Douglas Adams once made a joke about computer operating systems in the 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy' series:
"... it is easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of them by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all. In other words ... their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws."
This bit of humor best describes my attitude toward the rhetoric made about 'police militarization' in the modern day. The superficial arguments- mostly having to do with the sort of equipment police officers are using more regularly, and the extensive use of SWAT team raids- totally overshadow the deeper, more conclusive arguments on the subject.
I should note, for those unfamiliar with my blog, that I was also an ardent advocate of Indiana's legislation to explicitly authorize the use of deadly force by private citizens against police officers ("Outrage In Indiana", Parts One, Two, Three, and Four). The reader should bear this in mind while reading my commentary.
Spend any time perusing Twitter or Facebook, and you will inevitably see pictures of police department armored vehicles, officers with AR-15s clad in equipment vests and helmets, with captions describing this 'new' 'domestic army'. I admit, such pictures can be shocking; and, as a friend recently described to me, "if I see a cop in a 'traditional' uniform on my street, I don't think twice; but if I see a cop on my street in military-style gear, I start to wonder if I ought to be concerned".
The fact is, some armored vehicles (aside from their usefulness in stopping bullets) also make excellent towing vehicles, which is a fairly common task to which they are put by police departments which have them. Police departments often get them for a bargain price, by buying them used from the military as surplus, or for free through federal grant programs (more on that subject later).
Equipment vests with pockets began in law enforcement as a way to relieve the lower back pain associated with a career spent wearing a heavy gun belt around the waist; lower back pain is the most-common medical complaint of retired police officers. On a related note, the increasing use of BDU-type fatigue uniforms reflects the need for police chiefs to cut costs: They are cheaper to replace regularly than "traditional" uniforms (and uniforms must be replaced often) and don't require dry-cleaning. It goes without saying, dry-cleaning several uniforms per week for several hundred police officers gets to be expensive.
AR-15 rifles in law enforcement have an interesting origin: Some of the earliest adopters of the AR-in-every-patrol-car practice were some college campus police departments, who convinced leftist college administrators to authorize their purchase with the fact that .223 ammunition penetrates walls and bodies less than most pistol ammunition, presenting the lowest possible risk to bystanders if deadly force were needed.
All of this, however, sidesteps the principal reasons law enforcement need and want these tools: Armed criminals are increasingly more belligerent and brazen toward the police, a trend which has grown since the 1960s (and which also spawned the "Officer Survival Movement" of improvements to weapons, training, and knowledge which has saved countless police officers' lives, and described by Massad Ayoob, an integral member of that movement, in this response to a letter to the editor of American Handgunner magazine). Patrol cars do a terrible job of stopping bullets; traditional police pistols and shotguns have limited range and ammunition capacity when confronting well-armed criminals; and so forth. As one police chief put it:
"Everything we've done has been in response to what the criminal element already has," he said. "We've been trying to keep up with the Joneses since I've been in law enforcement. This is just another tool in the tool box to assist police."I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the same failure of logic which assigns foul motives to the police, based on the appearance of their tools, pervades the gun-control argument. "Assault Weapon" laws are based on the same cosmetics- banning guns because they "look dangerous", regardless of whether or not they really are "more dangerous".
In that spirit, using the sensible gun-rights belief that the offender, and not the inanimate object, should bear the brunt of the blame, let's discuss the real police militarization going on in America today: The change in the mentality of police officers.
Once upon a time, cops thought of themselves as comprising a "Thin Blue Line" separating the vast majority of the public from a relatively small criminal element. While the "Thin Blue Line" is still a common reference in law enforcement circles today (see photo at top, courtesy of Wikipedia), I don't see this as being the case anymore.
Today's police officer is surrounded on all sides by those who despise him (or her). He is made to enforce increasingly absurd and invasive laws, passed by legislatures which are attempting to interpret "the will of the people" (and that "will" is an increasingly schizophrenic one, at that). One set of the public demands officers be "TOUGH ON CRIME!" while another set sees even the most justified use of the most minimal force as "POLICE BRUTALITY!" (One Youtube video, which garnered international attention, depicts the latter perfectly: Two Hamilton, Ontario police constables use the most minimal force possible to arrest a screaming, flailing girl while surrounded by bystanders claiming "police brutality". Luckily, one officer had the presence of mind to (unnecessarily) explain himself to the bystanders). Officers are constrained in how to do their jobs by often-impractical regulations devised by local politicians who have no police experience, and second-guessed by self-serving administrators for even the most sensible actions while on duty. Private persons and business owners complain about police officers being seen in their neighborhoods, but then cry angrily when the police are late arriving to a call.
People complain about the taxes they pay (I am one of them), but also complain when the police department doesn't have the resources to combat every problem it faces. This, naturally, prompts police administrators to seek whatever money they can get in the form of federal grants- which are often grants for exactly the sort of equipment people use as proof of police militarization!
And then, of course, is the ever-present threat of absurd lawsuits by those seeking more money than they would otherwise ever see in their lifetimes.
So, who exactly would take this job? The answer, in the worst case, is a person of fundamentally weak character, who sees police authority as a way to gain instant respect. Typically, police agencies are good at spotting this type of individual and denying him employment; however, departments which have difficulty filling hiring needs often have no choice but to hire anyone who meets the minimum requirements of the job.
Add to this the modern trend of law enforcement agencies to place an absurdly high premium on physical fitness. While it's desirable to have some physical fitness standards (after all, nobody wants an overweight cop to suffer a heart attack on duty), some departments have set standards so high that only a narcissist who spends every waking hour thinking about improving his physique, or showing it off, could meet the standards. Likewise, the requirement by many agencies that candidates have a college degree or military service, thus selecting from two small-ish pools of applicants. Once upon a time, the principal qualifications for a career in law enforcement were good observation skills, good eyesight, common sense, and reliability. Today, it's pushups and (any, regardless of how worthless) college degree.
Is it any wonder, then, that a person who sees law enforcement as a stepping stone to immediate glorification, and sees himself as a smarter, better-bred Adonis (especially when surrounded by a bevy of willing "badge bunnies" to confirm this belief), when accepted into a job which, in many cases, is a very high-paying job with, perhaps, the best retirement security of any middle-class job today, considers himself superior to the public? Or that this individual, when confronted by the opposition on all sides I described above, takes on a (pardon my plain English) "fuck you, I'm better than you" mentality toward them?
Does this describe all police officers? NO. Not by a long shot. I've had the great fortune to know quite a few excellent police officers, both current and retired, and learned a great many things from them. It does, however, describe exactly the sort conditions which create the sort of cop we are concerned about: The officer who sees himself as a master of, rather than a servant of, the public.
Leave it to a science-fiction TV program (namely, the remade Battlestar Galactica) to sum up this mentality succinctly (in an allegory to Posse Comitatus):
"There's a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the people tend to become the enemies of the state."
That sentiment, that the people have become, in some way or another, "the enemies of the state", is at the heart of the police militarization debate. That, and not the tools of the trade, is where the debate ought to focus.
While I recognize that much of this change was spawned by the War on Drugs (and I am, at least partially, an advocate of some drug legalization), I don't think it wouldn't have happened without it. Stated differently: Had there been no War on Drugs, some other social "war"- on pedophiles, or on gangs, etc.- would have made an equal contribution. The court decisions chipping away at civil liberties, the overuse of SWAT team raids, and other factors, would still have been present.
So, what to do about all of this? At the risk of sounding trite, the public's demands on elected officials created this mess, and public apathy toward government affairs (to paraphrase Plato) has allowed it to worsen. Only a change in public demand and attention will fix it. Anything short of that would be mere window dressing- in other words, more of the superficiality I described above. Since the public "cleaning up its act" isn't likely to happen any time soon, I may consider moving to Indiana.
(As an aside, I really like this video, this one, and this one, of police officers dealing well with civil libertarian open carry "advocates". While I generally support open carry, some of these people really are an embarrassment to the gun rights movement, though the guys in the last video are doing it the right way.)