The current moment of public focus on police conduct, set off in part by the police killing of George Floyd, has revived a familiar call to “demilitarize” the police, as images circulate of menacing, heavily armed cops riding armored vehicles and wearing military fatigues to quash demonstrations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the public conversation around police militarization tends to center on aesthetics—camouflage uniforms and flak jackets, armored vehicles, and tactical long guns are visually striking and tend to draw public attention. Calls to demilitarize the police accordingly tend to focus on things like the Pentagon’s 1033 program and local police departments’ acquisition of BearCats, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs, and the like.
Any effort to reduce the gratuitous use of military equipment by civilian police is certainly worth undertaking, and discerning the proper role for individual pieces of police gear can be complicated. But any discussion of police militarization that focuses only on equipment misses the full story, because militarism runs much deeper into American policing than vehicles and equipment. As a result, “demilitarizing” the police will require much more than tinkering with uniforms and gear.
Although armored vehicles and battle uniforms are certainly intimidating, the problem with police militarization isn’t that officers look too scary; it’s that treating policing like a military function misapprehends the proper relationship between the police and the general public. By treating cops like service members, militarized policing reinforces the idea that the police exist above and apart from civil society, and invites cops to see themselves as essentially different from—and superior to—ordinary citizens. The idea that officers are “sheepdogs,” superior beings whose role is to keep naive, unthinking, and possibly criminal “civilians” in line, is ubiquitous in policing subculture.
Getting cops to think and act like what they rightly are—publicly accountable agents of democratic self-governance—is the ultimate goal. Demilitarization is simply the means to that end. A mere return to the days of brass buttons, Crown Victorias, and .38-caliber revolvers will accomplish little if cops continue to think and behave as though they are a separate and autonomous ruling class.
The culture that breeds that mentality begins in the earliest days of an officer’s training. Every police academy in the United States takes the approximate form of military basic training, but there’s no good reason for this. Sure, cops need to follow supervisors’ directions, but so do members of virtually every other profession. Boot camps are specifically designed to discourage hesitation, creative thinking, and the exercise of individual judgment. But individual police officers need to solve complex problems, exercise discretion, and decide between alternative courses of action, keeping competing interests in mind, every day.
Nor is the in-group loyalty and “unit cohesion” that boot camps are meant to foster an unqualified good in policing the way it is in a military combat unit. Sure, officers need to be willing and able to back each other up in a crisis, but their first loyalty must always remain to the public and the law. Police officers should be encouraged to prevent misconduct by colleagues and report it when it does happen, but military-style indoctrination, by its very nature, undercuts this goal. The boot camp structure might also decrease the quality of policing by creating a filtering effect unrelated to the qualities that make for a good officer—a skilled interpersonal mediator might be deterred from the profession by the prospect of boot camp, while a hothead gym junkie might be drawn to it.
There’s just no good reason why police training shouldn’t be done in a professional environment. To the extent that physical fitness is an indispensable component of the job (and there’s some reason to doubt this since many police agencies impose no continuing physical fitness requirements after the academy), officers should be required to meet fitness benchmarks by staying fit on their own time.
But unnecessary militarism pervades policing far beyond the academy. Cops salute their supervisors, organize themselves by military ranks, and stand at attention. But why? Is obedience to authority really more vital in policing than in, say, medicine? Construction? Nuclear engineering? In any high-stakes job, failure to carry out instructions can have tragic results, but so can failure to question bad instructions. By requiring and rewarding conspicuous deference to authority among the ranks, these customs encourage police to prize obedience as an unqualified virtue. But the rightful relationship between constable and citizen bears no resemblance to that between supervisor and subordinate, let alone between soldier and commander. So why immerse officers in a culture that prizes hierarchy, authority, and obedience when what is really needed on the streets is more negotiation, creative problem-solving, and collaboration with the community?
And let’s not forget the uniforms.
Like other forms of militarization, combat-style uniforms both send the wrong message about the role police play in a free society and encourage officers to think of themselves as authority figures rather than public servants.
The iconic blue of police uniforms was chosen specifically to distinguish the first civilian police officers—London’s Metropolitan Police—from the red coats of British infantry soldiers. This choice illustrated the fact that rigorous distinction between police and soldiers was one of the crucial founding ideas of Anglo-American policing. Armies of occupation used soldiers to control and pacify populations; police, by contrast, were supposed to serve and protect. American cops seem to have completely forgotten this in favor of military cosplay. Police militarization often conjures images of riot police in chunky protective armor designed to deflect rocks and bottles, but at least such gear serves a purpose. Far more concerning are the battle fatigues and combat-style accessories now routinely worn by many agencies because they suggest the erosion, in the minds of officers, of the important differences between themselves and the military.
What might a truly demilitarized police force look like? We don’t have to look too hard for examples. In the late 1960s the police department of Menlo Park, California, undertook comprehensive demilitarization as part of a broader effort to revive damaged community relations. Officers, sergeants, and lieutenants were renamed “agents,” “managers,” and “directors” and wore subtly-marked business attire that kept their weapons and handcuffs concealed. But the cops didn’t like it, and when the reformist chief retired, they went back to their old ways. Such cosmetic fixes wouldn’t cure American policing, of course, but combined with demilitarization of training and culture, they might change it for the better. At the very least, such reforms would send a needed reminder to officers and departments about their proper role in a free society.