Let’s talk about the militarization of America’s police. But first, let’s talk about something that may have led to this apparent technological and tactical shift over the past 60 years, especially the last 25 years.
Between 1950 and 2013 10,971 American police officers have been killed in the line of duty right here in our communities. They were not killed by foreign enemies, but were rather killed by and while serving the very citizens they were sworn to protect.
In the chart below, you will see the rise in police officer deaths from 1950 into the early 1970s. The peak was 1973 in which 280 police officers lost their lives on-duty. In the decades following, we see a gradual decline in officer deaths, until a sixty year low in 2013 of 105 officer deaths.
Also in the chart, 10 year U.S. Census data are displayed to show the increase in population over 60 years. Also, to demonstrate that the two sets of data are not necessarily related.
Clearly, efforts have been underway since the 1970s to reduce officer injuries and deaths. Improved training and philosophy have centered on officer fitness, tactics, protective equipment and weaponry. Moreover, a survival, or warrior mindset has been the emphasis since the late 1970s and early 1980s. The term “officer safety” is heard more often than any other term during police training and heard often during field work.
An unintended consequence of the trend in safer practices may be a more aggressive, less trusting style of policing. Police officers today face increased demands and are required to have greater split-second decision making ability than anytime in policing history. Hyper-vigilance is a known risk factor (and not necessarily a positive one) among police officers and in some cases, can hatch an us against them mentality that is akin to the demonizing of an enemy. Police are entitled to protect themselves, but need to use good judgment in how they do so. For example, the public we serve will not tolerate routine use of tanks or 50 caliber machine guns mounted on armored personnel vehicles. There is a time and place for advanced, specialized equipment and tactics.
The so-called militarization of America’s police is a catchy way to acknowledge that civilian police agencies have begun to use assault weapons, armored personnel vehicles, exterior body armor and other tactical gear. Apparently some view this as a bad thing. Do some believe the concern for officer safety has run its course and should be reversed? Is there an acceptable death toll in the law enforcement business? Critics don’t get to decide how the police arm or equip themselves because it’s not their lives on the line, but as in all things, there must be balance. Police officers should be allowed to protect themselves, yet the general (law abiding) public should not be made to feel afraid of them.
So is the “militarization” of America’s police a logical response to a progressive increase in deadly confrontations with violent offenders, or is it an overreaction with dangerous consequences? I think it’s a natural progression, but one that must be accompanied with much thought and consideration. Like all tools, it is important to know how and when to use them.
If military style equipment saves police officers lives, then good. If critics don’t like it, tough. America’s police officers are in fact, fighting a war. A war against crime, disorder and the degradation of our communities. The enemy looks like you and me and lives just down the street.
It’s ok to criticize the police, but if you do at least put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you would be willing to do what they do.