Retired Police Major: Police Militarization Endangers Public Safety

This week, the Trump administration revoked President Obama’s Executive Order 13688, which limited the scope of a federal program that allows state and local police departments to obtain military equipment free of charge – and without oversight or training in how to use it. After spending 34 years as a police officer, I’m convinced that the 1033 Program has been one of the single greatest contributors to the public losing trust in law enforcement.

Scrapping Executive Order 13688 means police departments will again have unfettered access to high caliber guns, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles, among other forms of military equipment. During a time when criminal justice and police reform have bipartisan support, this decision shows a clear misunderstanding both of what Americans want and, more perilously, of what’s truly effective at improving public safety.

Scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, helped create better awareness of the 1033 Program throughout the country. The public demanded to know why police who were sent to keep the peace during a protest were indistinguishable from soldiers at war. This is not the peace officer I was trained to be when I joined the force.

Beyond causing terror in individuals and families whose homes are raided with police armed with military weapons, the use of such equipment for regular police work damages police-community relations. Militarization has eroded public trust in police, the effectiveness of law enforcement overall, and ultimately, public safety.  

Officers need to engage in crime prevention and crime fighting activities that work. They do not need to participate in programs that waste resources and create dangerous situations for both law enforcement and the public. In the SWAT raids studied by the ACLU for its 2013 report, War Comes Home, 79 percent of SWAT deployments were issued to execute search warrants, mostly for drugs. Somewhere between 36 and 65 percent of those drug searches resulted in no discovery of illegal contraband. Even if everything goes smoothly and nobody gets injured or killed during a raid, it’s still an enormous waste of time and extremely dangerous for both officers and civilians.

An all-too-common SWAT scenario is one where SWAT’s involvement escalates a nonviolent situation into a deadly one. Imagine that you are awoken at dawn by the sound of men shouting and battering down your door. You can’t hear what the voices are saying, but you realize your home is being invaded. Your instinct tells you to grab your lawfully owned gun and face the intruders. You race downstairs and make it to the front door only to find the intruders are police – and they think you have drugs. The police are scared of an armed man running toward them, and you’re barely awake. You’re confused. And then shots are fired. Nobody remembers who pulled the trigger first. 

With each of these incidents, public trust in the police erodes. Research shows people who don’t trust police are less likely to report a crime, and I can tell you from experience it makes them much less likely to cooperate in investigations. Without the community to help us, police work — the hard work of solving rapes and homicides and kidnappings — becomes nearly impossible.  This means our “crime reduction” strategy of deploying SWAT teams is paradoxically creating an environment in which it’s harder for police to solve crimes and protect people.

My philosophy is instead guided by the Nine Principles of Policing set forth by Sir Robert Peel and his commissioners nearly 200 years ago, which have set the standard ever since. The very first principle is “to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force….” I support replacing the 1033 Program with one in which officers must demonstrate competence, be trained in proper equipment usage, and may only use military equipment for hostage, active shooter, and barricade scenarios.  I believe this because I became a police officer to protect people. When people fear the police more than they fear crime itself, the legitimacy of the career I loved so much becomes meaningless.

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Anonymous

“We Know How to Fix Policing in America. We Do.” https://medium.com/the-mission/we-know-how-to-fix-policing-in-america-we-do-fd3342767376

Anonymous

14th Amendment issues or equal protection should also be a primary focus.

For example: both police and independent experts both agree that marijuana use is about the same in both poor and rich neighborhoods. Police leaders order their officers to perform illegal "stop & frisk" searches in poor neighborhoods like Harlem but would never use those tactics in rich neighborhoods like Long Island. Police leaders know that the law breakers in rich neighborhoods would hire attorneys or lobby to change the law. These leaders also know that poor citizens can't afford to hire quality attorneys or challenge unjust laws in court.

The net result is prisons are primarily filled by poor people. If the laws were applied equally in all zip-codes, as required by federal law and the 14th Amendment, either penalties would be less severe or stupid laws would be reformed or overturned altogether.

As soon as police militarization harms rich neighborhoods, that can hire lawyers or affect legislators, it will be reformed or completely banned.

Police leaders have largely been able to get away with these abuses because cities haven't been allowed to annex the surrounding counties, to increase the city's tax base and place the suburbs under the same police department's jurisdiction for 14th Amendment purposes. The net result is an inner city neighborhood has more illegal searches, interactions with police, police shootings, convictions and prisoners than the same crime rate in the suburbs.

Erika McGinty

Thank you so much for referencing Sir Robert Peel's principles of policing and reiterating his 1829 point that police cannot do their job without "public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour."

Anonymous

Actually, since none of it will be aimed in my direction it isn't hurting my trust in the police at all. It will actually strengthen my trust as one of the public housing areas here (one out of many) is turning into a demilitarized zone for some reason. The rest of the city is a drug hub and has a bit more domestic violence than other places but murders are pretty rare (and usually related to the domestic violence). When you step into that one housing complex, which is just 6 or 7 blocks, you swear you've entered one of the nastier areas of Detroit. (like Vernor and Livernois when I lived their in the early 90s). Its not a racial or socio-economic thing, either.

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