a flaw—that is the function of the police.

While I do think that the militarization of the police impacts their behavior (I know I would be very tempted to use a tank if I had one), my main concern is not with what weapons the police have access to, but the attitude and moral philosophy behind how they are armed. That is, my concern is not so much that the police have the weapons of an army, but that they are regarded more as an army to be used against citizens than as protectors of life, liberty and property.

 

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11 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on August 29, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Fair enough.

    But you should really point out that Trump is simply going back to the policy Obama had from 2008 to 2015. He only changed it after Ferguson.

  2. CoffeeTime said, on August 30, 2017 at 7:03 am

    I’m not sure why this is an issue.

    Reading the history, I see that TJB has a point. The restriction seems to have been purely a PR move after Ferguson. It may have made political sense for the Obama administration then, but it was at best symbolic.

    The issues involved in the use of heavy equipment in policing must be complex, taking into account regular policing, organised drug gangs, riots, terrorism. However, those decisions are best made by the local population and the local police.

    As I understand it, policing policy in any area of the US is ultimately controlled by the people of the area, through direct elections either for a Sheriff, or a Mayor/Council who appoints the chief of police.

    Thus, while the optimum degree of militarisation in any given region may be debatable, the decision is ultimately made by the local people. If the local people feel their police should not have armoured personnel carriers, they can express that through the ballot box. If they feel that their police should, then it makes more sense for then to re-use one from the DoD than to have the DoD scrap one, and have the local people buy a new one from the manufacturer.

    • WTP said, on August 30, 2017 at 10:00 am

      the decision is ultimately made by the local people. If the local people feel their police should not have armoured personnel carriers, they can express that through the ballot box. If they feel that their police should, then it makes more sense for then to re-use one from the DoD than to have the DoD scrap one, and have the local people buy a new one from the manufacturer.

      That. It’s as if busy-bodies don’t have enough to do unless they poke their noses into every conceivable crack, criticize what they don’t understand. But don’t expect them to respond to criticisms of their own flawed thinking. No time for that. Busybusybusy.

      This nationalization of police policy is a creeping approach to a full nationalizing of the police. Because Washington simply does not have enough power. This is especially dangerous in a nation that was founded on the principle of small government.

  3. TJB said, on August 30, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Agree that the last thing we need is to federalize the police.

    We need more Andy Griffith, less Robocop.

  4. DH said, on September 2, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    A few thoughts here –

    First of all, it did not go unnoticed by me that you referred to the Obama presidency as the Obama “Regime”. Kudos on your even-handedness.

    “…it did lead to some infamous images that showed war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians—an image one would expect in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.”

    True enough, but as we have discussed, images are not necessarily reality; an adept photojournalist can foment a tremendous amount of passion based on all sorts of clever editing, shot selection, composition, and editorial placement. I think that the debate that this sparks is far more important than the images themselves, and intelligent people should be careful to not allow their opinions to be swayed by them.

    “…While this had sometimes been done by simple disposal or mothballing in the past…”

    I’m all for direct recycling where it is appropriate. Aren’t some weapons and materiel just left behind, also, intended to be used by allies but often find their way to the hands of terrorists? That’s not such a good plan either, IMHO.

    I think that Sessions is mostly right – that we live in an era of “a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism …” (I have purposely left off the last part of his statement, but I’ll get to that). If we are going to expect the police to combat sophisticated, well-armed organized crime of this nature, I would argue that providing them with the armaments they require is probably a reasonable thing to do. I don’t know the details of this deal, but I would guess it’s a little more well-thought-out than just delivering tanks and grenade launchers to small-town police forces, telling them to “Go – play – have fun!”

    As for the rest of Sessions’ statement – that’s the one that you seem to have latched onto – I think that characterizing this as “arming the police with tanks and grenade launchers will help improve family stability and shore up discipline” is at least disingenuous, and at most, a pretty absurd conclusion for anyone who is engaged in critical thinking. I can’t get into Sessions’ head anymore than you can, but I think a far more reasonable interpretation of his words might be that the erosion of culture and family discipline is making the gang warfare, the opioid epidemic, the wave of violent crime and the threat of the radicalization of citizens who join extremist cells more prevalent, more widespread, and deeper – making the job of the police to “Protect and Serve the Citizens” that much more intense.

    While the drug dealers, the violent criminals, the gangs, and the terrorists may technically be citizens of this country, I don’t think they are the kinds of citizens the police are sworn to protect – unless, of course, Kim Jong Un lobs one of his missiles our way.

    All of that said, I agree wholeheartedly with the others who have posted here. I think that the police deal with LOCAL problems which vary in intensity based on the location – I would not expect Andy Griffith to request grenade launchers, but I would certainly weigh such a request from Eddie Johnson or Peter Newsham.

    Unless we start favoring Martial Law in this country, I would oppose any kind of National Police Force. If the local boys in blue cannot handle situations with their own manpower and the weapons they have determined that they require, then the National Guard can also be requested for backup. Local issues must be handled locally, until the local forces determine themselves that the problem is too big.

    • WTP said, on September 2, 2017 at 8:49 pm

      While I agree with most if what you have said here, I believe the hard leftist slant presented, in league with the MSM and further leftist anti-police talking points, have forced you to try to discuss this in the context of a language middle-ground, so to speak, that itself has been dragged significantly left of center. Take for example, “grenade launchers”. Now obviosly the police are not, will not be launching fractile grenades at civilians. Whatever these “launchers” may be, they will be used with non-lethal ordinace such as tear gas or pepper or similar. Also note that the terminolgy being used implies that these “armored personnel carriers” and such are “armed”. As far as I have seen, these carriers are armored to protect the occupants, a defensive posture. They do not have machine gun mounts or any other such lethal offensive capacity as the disingenuous language implies.

      Also note that the civilian rioters are often armed. Usually with rocks, but there has been far more gunfire from these protests than the MSM and such feel comfortable acknowledging. And even so, the police have no way of knowing when going in to such encounters what exactly the various violent players will be armed with. In such situations where their own lives are on the line, they must presume a reasonable worst case senario and prepare appropriately.

  5. DH said, on September 3, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Incendiary language inflames passion. I agree with you; and I will underscore what I said above about images – that intelligent people should be careful to not allow their opinions to be swayed by it.

    Both sides engage in the war of words, though. Obama’s executive order was announced with this quote:

    “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said at the time. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”

    Sessions’ delivery was thus:

    “”The executive order the President will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become a new normal,”

    Obama’s language revolves around perception – as though his actions are not based on any pro-active moves designed to do anything but cater to public opinion. The opening tone of Mike’s essay goes along with that – that whether or not the police could benefit from such weaponry is irrelevant, but the image of police squaring off is what is important.

    Sessions, on the other hand, at least addresses a real issue and a real solution – whether or not we agree with it is one thing, but he does speak to the needs of local law enforcement as well as to the message they intend to send. (Sessions’ “message” is active-case, whereas Obama’s is passive).

    I would like to read more into Obama’s (and the left’s) intent with regard to the “lifesaving gear you need to do your job”. If there is disagreement, I think it should be on that point – not on the images or the language the press chooses to use, and the public reaction thereto. Is it the opinion of the left that the police do not need this gear? Do they have any sort of understanding of who would be able to obtain it, how it would be used, and under what circumstances? Or is it their opinion that the needs of the police in protecting themselves and the citizenry are subordinate to the perceptions (and mis-perceptions) of public imagination, of police using grenade launchers to enforce “family values”?

    There is another subtle point brought forth in this debate, having nothing to do with these weapons. The President of the United States is not a dictator, and by Constitutional law, carries very little executive power. Over the last several decades, the “Executive Order” has been over-used and abused. Obama’s executive order was easily undone by Trump, who has wasted countless hours undoing a long list of others. Of course, he has accumulated a long list of his own as well – which will be reversed by the next Democrat to take office.

    If laws were considered by Congress and passed by due process, they would not be so easily undone and redone, and they would have more teeth as being borne of true representation (Pollyanna, here). The laws regarding the transfer of military weapons to police would not be so easily altered by Presidential decree, and we would be debating this before, not after, the fact.

    • WTP said, on September 3, 2017 at 1:46 pm

      Agree. But I would add that laws, either as passed by congress or (attempted) enforcement by the executive are being overridden by the courts to such a degree as becoming irrelevant. And constitutional rights and other items that are within the purview of the federal government, such as immigration laws, are being bypassed by local governments much as in Little Rock back in the 1950’s. And speaking of which, this idea of the LOCAL police being an “occupying force” is laughable relative to Eisenhower (rightly) sending in the 101st Airborne to ensure that children could get to school.

  6. Anonymous said, on September 4, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    “my main concern is not with what weapons the police have access to, but the attitude and moral philosophy behind how they are armed. That is, my concern is not so much that the police have the weapons of an army, but that they are regarded more as an army to be used against citizens than as protectors of life, liberty and property.”

    I think this is a fair point, but it is based on nothing more than an assumption. You state unequivocally that local police are regarded more as an army to be used against citizens – etc., etc., – but do you have any factual information to back that up? Are they indeed being regarded as an army? And by whom? And as such, are these “armies” actually being used against citizens, or in their defense? Or

    I can easily see how one might see certain images of “war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians”, and, taken out of context and discarding any semblance of critical thought or investigation, one might conclude that the police force really was being used against innocent citizens, especially if one has a natural inclination to draw that kind of conclusion. I can also see (and I have seen) how such a conclusion can then be applied with a broad brush to include ALL police forces – again, with one’s reasoning ability trammeled by one’s passions, emotions, or partisan biases.

    I hope I don’t need to get into the details of all the levels upon which those conclusions are simply wrong – except to say that the most important level is the lack of logic, reason, and critical thinking. The conclusions themselves, in some cases, might even be factually correct – but any relationship between their correctness and the way in which they were drawn would be purely coincidental.

    At best, and absent any factual information on either side of that argument, I would have to say that the ways in which local police forces are regarded would differ vastly from one locality to another. I would absolutely stipulate that in a country of 50 states, 3100 counties (or county-equivalents) and countless cities, towns, boroughs, municipalities and the like, that there are some police forces that are guided by those who DO believe themselves to be an army, who let their own forms of “Law and Order” to exceed their authority – but I don’t believe that it is the norm. I have lived in five towns in New Jersey, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, NY, in Santa Barbara, California, and in a number of towns in New York State. I read the local papers, I participate in local elections, I am aware of local issues – and I have never drawn a conclusion like that except to the extent I might think, “Hmm, maybe that cop took things too far”. Anecdotally, I am willing to extend my opinion to include the towns where my immediate and extended family live, and where my friends live. No one I know has ever mentioned a rogue police force, acting like some para-military organization, where they live.

    Again – this does not mean that they do not exist – but I would also suggest that the kind of viral, biased, and passionate broad-brush outcry against the police does more harm than good in the service of rooting out the bad eggs.

    (I will say, however, that I absolutely believe that the “system” is rigged against ordinary citizens, but that’s something entirely different. I have been to traffic court enough times in my life, and to court regarding a lawsuit once or twice as well. I have experienced first-hand, and observed many times, how if a regular citizen goes into court to defend themselves, that they will get abused freely by the prosecutor and the judge).

    Speaking for myself as a citizen, I am well aware of the dangers that lurk in our cities and towns. I experienced 9/11 almost first-hand – I was on my way to work in downtown NY that morning – off to a late start only by a quirky coincidence – and turned around when I heard the news on my car radio. Had I been following my regular schedule, I would have been getting off the PATH train from Newark right around the time the first plane struck. I lost friends in the towers, other friends and relatives were stranded for days in the city. One of my colleagues ran in the Boston Marathon when it was bombed. I was working on 42nd street in NYC when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to speak at the UN. During that time I was taking the ferry to the 39th street pier to work on a daily basis, and I was happy to see the US Coast Guard patrolling the waters – I did not mind when they stopped my ferry and boarded it, and I was comforted to see the NYPD armed and ready all over midtown – on streetcorners and on rooftops, with helmets and shields at the ready to act as first-responders as they had on 9/11.

    Things like that don’t happen where I live now – in a small city in Upstate NY. I count on the police to break up bar fights, to arrest murderers, to fight crime and to “protect and serve”. I don’t know what kind of weaponry they have – but it is my sincere hope that they have whatever they need should the unimaginable happen here. In general, the police wherever I have lived have been mostly transparent – existing somewhere between “Where is a cop when you need one?” and “Oh, thank God they showed up!” To me, a worst-case scenario would be a very imaginable event taking place, and the police standing down because they are under-equipped. I suppose that the opposite of that ought also to be considered – that the over-armed police would storm-troop through the streets of the city, repressing citizens – but that is comparatively hard to imagine. Even so, if it did happen, either the National Guard would be called to suppress the blue uprising, or we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands.

    I also read the local news. I trust that if the police in this town ever DID misbehave in any way that might be construed as a matter of policy, that the local press would be all over the story – and that it would likely go viral statewide or even nationwide. Political corruption notwithstanding, the citizens of any town, county, or state in this country do have a say in how they are policed.

  7. Anonymous said, on September 5, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    August 22, 2017 – Michael LaBoissier:

    “Be wary of Photoshop, mislabeled videos, and fake news. Putting new letters on signs in photos is now child’s play. Also, people routinely use real photos, but say lies about them. Yeah, the left does this to. I use the Google image search to check on the pictures-the images that generate the most rage are often just doctored images.”

    August 28, 2017 – Michael LaBoissier:

    “While this [military weapons given to the police] might have seemed to be a good idea at the time, it did lead to some infamous images that showed war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians—an image one would expect in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.”

    Can we then assume

    “If an image appears on the Internet that supports my point of view, then it is likely to be real and undoctored. At the very least, I do not intend to question it. However, we must be wary of images that support contrary arguments, as it is reasonably certain that these have been altered. ”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2017 at 4:46 pm

      No, you can’t reasonably assume that.

      Warning people about modified images is consistent with the use of images that have been checked for veracity. Sure, those images of well armed police could have been faked all across the news media of various political stripes and the video images could have all been created in Hollywood to dupe everyone. The heavily armed police I’ve seen could have been actors. But that all seems unlikely.


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