More than one person has criticized the increased militarization of the police over the last couple of decades. While TV still shows the civilian dressed detective or the policeman in uniform going after a criminal, the reality is that nowadays, it is often a militarized unit that goes after a criminal. And, this is true even when a search warrant is being served. Nowadays, police departments justify their SWAT budgets by having them engage in what used to be simple police work. I have no problem with a SWAT team being used on a suspected drug house, or very violent criminal. However, to use them on low-level violent or non-violent criminal is asking for a tragedy to happen.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that believes in limited government, free markets, etc., published a paper called, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids.” In the paper, the publish an interactive map showing shootings of innocents in America by militarized SWAT teams You can find it here. You will be rather shocked when you see the map and you will realize that the claim of “isolated incident” is far from true. This week we were able to see an over-the-top example of yet another isolated incident by militarized police in a city called Ferguson. Conditions became so bad that the Governor of Missouri finally did the right thing and took over the policing of the town. Already, tempers are calming down, though tonight will tell.
Part of the reason that The Cato Institute is against militarized police is the danger to liberty that is found when there is little difference between the police and the military. We saw that happen this week in Ferguson. In the late 1800’s, the Posse Comitatus Act, passed in 1878, restricts the military from being used within the USA for police duties. There are legitimate exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions. Way back in the 19th century, we knew the dangers of allowing police to adopt military thinking or to allow the military to police us. We have sidestepped that in the last couple of decades and we are beginning to pay the price. Yes, you can argue terrorism, etc. But, frankly, when terrorism strikes, that is the time to call in those who are trained in those areas. There is a purpose to SWAT teams, but they need to be kept very limited. Not every police officer needs to have formal military training with easy accessibility to military gear. That is simply asking for another Ferguson to happen.
One of the best critiques I heard today of the militarization of the police was a critique by a retired Army officer with experience in this area. And, his big critique was that the Ferguson police clearly showed that their training had been inadequate and that there were obviously rules of engagement that were not well-defined. Think of the police dressed in military gear pointing rifles at unarmed protesters. In the Army that would be likely to get you disciplined. Why? Because of something I learned back in my basic training. You NEVER point a weapon at a person unless you are about to fire or think you may have to pull the trigger any time now. And I was trained while Viet Nam was going on. The retired Army officer pointed this out and pointed this out as one of the dangers of a militarized police. Militarized police rarely have the level of training that real military do who are trained in crowd control. In fact, being a military person and being a police person are two different careers, we mix them at our own danger. And, that is precisely what has happened.
This is one case where I agree with the libertarian Cato Institute. Militarized police have been a very bad idea for this country. We need just plain police with the occasional SWAT team. We need to keep police careers clearly different and separate from military careers. And we need to remember that there were good reasons why the Posse Comitatus Act was passed in 1878.