By Scott W. Phillips, Ph.D.
Police militarization involves agencies changing themselves to follow the principles of the military model.1 In the past decade, several academic discussions and books have provided anecdotal investigations of this topic.2
Examinations of police militarization usually focus on Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, developed in the mid-1970s in response to hostage or barricaded suspect incidents that patrol officers could not handle sufficiently. Primarily, SWAT teams existed in larger law enforcement agencies, but over time they emerged in county sheriff’s offices and smaller police departments.3
Perhaps militarization weakens the community relations necessary for effective policing.4 The public seems to believe that using tactical equipment, weapons, and other resources appears “more closely akin to military operations than domestic law enforcement.”5 Unfortunately, conversations regarding militarization usually have not included police agencies.
Arguably, modern realities of policing, such as responding to active shooter and terrorist incidents, have led to a public expectation that agencies should properly handle these situations.6 Yet, recent events, such as SWAT responses to civil protests, have resulted in public criticism of police agencies becoming militarized. This argument centers on appearance (black or camouflage clothing), equipment (weapons and vehicles), and an aggressive approach to dealing with protests.7
Much of the public perception regarding police militarization has resulted from Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act, known commonly as the “1033 Program,” which authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Defense to provide surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies. The act aims to improve agency effectiveness and officer safety during drug interdiction and counterterrorism activities. After 9/11, Congress highlighted the need to transfer such equipment in support of homeland security.8
POLICE LEADER SURVEY
Dr. Phillips is an associate professor in the Criminal Justice Department at the State University of New York, Buffalo State.
To understand how police departments view militarization, the author conducted a survey examining the employment of SWAT teams and tactical equipment, as well as potential changes in policing related to their use.9 Hopefully, it will inform the public debate.
Police leaders attending the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, during April and July 2015 responded to the survey, which contained various questions regarding policies and procedures associated with SWAT. The participants included chiefs, upper-level administrators, and managers working in diverse agencies across the United States. A total of 370 completed the survey (181 in April, 189 in July). Respondents worked in agencies ranging from very small (< 25 officers) to very large (> 500 officers).
Questions stemmed from research and information in professional police journals. They examined several events, such as those involving narcotics warrants or arrest warrants, for which SWAT often deploys and analyzed whether agencies should use the teams more, less, or at the same rate.
Additional statistical analysis determined that the survey results did not correlate with the size of the police departments. In other words, all agencies held a similar view of these issues.
Regarding the use of SWAT for potentially serious or violent encounters, approximately 80 percent of respondents indicated that use of the teams in relation to high-risk narcotics search warrants, felony arrest warrants, hostage situations, barricaded suspects, or building searches would not change. Eleven percent indicated that their agencies would employ SWAT teams more often concerning high-risk narcotics warrants, as well as hostage and barricaded suspect situations. A small percentage of leaders reported that SWAT would be used less for felony arrests and building searches. These results suggest that police agencies will not shy away from using the teams for incidents they see as potentially dangerous.
Respondents answered similarly when asked about incidents potentially considered nonserious, such as those involving low-risk narcotics warrants and misdemeanor arrest warrants. Some participants indicated that their agencies would use SWAT less often in these cases. Interestingly, 70 percent of the leaders answered that deployment practices would not change for a protest or civil unrest, and 5 percent responded that SWAT would be used more for civil disorder and protests. Thus, even after the media coverage and public outcry regarding the use of SWAT in civil protests, a large majority of respondents said no change would occur regarding how the teams are used for these types of events.
Appearances can matter, and when SWAT officers dress in battle or camouflage uniforms or use armored vehicles, they demonstrate a military mind-set.10 To further explore these issues, survey questions focused on the appearance of SWAT teams and if police agencies have made modifications or may do so in these areas. Most agencies do not consider changes necessary in the use of black or camouflage uniforms or armored SWAT vehicles.
The survey included a question that asked respondents their views regarding the relationship between various aspects of policing and the militarization of agencies. Leaders’ opinions varied substantially. Nearly 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that a police department becomes more militarized when possessing an armored vehicle. Almost 40 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. Views also differed regarding SWAT deployment for routine patrol or no-knock search warrants, military training for the teams, or military-style uniforms or weapons for patrol officers.
Two trends are noteworthy. First, over 90 percent of the respondents either agreed or disagreed that these factors make a police department more militarized; few officers had no opinion (i.e., “not sure”) on these questions. Second, for the most part, there was a fairly even split in their opinions regarding the link between these different factors and police militarization.
Police militarization has become an important consideration for departments across the United States, and agencies face questions about the seemingly routine use of military tactics and equipment.11 The results of this study suggest that department leaders believe that SWAT teams and tactical equipment remain necessary and vital tools for some law enforcement tasks. It also is important to recognize that police agencies may have rarely used SWAT teams for some tasks listed in the survey (e.g., misdemeanor arrests, civil disturbances). As a result, they likely indicated “no change” regarding the deployment of tactical units.
Nevertheless, the results also suggest that military-like displays may prove problematic for the police, primarily in appearance, rather than substance. For example, a sizable number of respondents agreed that some tactical characteristics of policing, such as the use of armored vehicles, military-style uniforms, and patrol rifles, contribute to a militarized appearance unacceptable for much of the public. Agencies may want to examine how to avoid such militaristic indicators while employing effective strategies.
Dr. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author would like to thank Dr. John P. Jarvis of the FBI’s Training Division for his assistance in the data collection process, as well as his helpful comments on this article.