The American people delegate to the police the authority to enforce criminal laws and promote public safety. As part of that delegation, we give officers the power to use force and even violence—that is, force applied to the body—to accomplish those goals. This practice is familiar to us, but it is in deep tension with our system of limited government that prizes personal autonomy and liberty. That tension can only be maintained by careful application of rules and procedures that restrain the use of force, and by instilling humility and care in the police themselves.

Unfortunately, existing guardrails against excessive police use of force are far too weak. Almost all large police departments (and most smaller ones) have use-of-force policies that define a continuum of force that can be applied to suspects in varying circumstances. But these policies can be ineffective in practice. And while other efforts to reduce police use of force—such as promoting racial diversity in hiring and instituting new academy training—seemed promising initially, they have fallen short of solving the police violence problem.

Recent cases of excessive police use of force—including incidents in Missouri, Minnesota, and Texas1 —were caused by poor cultures within departments, especially an attitude of militarism that has infected many departments in the United States. Poor police culture includes a lack of professionalism and respect for human dignity during interactions with community members on the part of some police officers. It is compounded when accountability, transparency, and a desire for continued professional development are not priorities for police forces.

Police agencies have also developed “special weapons and tactics teams,” or SWAT units, which employ weapons and tactics drawn from the military. The proliferation of these teams was driven by the largely unsupported belief that American streets constitute a war zone and supplied by a steady stream of cast-off military equipment from the Pentagon. These units are increasingly assuming standard on-duty policing roles, as opposed to responsibility only for unusual or especially dangerous policing situations. Now, the warrior mentality affects even those officers who are not members of SWAT units and is reflected in police uniforms, tactics, culture, and language. Reversing this police-against-the-world mentality is essential to restoring policecommunity relations and preserving the legitimacy of the police.

Below, we briefly recount the ways in which poor police culture and militarism have taken hold in police departments, starting with the creation of SWAT units in the 1960s and continuing with their increasing integration into everyday policing. We then move to a case study of police controls around use of force in a large urban department, Miami-Dade, which demonstrates the evolution of use-of-force policies from an idealistic and minimalist approach to something far more practical and nuanced. This history shows how departments have tried to influence police use of force through professionalization, recruitment, and training. We then show how, in recent years, use-of-force policies have become far more humane, with new strategies such as de-escalation increasingly being used to improve police-civilian encounters. However, due to the continued militarization of the police, these reforms have yet to be fully reflected in departmental priorities and encounter practical resistance. We conclude with a series of proposed policy and legal reforms that could help further professionalize policing in America, reduce inappropriate use of force, and root out the militaristic mentality that is the cause of much excessive police violence.

Read the full policy paper here.

Image credit: arindambanerjee