What Militarized Police Can Learn from the Actual Military

This summer, I get to go to Virginia for a month to do some training for NROTC. For one of the weeks, I will have the opportunity to spend time with Marines. Despite choosing the Navy option, I felt excited about the prospect of being able to learn about the Marine Corps first hand, including the privilege of being able to fire assault rifles and grenade launchers, ride in an armored personnel carrier, and just generally feel like a badass. That enthusiasm turned to worry, however, as I began to read more about how more American police forces were beginning to use the same technology for law enforcement. I do not speak for the military nor do I claim to be an expert on military topics (like, at all for either of those) given that my current “military experience” is entirely limited to what I’ve learned in the NROTC program here at Duke, but I do have some grave concerns about bringing military technology to local police forces.

 

Militarizing police forces sets a dangerous precedent for the communities which those police forces are charged with protecting. It presumes that the citizens of those communities are an inherent threat to the police, leading to a gap in the relationship between citizens and police. This was tricky logic even in the actual war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan (read: not average American neighborhoods), where actual Army and Marine units (read: not the local police) conducted patrols in order to counter insurgency; the military had to figure out how to better connect with local populations so that they could gain potential allies against terrorist groups. This included trying to interact more actively with locals and ending an early program to replace the Humvee with a mine-resistant vehicle in part because the vehicles were too “menacing.”

 

If the military actively tried to improve relations with local communities in Iraq and Afghanistan to combat terrorism, why can’t local police forces try to do the same with their communities in order to fight crime? Sure, terrorism and crime are nowhere near identical but in both cases it helps to have the general public on the side of the acting authorities to promote stability. The issue, though, is that a horde of angry protesters demanding racial justice in a city like Ferguson is not the same as a horde of suicide bombers demanding your immediate death in Afghanistan. Sure, it makes sense to deploy crowd control to deter potential rioting, but did the Ferguson Police Department really need to roll out armored personnel carriers and snipers? That seemed to assume a bit much about the threat posed by protesters, especially given that most of them were both peaceful and unarmed.

 

Perhaps it makes sense that the military – the organization that has more experience and more wisdom regarding these tactics and equipment – is more conscious of the need for good community relations in light of the risk that an overbearing and intimidating counterinsurgency strategy poses to operational security. If local police forces insist on adopting military technology – which, as stated before, is unnecessary since the average American citizen, or criminal for that matter, is not a terrorist – fine, but they should at least adopt the military’s wisdom too and scale it appropriately to civilians. Maybe in the process they will discover for themselves how much of that equipment they really need.

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