Will the Growing Militarization of Our Police Doom Community Policing?

photo of police militarization


The growing militarization of U.S. policing may be threatening community policing. When Sir Robert Peel developed his plan for the London Metropolitan Police circa 1829—which U.S. policing was loosely patterned after—he borrowed heavily from the military in organization and administrative structure, but he wanted there to be a clear distinction between the police and the military. To achieve that, the uniforms of the London Metropolitan police (Bobbies) were blue, in contrast to the red uniform of the day's British military, and Bobbies were forbidden to carry firearms.

While the military's mission is predicated on the use of force, Peel's principles of policing emphasize crime prevention, public approval, willing cooperation of the public, and a minimal use of physical force.

photo of the following quote: Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to speak today. 
I’m here to talk about police militarization, a troubling trend that’s been on the rise in America’s police departments over the last 25 years.
Militarization is a broad term that refers to using military-style weapons, tactics, training, uniforms, and even heavy equipment by civilian police departments.
As U.S. policing evolved it took on a quasi-military orientation, with a hierarchical rank structure supported by distinctive uniforms, insignias, and a tangle of rules that borrowed heavily from the military. The military trappings were embraced even more as the field worked its way out from under the grip of political patronage and focused on crime control as the core mission.

The professional movement (1920s through 1970s) took policing from the corruption and political influence that pervaded the early years of policing to a more autonomous and less corrupt police culture. The professional movement relied on a regimented militaristic style to accomplish the transition, which remains constant to this day.1

While the community policing movement has drawn heavily from Peel's principles of policing, which emphasize the importance of the relationship between the police and the community they serve, the concurrent militarization trend may be undermining those relationships.

The current drift toward militarization has its roots in the 1960s and the responses to the social unrest that swept the nation at the time. The development of Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams in reaction to the Watts riots in Los Angeles began a movement in policing that relied more and more on military tactics, training, and equipment.2

There was unquestionably a need for the SWAT team approach in handling serious violent emergency situations, particularly those involving hostage taking and terrorist related incidents, and that was their primary use from their inception through the 1970s.3

However, since the early 1980s the use of SWAT teams has undergone a dramatic expansion: in the number of departments creating SWAT teams and in the mission and sheer number SWAT deployments. The number of departments—both large and small—with SWAT teams has increased by 48 percent from 1985 to 1995. SWAT team use increased as well, with team deployments jumping by 939 percent from 1980 to 1995, reaching about 30,000 deployments. The nature of their use changed as well. Search and arrest warrants related to drug cases accounted for a significant amount of the increase in SWAT deployments. Peter Kraska, Professor and Chair of Graduate Studies and Research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, estimates the increase in SWAT team use from 1980 to 2000 to be about 1,500 percent.4

photo of the text: The next logical concern would be if this militarization effect, which has been accelerating in recent years will cause more alienation and further widen the divide between police officers and citizens.SWAT is not the only contributing factor to the growing militarization of our police. Some evidence suggests that the military type battle dress uniforms (BDU) that are becoming more prevalent as standard dress for patrol officers, and the stress training patterned after military boot camps may have a negative impact on the very relationships between police and community members that are critical to the operationalization of community policing.

The type and color of the uniform has been said to contribute to a citizen's perception of the officer, and some research has suggested that the uniform color can influence the wearer—with black producing aggressive tendencies,5 tendencies that may produce unnecessary conflict between police and the very people they serve.

Stress training in police academies, and its warrior-like orientation that tends to create an “us versus them” mind set in rookie officers, has the potential of creating barriers between the police and the community. Even when community policing is part of a stress academy curriculum, it has been shown that the stress training creates obstacles to the kind of police-citizen relationships necessary to operationalize community policing.6

Police chiefs and sheriffs may want to ask themselves—if after hiring officers in the spirit of adventure, who have been exposed to action oriented police dramas since their youth, and sending them to an academy patterned after a military boot camp, then dressing them in black battle dress uniforms and turning them loose in a subculture steeped in an “us versus them” outlook toward those they serve and protect, while prosecuting the war on crime, war on drugs, and now a war on terrorism—is there any realistic hope of institutionalizing community policing as an operational philosophy?

Karl Bickel
Senior Policy Analyst
The COPS Office


1 Jon M. Shane, “Key Administrative and Operational Differences in the Police Quasi Military Model,” Law Enforcement Executive Forum Journal, 10 (2): 75–106.
2 Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (Jackson, TN: Public Affairs, 2013), 53.
3 Our Militarized Police Departments: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Crime, House of Representatives, 110th Cong. (2007) (Testimony of Radley Balko). http://reason.com/archives/2007/07/02/our-militarized-police-departm/print.
4 Peter Kraska, Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System, (Richmond, VA: Northern University Press, 2001).
5 Karl Bickel, “BDUs and Community Policing?” Community Policing Dispatch, 5, issue 11 (2012). http://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/11-2012/bdus-community-policing.asp.
6 Karl Bickel, “Recruit Training: Are we preparing officers for a community oriented department?” Community Policing Dispatch, 6, issue 6 (2013) http://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/06-2013/preparing_officers_for_a_community_oriented_department.asp.

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