What The Military Got Right, America's Police Are Still Getting Wrong

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A SWAT robot, a remote-controlled small tank-like vehicle with a shield for officers, is demonstrated for the media in Sanford, Maine on Thursday, April 18, 2013.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Extensive media attention was centered on Ohio State University last year when it acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The university police claimed it would be used for worst-case scenarios, such as an active shooter on campus, but would serve mostly as a presence during college game days. Following the vehicle acquisition, many questioned if the college campus was becoming a police state. When did the MRAP --- a military vehicle designed to withstand the most austere environments and severe bomb blasts --- become necessary for police presence at a football game?


Further examining the growing militarization of policing in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report last month on the overuse of Special Weapons And Tactics teams across the country. According to the report, instead of fulfilling their traditional, but rarely used, roles in hostage situations, barricade entry, and counterterror operations, SWAT teams are more than ever supplanting the role of regular uniformed police. The specialized units are conducting more typical police work, such as executing search warrants for low-level drug investigations. It is a frightening trend where issuing a search warrant looks more like martial law than law and order.

The line between police and military has become blurred, particularly where the increase in military-grade equipment is correlated to an increase in military-style police operations. The ACLU report cites a study out of Eastern Kentucky University that “... the number of SWAT teams in small towns grew from 20 percent in the 1980s to 80 percent in the mid-2000s, and that as of the late 1990s, almost 90 percent of larger cities had them … SWAT raids per year grew from 3,000 in the 1980s to 45,000 in the mid-2000s.” But where the military learned that the overuse of force on a population creates a gap between the soldier and civilian, the police are taking steps to widen it. The military learned that this creates more problems than it solves. The police seem to do very little about it.

In the early days of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, a U.S. military unit would act on a tip, surround and enter a home in the dead of night, shout, aim weapons, and detain all military-aged males for questioning in pursuit of an insurgent cell leader or bomb maker --- maybe the unit had the right guy, maybe not. But what remained was an embarrassed family and a community of angry civilians seeking retribution. Always going on offense did not help the long-term counterinsurgency movement. It was an ugly, inefficient way of doing business. Not until population-centric methods came to the fore --- that is, seeing people as people and not always as a potential enemy --- did operations start to close the gap between occupier and occupied and contribute to preventing the creation of future insurgents. Winning hearts and minds became the mantra to countering the insurgency, not treating the locals as a binary threat or bystander.

Yet, the ACLU report leads one to believe that the police are not adapting their methods in the same way the military did. Police departments are seeking search warrants that do not require a knock at the door. Flashbangs announce police presence. Children in the home are terrified and the family dog is shot and killed. When the humiliated family turns up not to have any drugs in the house, the SWAT team leaves without so much as an apology.

A recent John Stossel report, “Policing America:  Security vs. Liberty,” described such a situation where a husband and wife, both retired from the CIA and holding top secret clearances, were wrongly accused of having marijuana in their home. After a SWAT team broke down their door, held the husband at gunpoint and ultimately found nothing, the police departed without an explanation. This Orwellian experience was not explained to them until a year later. Acting on a tip that the family had marijuana stems and seeds in its garbage collection, the police acquired a search warrant. What they found was the spent loose tea leaves the wife enjoyed --- similar to, but not exactly pot.

Between stories like this regularly making headlines and the statistics compiled by the ACLU, trust in the police to serve and protect may be difficult to find. What is more troubling is that the subject of police efforts are U.S. citizens and members of the local community, not a foreign insurgency halfway across the world.

According to the ACLU report, “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs [such as the Department of Defense 1033 program] that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.” Free federal military equipment combined with a warrior mindset that views citizens as the enemy and little civilian recourse seem to be contributing factors to this growing trend.

These insights into modern policing seem to underpin one major issue: There is an effort, intentional or not, to draw a separation between police and citizenry for force protection reasons. Maybe criminals are more dangerous than ever, so SWAT, with its weapons and armor, is becoming increasingly necessary. But drug-related violence --- the kind of crime that SWAT was traditionally responsible for --- is at an all-time low.

Even with more armor, guns, and severe tactics, the police that overuse SWAT seem to fear the communities they serve. They fear that anyone beyond the door they are breaking down is certainly armed and willing to fire back. But maybe they could learn something from the military: the value of good, actionable intelligence.

The U.S. military learned that understanding an operating environment and the actors within a commander’s area of operations help to develop intelligence. Good intelligence leads to effective operations, which in turn leads to even better intelligence. But upsetting the locals never helps, it only hinders. Police upsetting U.S. citizens through botched searches, dead pets, and terrified children only angers them and makes them more resistant to helping in the future. If the police work to understand their municipalities better and act on more sound intelligence, they may be able to discern between the common criminal and the security clearance holder, the armed and dangerous and the armed only to protect, and the crime family and the nuclear family.

Brad Hardy is an active duty Army major. Although he is from Ohio, he is not an Ohio State fan (Go Zips!). The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.

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