What’s All The Fuss With Police Militarization?

What’s All The Fuss With Police Militarization?

What Is Behind The Public Shock At The Heavy Paramilitary Presence In Ferguson. 

By John Kleinig (City University of New York & Charles Sturt University)

March 17, 2015          Picture: Jaegar Moore/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique’s Exclusive Black Lives Matter: The Problem of Race and Police Ethics.

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spotlighted a host of problems in police-citizen encounters. Race and police use of lethal force took center stage, as they often do. But the problems went much wider, and many Americans watching the riotous aftermath unfold were confronted with pictures that could have come from a war zone. Perhaps they did: police garbed in military gear, manning an armoured personnel carrier, and pointing military assault rifles at citizens. It has reinvigorated a previous though somewhat lacklustre public debate about the differences between police and the military and the appropriateness of the government disposing of its excess military hardware by transferring it to police departments.

Some sort of debate about the police-military nexus has been taking place for a long time: a number of voices have been raised – and even books written – against (and occasionally for) the militarization of police departments, and a blurring of the lines between police work and warfare.[1] For those opposed, such militarization represents a troubling mutation of the police power from its social peacekeeping role into one of pacification. For others, however, it simply reflects the reality of a society that has become increasingly dangerous: the twin evils of terrorism and the drug trade. As the Pulaski County (IN) Sheriff, Michael Gayer, recently put it:

“The United States of America has become a war zone. There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going into a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract”. [2]

There has always been a concern that policing could degenerate into a type of military activity. When the London Metropolitan Police was formed in 1829 – it was consciously differentiated from the French Gendarmerie nationale as a civilian police force.[3] Apart from a nightstick, police were unarmed, and their authority was expressed primarily through their uniformed presence. Their visible presence and ubiquity was intended to deter crime. Though modelled on their British counterpart, local US police forces were armed from early on, supposedly reflecting the more volatile circumstances of that frontier country. Perhaps so. The US has long had a passion for individual gun ownership, and a recent Supreme Court decision provided it with a Constitutional justification.[4]

Leonard Bentley/Flickr
Leonard Bentley/FlickrB Division Reserve of The London Metropolitan Police Up to 1913

For certain kinds of police work – especially in the wake of revolutionary groups that formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, police SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics – US)[5] or PPU (paramilitary policing) units were formed and, once formed, remained a part of big city policing, eventually extending to smaller departments.[6] As tends to be the case, they found work to do with the drug “wars” of the 1980s, and the appearance of international terrorism on the political radar screen gave police departments a rationale for increasingly “arming” themselves. At the same time, such militarized roles have become increasingly normalized, and have extended themselves into patrol work and the executing of warrants as well as the special emergency situations for which they were intended.

The Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr
The Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr

In 1990, as part of the US National Defense Authorization Act, what later[7] became known as the 1033 Program was instituted, enabling surplus military equipment to be transferred to (now) approximately 8000 state, regional, and local police departments, Ferguson included. The fact that the equipment is virtually free[8] makes it almost irresistible.[9]

Given the unrest in Ferguson, it is not surprising that the beleaguered and somewhat tin-eared Ferguson police would see this as an opportunity – albeit ill-considered – to use the military equipment it had. What may have been justified in the first instance as a counter-terrorist “need” was deployed in response to an urban riot. One worthwhile congressional consequence of its clumsy deployment has been a move to reassess the 1033 Program – a review of whether the equipment distributed is appropriate to a policing environment, whether police have been properly trained in its use, and whether the Program is run accountably.[10] A few commentators have pushed to the more fundamental question of what we should expect from police and how police work and military activity differ. Even if it is argued – as it has by some – that the old police-military division is no longer appropriate in “the war on terrorism,” we should go back to some basics before we acquiesce in the new status quo.

At its simplest and most basic, the role of police is to preserve order within a country, whereas the role of the military is to protect the country’s borders. In prosecution of their task, police are taught to arrest, the military to kill; the police are to use minimum force necessary; the military use as much force as politically needed. Although both police and military supposedly operate with the consent of the governed, police have a different responsibility from the military with respect to those they target: residents vs. foreigners. Criminals are not generally enemies of the state. Although the division is overly simple (think civil war and international terrorism), it provides an important starting point in thinking about the increasing militarization of social peacekeepers.[11]

The so-called state-of-nature, beloved of social contract theorists and probably implicit in the founding documents of the US, is not a representation in which people use too little force but one in which they are inclined to use too much, and in the wrong places. Civil society is intended to curb this excess – this threat to the security of our moral rights – by establishing agreed-upon rules, mechanisms, and institutions that will moderate our anti-social tendencies more successfully than is possible in the laissez-faire order of the state-of-nature. So, although police agencies are authorized to use force, they must use the minimum force necessary to accomplish their peacekeeping role. Most police departments have a continuum of force policy that seeks to match force threatened or used proportionately to the exigencies of the situations in which police find themselves. That was one of the “shocking” aspects of the Ferguson situation: the police presented themselves as if they were in a war zone. The scenes were caught, as is increasingly the case, by media cameras and small handhelds and then nationally and internationally televised or instagramed.

As noted earlier, one argument for the increased militarization of police[12] has been the rise of revolutionary groups, various fundamentalisms, and the illicit drug trade, each of which has used lethal violence in furthering its purposes. Insofar as these have not presented themselves exclusively as border threats but internally, curbs on their activities have fallen (in part) to localized police agencies. Radical and criminal groups, often well-resourced, have prompted police agencies to seek greater “firepower” to combat them. Initially, as is often the case in larger departments, special units were trained to deal with situations that required a greater show of force. The program that originally enabled the transfer of military hardware to police departments was intended to combat the illegal drug market. Terrorism became an obsession after 9/11.

CNN: Militarization Of The U.S Police

Several concerns about this shift need to be addressed.


(1) Why militarization?

A fundamental worry raised by the militarization is whether the social problems that have given rise to increased militarization have really warranted that response rather than some other. The US drug problem has not arisen independently of the history of its responses to drug use. Without condoning that use, if it had been seen first and foremost as a public health issue rather than one on which “war” needed to be declared, it would not have gone away, but neither would it have become so violent and intractable. This is not the place to develop a better drug policy; but it bears remembering – something that has gradually become socially clearer – that the “war on drugs” was tactically disastrous, and has probably persisted as long as it has because those most disadvantaged by it have been minorities.[13]


(2) Military gear sends the wrong message

It is designed for wartime use. It is designed to meet engagement requirements that not only make it look formidable – especially to an enemy – but also enable it to operate formidably. Distributed as part of the 1033 Program have been – inter alia – Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection Vehicles (MRAPs), grenade launchers, night vision rifle scopes, machine guns, M16 assault rifles, Kevlar body armor, equipment to detect buried land mines, camouflage fatigues, even military aircraft. Everything projects “for use against the enemy.” Police, on the other hand, are not only part of the community in which they work, but for a great deal of their work depend on the support, cooperation, and assistance of their community. Even if the idea of community policing has become somewhat marginalized in large cities, it at least recognized the important police-community synergy that needs to be maintained if police are to be able to do their work effectively. Of course, in Ferguson, with an African American community of 67%, a white population of 29%, and a police department containing only 3 African American commissioned officers out of 54, the alienation between police and community had already occurred prior to the shooting. The use of “tactical” weapons did not create so much as mirror an existing breakdown of relations. As worrying as some of the protestors’ actions may have been, they did not emerge out of a vacuum – and neither did the police resort to military tactics when they sought to restore order.

Mike Dunford/Flickr
Mike Dunford/Flickr"Community Policing candid taken after St.Patrick's Day Parade, Waikiki, 2011"

“Police are not only part of the community in which they work, but for a great deal of their work depend on the support, cooperation, and assistance of their community”

(3) Militarization as provocation

Not only does the use of military equipment project “enemy” onto those against whom it is used, but it is also runs the serious risk of being self-fulfilling. The streets of Ferguson did not become a site of military fatigues, assault rifles, armored vehicles smoke bombs and tear gas, it also became a site of ransacking and Molotov cocktails. No doubt there is a chicken-and-egg question about which came first, but the simpler point is that a military-style response to social disorder in an alienated community will “invite” or exacerbate a reaction more tailored to a combat zone.[14]


(4) Mission creep

The expansion of a mission beyond its original goals – is a common problem with powerful bureaucracies. Here it has involved the use of resources beyond their intended purposes. Equipment purchased “just in case . . .” (see below) suddenly finds a use in situations that do not readily justify it. The old police adage about “coming on strong” finds a way to “bring out the big guns.” It is tempting to use what one has, even if, if one did not have it, one would not need it. The point is not whether one can envisage a situation in which it would be legitimate to use such equipment (though maybe that would be a context more appropriate to the national guard) but whether, in having the equipment, one will look for ways to use it.

Ferguson was a very visible and nationally reported case of mission creep – certainly not the worst, but now the symbol of a trend in policing that effectively undermines some of its key concerns. No liberal, William S. Lind complains that the trend toward militarization in policing

“is disastrous. If the state is to keep its compact with the people, which is to maintain order and safeguard persons and property in return for cooperation, it must focus on preventing crime, not responding to it. Preventing crime in turn requires information, which police obtain by talking to citizens. Citizens are comfortable talking to police who are “Officer Friendly” . . . . Few people like shooting the breeze with one of Darth Vader’s storm troopers”.[15]

Ironically some police departments have seen such policing as exemplifying community policing. Within this vision, community policing has transmogrified into so called “quality of life” policing, in which dealing with “broken windows” is seen as cleaning up a neighborhood and rendering it suitable for community.[16]


(5) Masculinization and the demise of community policing.

Policing has long projected a macho image. When women were first permitted to become police officers, they were assigned “gender appropriate” tasks – such as those involving female suspects or victims and children. When community policing became fashionable it opened up new possibilities for female police officers, though it was often accorded a low status by those who saw real police work as “catching crooks.” The rise of militarization, along with the marginalization of community policing, has once again reinforced the second-class status of female police officers. SWAT teams and other paramilitary units are seen as elite domains, and most impose physical requirements that virtually exclude female membership.[17]

Michele Ursino/Flickr
Michele Ursino/Flickr

(6) Training

Those who dispose of the materiél do not provide training in its use. That is the responsibility of the procuring agency. Given the different situations for which the equipment is intended, it is probably just as well that the military does not offer such training. Training in its use should be the province of those who understand the context in which police work occurs. They can provide training that includes not only operational training but also trained judgment about the appropriate occasions for its use. Nevertheless, when training has been initiated by departments they have often used military or militarily trained personnel for such purposes, or – given that expensive training is less attractive than free equipment – have trained on the cheap by using military training films.[18] Given the sensitivity of many urban situations, this is a serious shortcoming.


(7) Problematic appeals to the “just in case” argument

Police departments have frequently represented their acquisitions as justified “just in case” [a hypothetical scenario] occurs. With such an argument Rick Stelljes, Chief of Pinellas County Schools Police, justified the acquisition of 29 semi-automatic M16 rifles. Although the rifles had not been used and – he hoped – would never be, they were “something we need given the current situation we face in our nation. This is about preparing for the worst-case scenario.”[19]

There are of course circumstances in which it is advisable to take precautions “just in case.” That is what defensive driving is about. That is why it is a good thing to have a first aid kit in the house. But it is not a good reason to have a fully equipped operating theatre or fully stocked nuclear bomb shelter in one’s home, even if one can afford it. Cost-benefit analyses of the kind that help to justify “just in case” arguments must take into account a range of factors – not just, say, the easy availability of the item in question. It must take into account the moral costs of having such items, the dangers of misuse, the probabilities of the items being needed, the likelihood that they will fulfil the purposes for which they are intended, and so on.[20] One senses that a good deal of the decision making relating to the procurement of surplus materiel was more heavily influenced by the fact that it was (almost) free than by the reasonableness of possessing it.



To the extent that our social world is becoming a more dangerous place, it might seem reasonable that we prepare ourselves for it by increasing our firepower and militarizing the police. But having a reason to do so doesn’t make it reasonable to do so. That our social world is becoming more dangerous is a reason for us to seriously ask why that is so, and whether we may have become the unwitting architects of its dangerousness. It is very natural for humans as we know them to deal with issues by means of force, but that it is natural doesn’t make it right or wise. The state of nature is what we want to leave behind, not reinstate. And so we need to ask whether there are social measures we can adopt that will diminish human alienation and aggression, and enable us to reverse the trend towards greater repression. Such questions do not mean that we will be able to do away with all paramilitary police work, and return to a situation in which police and military remain sharply differentiated, but it may prompt us to insist on a public justification for paramilitary units and put them on notice that their use will require a special justification. Most certainly we should overhaul Program 1033 and hold departments that use military surplus accountable not only for loss of inventory but also for the use that is made of it.[21]

Footnotes & References:

[1] Among the most notable critiques have been Peter B. Kraska, the author of many articles on the topic and editor of Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and Police (Boston: MA: Northeastern University Press, 2001); Radley Balko,Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (Philadelphia, PA: PublicAffairs, 2013); and Jude McCulloch, Blue Army: Paramilitary Policing in Australia (Carlton South, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 2001). A more favorable take can be found in P.A.J. Waddington, The Strong Arm of the Law: Armed and Public Order Policing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

[2] Quoted in Mark Alesia, “Police Officer Safety or Surplus Zeal: Military Equipment Spurs Debate,” Indianapolis Star/IndyStar, June 7, 2014, available at: http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/06/07/police-officer-safety-surplus-zeal-military-equipment-spurs-debate-mrap-military-vehicle/10170225/. See also, Steve Watson, “Indiana Sheriff: We Need Military Equipment Because USA is a War-Zone,” Infowars.com, June 10, 2014, available at: http://www.infowars.com/indiana-sheriff-we-need-military-equipment-because-usa-is-a-war-zone/.

[3] See Philip John Stead, The Police of France (London: Macmillan, 1983); idem, The Police of Britain (London Macmillan, 1985).

[4] District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 US 570 (2008).

[5] ERT (Emergency Response Team – Canada) and SO (Special Operations – UK and Australia).

[6] See Peter B. Kraska and Louis J. Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing,” Justice Quarterly 14 no. 4 (1997): 607-29.

[7] Initially known as the 1208 Program, because authorized by Sect. 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act.

[8] Agencies who request materials are responsible for transporting and maintaining it and for providing training in its use.

[9] One of the arguments for distributing the material to police departments has been “saving the American taxpayer’s investment.” See: http://www.dispositionservices.dla.mil/leso/Pages/default.aspx. In all fairness the kinds of equipment on display in Ferguson represent only a small proportion of what is distributed. Most of the disposal is of innocuous items such as blankets, computers, cameras, recorders, desks, and suchlike.

[10] Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal, “Obama Orders Review of U.S. Police Use of Military Hardware,” Reuters, August 23, 2014, available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/23/us-usa-missouri-shooting-militarization-idUSKBN0GN0O920140823. A report – one hopes preliminary – was issued in December, 2014: “Review: Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition,” available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/federal_support_for_local_law_enforcement_equipment_acquisition.pdf. The ACLU had already produced a cautionary report in June, 2014: “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” available at:https://www.aclu.org/war-comes-home-excessive-militarization-american-policing.

Although police departments were required to provide an annual accounting of what they were given, they were not vetted for suitability as recipients of such equipment. And so a police department under Department of Justice investigation was not prevented from seeking and accepting Pentagon largess. See Tami Abdollah and Eric Tucker, “Program that Gives Military Gear to Local Police has Serious Flaw,” Associated Press, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/21/police-military-gear_n_5856762.html.

[11] And, it might be added, the involvement of the military in peacekeeping operations. See Jude McCulloch, “Keeping the Peace and Waging War: The Police and Military – Rhetoric and Reality,” in Police Culture and Violence, ed. Tony Coady, Steve James, S. Miller, & Michael O’Keefe (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2000), 182-204.

[12] Although I focus particularly on the US, there are traces or more of militarization in other liberal democracies.

[13]For a trenchant critique of the US Criminal Justice System, see William J. Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard, 2011).

[14] Ferguson is not alone. Radley Balko has tallied bungled paramilitary operations in an interactive map: “Overkill: Map of Botched Paramilitary Police Raids,” at: https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=107456772442022648692.000477715971d8ea1d429, originally published in association with his Cato policy paper: Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2006), available at: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/balko_whitepaper_2006.pdf.

[15] William S. Lind, “Cops with War Toys: Militarizing Police is the Worst Way to Fight Crime,” The American Conservative no. 5 (September/October, 2014): 8.

[16] See, especially, the discussion in Kraska and Cubellis, 623-24.

[17] See Mary Dodge, Laura Valcore, and Frances Gomez, “Women on SWAT Teams: Separate but Equal,” Policing 34, no. 4 (2011): 699-712. As used to be the case with firefighters, one might reasonably ask how central upper-body strength and low fat/muscle ratio are to the work of such units.

[18] Kraska and Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry,” 617-618.

[19] Quoted from Associated Press (Los Angeles), “US School Districts Given Free Machine Guns and Grenade Launchers,” available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/18/us-school-districts-given-free-machine-guns-and-grenade-launchers.

[20] There are some similarities between the “just in case” argument and the “what if everybody did the same?” argument. Both tend to overlook probabilities or, rather, they elevate possibilities into robust probabilities.

[21] I am grateful to Brandon del Pozo for comments on an earlier draft.

John Kleinig
John Kleinig
John Kleinig is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and in the PhD Program in Philosophy, Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York. He is also a Strategic Research Professor at Charles Sturt University and Professorial Fellow and Program Manager in Criminal Justice Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (Canberra, Australia). He is the author/editor of 21 books, including The Ethics of Policing (CUP, 1996), Ethics in Criminal Justice (CUP 2008), Professional Police Practice (OUP, 2013, ed., with PAJ Waddington & Martin Wright), On Loyalty and Loyalties: The Contours of a Problematic Virtue (OUP, 2014), Prisoners’ Rights (Ashgate, 2014, ed), and The Ethics of Patriotism: A Debate (Wiley Blackwell, 2014, with Simon Keller and Igor Primoratz).
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  • The Dickies

    Very profound observations. I want to personally thank Mr. Kleinig for taking the time to write this. Mr. Kleinig, you have deepened my understanding of the problem.

  • Richard Arlen


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