Militarization or Modernization?

NOTE:  This was originally published July 24, 2013 at The Bang Switch (no longer around).  I revived it due to the recent/ongoing clamoring about how law enforcement is “militarized.”


Militarization_cover

Warrior Cops on the Rise?

I read an opinion piece on the Wall Street Journal’s website yesterday where the author examined one instance of a raid on a suspected marijuana grow in which the resident was shot and one of the SWAT officers was killed during a gun battle that ensued after the SWAT team breached the door and were clearing the home.  The resident, portrayed in this article as an innocent military vet attacked by the cops, fired 31 rounds from his Beretta pistol (at least 1 reload), at uniformed cops who had been in the home for several minutes, and had cleared all but one room of his home where the man lay in wait with his gun.  The man was found to have 16 marijuana plants growing in his basement, which was the basis for the warrant the cops were serving.  The author uses this instance to suggest that the cops were somehow at fault in this situation, and that the “militarization of the police” was somehow a factor.

Granted, all that I know of that particular case is from research I have done on the internet, but even the über-liberal Huffpo article about this incident does not make it sound as fluffy, cuddly and innocently one sided as the WSJ article does.  I fail to see how the incident singled out by the author demonstrates anything but the opposite of what he is trying to convey.  The armed, pot growing, mentally unstable man inside the home shot 6 uniformed cops and killed another.  How is that the fault of the “militarizing” of the cops?  Quite the contrary, had they been more militarized, they might have gotten out without nearly as many injuries.

If you, the reader, are going to argue that pot should not be illegal, please just stop now.  That is completely irrelevant to this discussion, because the fact of the matter is, at the time and place that incident occurred, it was illegal, and the man in the home damn well knew that.  As did his ex-girlfriend (likely a pissed off ex-girlfriend) who provided the information about the grow to the cops and upon whose statements their warrant was based.

Countering Points
After recounting his version of that case from Ogden, UT, the author points to the fact that law enforcement is receiving “military-style equipment”  to bolster his claim that cops are becoming more militarized.  The military for the last 100 years or so, has been giving surplus equipment to law enforcement.  Way back in the day, many agencies were the recipients of full-auto Tommy guns which they used when conducting raids.  In a comment that took me back to the most recent presidential debates, the author makes a completely erroneous comment about cops using bayonets.  Really, bayonets?  Let’s just leave those silly, uneducated comments to the gun grabber in chief shall we?

A static display showing the gear worn and carried by the two dirtbags in the North Hollywood Robbery and subsequent shootout.
A static display showing the gear worn and carried by the two dirtbags in the North Hollywood Robbery and subsequent shootout.

In the same sentence as his bayonets comment, he complains that cops are using M-16 rifles.  The rifle issue to me comes across as a somewhat schizophrenic argument.  On one hand, the public demands that we be able to deal with the crazed armed gunmen, but in the next sentence, we are being derided for carrying a weapon that will better allow us to do just that.  The incident that drove the push for patrol rifles for many departments around the country was the North Hollywood Shootout in 1997.  After that incident, departments rightfully saw the need for rifles to be available to regular patrol cops instead of only to dedicated tactical teams (SWAT).  Many departments did not have the budget to run out and buy rifles, so they relied on freebies from the feds, just as they have been doing for over 100 years.  The feds had stockpiles of Vietnam era M-16’s laying around which they freely gave to just about any agency that asked.  My department and the adjacent local PD (nearly the same size patrol force as my department) both quickly took advantage of this program.

Now, before you start freaking out about tons of regular patrol cops running around with full-auto M-16’s, let me explain that both of these agencies went to the trouble to convert all the patrol rifles to semi-auto only.  While not every agency may have done this, I think you would find a majority of them did.  Police administrators look to the lowest common denominator when making many of their administrative decisions, and weigh the pros and cons.  While having rifles available to patrol cops is prudent, I think you would find most administrators think giving them all full-auto rifles would not be.

The argument for the cops having access to a rifle is no different than the argument for Joe public having a rifle, except that statistically speaking a cop is more likely to need to employ their rifle at some point in time as compared to the average gun owner.

Armored Personnel Carrier vs. a Law Enforcement Armored Vehicle
Armored Personnel Carrier vs. a Law Enforcement Armored Vehicle

The author then cites a 22 year old study about homicides in an effort to demonstrate that drug dealers and growers are not heavily armed.  This tactic is often employed by the gun grabbers, so readers here should be quite familiar with it.  While the two crimes (drug dealing and homicide) do have some correlation, you cannot logically apply murder statistics to show that drug dealers only have low powered handguns.  It just doesn’t work that way.   AND, even if it did work that way, he is apparently suggesting that we should just knowingly send in the cops under-gunned because statistically speaking, there is a low chance the drug dealers will have big guns?  Sorry, but Homie don’t play that.  I have the same attitude at work that I have at home:  It is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.  That is the same reason you and I carry concealed weapons is it not?  Always hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst?  Why should cops serving warrants (as in his examples) be any different?The “armored personnel carriers” is another hyped up, glorified argument.  It is not like local SWAT teams are driving Strykers or Bradleys, or even MRAPs around (that is the DHS).  That said, most SWAT teams do have some sort of armored vehicle, many use a Bearcat.  These armored vehicles fill a vital role in being able to approach barricaded, armed subjects without being shot.  My department has one, and it has taken quite a few rounds over the years, a few of which would have likely been fatal head wounds had the officers been in an unarmored vehicle.

Finally, he addresses something that he deems a new concept, he says it as “Whatever I need to do to get home safe”.  While that concept is not new, the author’s choice of words is.  That concept goes back a very, very long time, except it is more often said as “My number one job is to go home safe every night”.  I may be arguing semantics, but word selection is very important, and his choice of words is misleading.

Where I Concur
The author does make two points that I am very willing to concede, and that is that far too many agencies feel a need to have their own SWAT team.  I definitely think that every jurisdiction should, at the minimum, have one team available, even if it is a joint team consisting of members from the various local agencies.  SWAT teams perform a vital role that cannot be filled by most average patrol cops.  That said, why on earth do Fish & Wildlife Service, NASA or the Department of the Interior need SWAT teams?  I can think of a federal agency present in just about every area of the country who has some of the finest SWAT teams out there, who would easily be able to assist those other federal agencies if needed – the FBI.

The other valid point is that SWAT teams are used now more than they used to be, perhaps over used.  There have been times in my career where our SWAT team jumped on something that could have easily been handled by a couple seasoned patrol cops.  The attitude of some (definitely not all) SWAT team personnel, the “you’re either SWAT or you’re not” attitude, seems to emanate from them and from their leaders.  It is as if they think us regular patrol cops are just a bunch of morons who cannot handle a simple event.  That said, it is prudent to err on the side of caution, and if you have a tactical team that is ready and available when you are going to be serving a high-risk search or arrest warrant, would you not choose to use them?  I know I would.

On a side note, much of the argument made by the author seems to revolve around drug cases, specifically marijuana cases.  The first case examined was a raid on a marijuana grow where the author completely ignores the illegal actions that prompted the police response.  Other examples he used to bolster his argument were of marijuana eradication efforts beginning in the 1980’s, which leads me to believe there may be some ulterior motive for him writing this, but maybe that is just the suspicious cop in me seeing that.

The Bigger Picture
I would like to address the bigger picture for a bit though, as attempting to dissect the author’s points individually is not necessarily productive.  The bigger picture, at least what I take away from this article, is that cops are trying to be more and more like the military, both in appearance/gear and in the way that we interact with the general public.  Bear in mind, I work for a larger agency in a very suburban area, so not all my comments will necessarily ring true for a smaller or rural agency.

Gear and Uniforms
One of the issues seems to be the general appearance of the cops, right down to their uniforms (BDU style uniforms).  Just like the military, so has the patrol cop’s standard load out changed though out the years.  With the evolution of police gear, and the introduction of more and more options for less-lethal weapons, the demands (driven by the public) for what we carry with us have continued to grow.  Long gone are the days of a cop carrying a pistol, some spare ammo, a baton and handcuffs (1 set).  Oh how my lower back wishes that was all I had to carry.

General Public Disconnect
Cops are expected to carry not only their duty gun, ammo and handcuffs (most likely 2 sets), but now we have a portable radio, pepper spray, a Taser, a flashlight (or two), a baton, a cell phone, leather gloves, germicidal hand wipes, rubber gloves.  Some officers carry a spare rifle magazine, a first aid kit, a CPR pocket mask, a backup gun.  My recent article about the Hawthorne, CA police shooting the dog had people suggesting we carry tranquilizer guns.  Every time a new less-lethal device comes out, the public demands we carry it.  That 1940’s era mostly empty gun belt quickly ran out of room.  Cargo pockets on the BDU style pants are not there for looks, they are there to help carry some of the gear that the public demands we carry.  It may not look pretty, but given the physical space requirements, they are a necessity.

Belts

The bigger problem that I see, that the author does not specifically address, is that there is a general disconnect between the public and the cops who work in their community.  Historically speaking, when you look at policing at the beginning of the 20th century, the local cops knew their beats, they knew their people, they knew their crooks, and for good reason, their beat was very small.  In cities, the cops were on foot.  They had a small area of responsibility and they got to know the people in their area.  The cops could tell when something was amiss, and they could count on the people to back them if the chips were down.  That cop was a part of that community, and it was a good relationship for both the cop and the citizen.

Sadly, that era has gone the way of the dodo.  Except for some very rare examples such as the NYPD, where a foot beat still makes some sense, that type of policing will never be seen again.  As technology has improved, so has an officer’s ability to cover a larger area.  To the administrators and the bean counters, if by providing a car, you can have 1 cop cover the area that was covered by 10 or more cops, it is a no-brainer.  With the advent of radios, that area grew.  With the advent of computers and computer aided dispatch, that area again grew.  Officers, who 100 hundred years ago, would have covered an area consisting of a few square blocks, are now covering an area hundreds of times that size.  The district I routinely work in is 44 square miles of suburban city.  Generally speaking, on swing shift (statistically speaking, the busiest shift), that area is staffed by 5-8 cops, but some days as few as 3.

My point in discussing that evolution of the patrol cop’s beat is not meant as a pity party.  I bring it up to point out the very real problem that evolution has created.   There is a massive disconnect between the cops working an area and the people who live there.  No one can reasonably be expected to know even a fraction of the people living in their beat.  A person would be lucky to notice small changes in a neighborhood that they drive through  only on rare occasions, and only when they are heading to a specific location to deal with a call for service.  We (patrol cops) typically only get to know the criminals in our beats, and we get to know the neighborhoods the criminals live in, because that is where we spend our time.  Since we don’t have daily, positive contact with the public, we begin to be seen as just some guy who shows up when needed, and we begin to see the public as some person who just calls us when their world has gone to shit.  The advent of newer, better technology, which makes some aspects of our jobs more efficient, has eroded the once good relationship that the cops used to have with the public, and that hurts all of us.

Let’s Play A Little What-If
That eroded relationship with the public affects not only how cops do their job (less direct knowledge of people and area), but also how the public views the way we handle our job (no direct knowledge of the cop’s personality or attitude).  Using the author’s primary case example, let us imagine that had occurred 100 years ago.  It is highly likely that the local beat cop would have been the first person that the pissed off ex-girlfriend would have contacted.  Her claims of “he is a huge drug dealer” would have a much better chance of being filtered down to reality (he is crowing a few plants for personal use) because the beat cop would be familiar with the area and likely would at least have some hint if there was a huge drug dealer living in his beat.  That beat cop, if he even thought it was necessary, might call one or two beat partners to join him in contacting the resident of the home.  The contact at the home would likely have played out entirely different if the cops responding had the intimate knowledge of the area that cops used to have.

Times change, things evolve, including police work and gear.  As technology has evolved over the years, so has the way cops operate, and not always for the best.  Our ability to cover larger areas has removed us from the personal contact cops used to have with the people in their beat.  With that loss of contact, society seems quicker to blame bad outcomes on the cops, whether or not the blame is deserved.

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Matt
Deputy Sheriff at California
Matt is a full time Deputy Sheriff that has been on the job since 1996. During his time as a LEO he's attended countless training classes and is a court recognized firearms expert. Matt brings a unique perspective to discussion regarding the second amendment given his LEO experience and life time appreciation of firearms and our 2nd Amendment rights.