by Dish Staff
A reader with more than two decades of experience in law enforcement offers his perspective on police militarization:
For the record, I’m a supervisor with a medium-sized police department in Midwest who has also worked in a small town. I’ve been a patrol officer, a detective, and now a supervisor. At heart, I’m an old fashioned beat cop who enjoys walking down a main street and talking to people. I’ve never served in my department’s tactical team, nor am I a veteran.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in my career so far. One of the biggest is the nature of the threat that we face on the street. When I was in the police academy, we prepared for criminals who had cheap handguns and little training. The types of weapons that we face have changed dramatically; the police have simply evolved to meet those threats. I’ll give you a couple of examples:
During the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, bank robbers armed with illegally modified fully automatic weapons exchanged more than 2,000 rounds with responding LAPD officers. The robbers, who wore ballistic vests, were killed after a 44-minute exchange of gunfire. Seventeen LAPD officers and seven civilians were injured in the battle. The after-action review led to changes in the weapons carried by LAPD officers as well as departments around the country. The agencies moved away from shotguns in squad cars and toward military-style assault rifles that could penetrate body armor. Those rifles aren’t cheap – they often cost more than $2,500 each, plus $500 to $1,000 for the equipment to keep them secured inside of the squad car. If I were the head of a cash-strapped police department, I know I would love to get those weapons from a program that transitions D.O.D equipment to local law enforcement.
The second incident that changed law enforcement profoundly was the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Previously, law enforcement dealt with situations like this by sealing off the area and waiting for special tactical teams to arrive. At Columbine, law enforcement realized that it’s not enough to simply lock down the area; rather it’s necessary to go in, find the killer or killers, and neutralize them before they kill any more. Since 1999, I and countless other police officers have undergone days and days of training in “active shooter response.” I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the training involved would seem quite militaristic to the public. The skills and tactics we use are very different from what I learned in the academy, and along with that, we have specialized tools. For example, there is an M-4 assault rifle in each of my agencies’ squad cars.
I get that this is militaristic. Going through a school or mall looking for a shooter utilizes tactics any soldier would recognize from operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. We use them and the equipment because it works. The problem that we face in our field is that these tactics often creep into all aspects of our work. The more you become comfortable with the new reality, the more you need to recognize that it’s a reality you only rarely face.
This leads me to my biggest point regarding the Ferguson police department: We need to stop looking at the officers and start looking at the leaders. Everyone above sergeant has set the tone in this organization. They have done the hiring, and they were leading the efforts to deal with the protesters. There may very well be rogue officers causing issues, and if so, it should likely be no shock to the administration. Problem persons in law enforcement agencies fester for years because it can be challenging to fire an officer, especially if he or she is a military veteran. The one constant in every agency that I’ve been a part of is that the chief of police down to the lieutenants set the tone and direction of the department. The sergeants get the message out to the patrol officers and enforce the message. We haven’t heard the police chief of Ferguson say his officers are out of control – because they are doing what he wants them to do.
More Dish on the war zone that is Ferguson, Missouri, here.
(Image of a illegally modified automatic AR-15 used in the North Hollywood shootout via Wikipedia user YEPPOON)