To protect and serve or to search and destroy?


The following op-ed was co-authored by Jonathan Haggerty, a criminal justice policy associate at R Street.

More than 1,800 M16 and M4 assault rifles, six military-armored vehicles, three mine-resistant vehicles and three complete combat/assault/tactical wheeled vehicles: It sounds like the description of a deployed Army battalion, but these items all belong to the Florida State Highway Patrol.

From 2006 to 2015, the U.S. Defense Department transferred more than 1.5 million weapons-related military surplus items to federal, state and local law enforcement, worth a combined total of roughly $2.2 billion. That’s how even small-town police forces now are armed with military-grade assault rifles, night-vision goggles, bayonets and armored trucks.

President Donald Trump’s speech last week, in front of police officers in Suffolk County, New York, was met with public outcry after he encouraged officers to “not be too nice” to “thugs” thrown into “the back of the paddy wagon,” and suggested that officers rough up suspects they deemed guilty. But perhaps even more questionable were the president’s comments about military-grade weapons.

“When you want to take over used military equipment, they were saying you couldn’t do it,” Trump said. “You know what I said? That was my first day: You can do it. In fact, that stuff is disappearing so fast, we have none left. You guys know – you really knew how to get that.” Trump was referring to the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, which he promised on the campaign trail to revive after former President Barack Obama limited certain categories of military hardware in 2015.

In addition to the weaponry, police departments also have received military tactical training to use those newly acquired weapons more effectively. It used to be the case that only large, urban police departments had SWAT teams, which themselves were typically reserved for a narrow set of scenarios (generally, of last resort). By 2005, at least 80 percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people had their own SWAT team, the members of which often are trained by special operations commandos.

The number of yearly raids conducted by local police SWAT was estimated to have increased more than 1,500 percent from 1980 to 2000. No federal policy mandates reporting these no-knock raids, and it’s difficult to gather solid data due to extensive red tape. Still, these increases were seen in an environment in which violent crime has continued a steady decrease. Rather than responding to an increase in violence, the rise in SWAT teams have been driven by cities and counties fearing being left behind.

The president’s apparent enthusiasm for these trends should refocus the conversation about the militarization of police weapons. Weapons “inflation” does not stop with officers routinely carrying assault rifles, which is troubling in its own right. The most serious implication of loading municipal police forces with military weapons and training is a shift in mindset among what we traditionally have called “peace officers.” Soldiers are trained, according to the Soldier’s Creed, to “stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.” This is a far cry from the police officer’s mantra: “to protect and serve.”

Police officers are expected, under formal law and longstanding American norms, to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the “bad guys.” A suspect in custody is still a citizen who remains innocent until proven guilty. For police officers serving local communities, lethal violence is an absolute last resort.

Soldiers, by contrast, are trained to classify people in terms of enemies and non-enemies – a decision they frequently must make while surrounded by a population that views them as part of an occupying force. A soldier’s primary objective is to kill the enemy. We need to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with police officers being influenced by that same objective.

Sanctioning cops to behave like soldiers indicates one is either unwilling to or incapable of distinguishing their roles in society. Cautioning against militarizing the police does not constitute a criticism of police. It is ill-conceived policy choices made by elected leaders that have landed us here. We do our officers a disservice by giving them conflicting orders.

Law enforcement needs clarity of mission, and the president of the United States should lead the way. By adding to the cloud of confusion, Trump is exacerbating the plight many police officers face today: to protect and serve, or to search and destroy.

Image by Ilkin Zeferli



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