Media Coverage of the “Militarization of the American Police”

Updated: September 3, 2014


By RU Pablo

The events in Ferguson, Missouri have captured the attention of the American public in recent weeks. One of the many topics in the public forum has been the increasing militarization of local police forces. It is an important topic and one that merits public debate and scrutiny, but the con-versation we are having today as a nation is filled with misinformation, conjecture, and a sense that two sides of the debate are circling their wagons to defend their positions.

Author’s note: My purpose here is not to address the situation in Ferguson – there is a place for that, but this is not it; especially since we do not have all the facts yet. Kind of an important part of passing judgement. I am also not here to condemn or defend the media, the Ferguson Police Department, the residents of Ferguson, or anyone else.

Words are Important

There is probably nothing that twists the brain of a cop or veteran more than technical inaccuracies. It’s the reason our wives and girlfriends dread (or outright refuse) to watch cop/military movies with us…we spend the entire 120 minutes pointing out procedural/technical/ballistic/his-toric inaccuracies.

When journalist or pundit refers to an armored truck as a “tank”, they automatically lose all credibility with people who know the difference. It’s the same thing that happens in the gun control debate when a semi-automatic rifle is referred to as an automatic weapon or a machine gun.

Journalists have a responsibility to fact check and to present accurate information. While the difference between an armored truck and a tank may seem inconsequential to some, it is not. It brings in to question the credibility of the writer or speaker. The logical next step is to question what else they are getting wrong about the story. Recently, Huffington Post correspondent Ryan Reilly experienced public backlash while covering the civil unrest in Ferguson when he when he tweeted a photo of several discarded foam ear plugs lying on the ground and stated, quite publicly, that he suspected they were rubber bullets and asking for confirmation. To his credit, Mr. Reilly a) was asking the question rather than erroneously stating it as fact, and b) issued a public retraction after learning of his mistake.

police tac 1A recent article by Newsweek’s Taylor Wofford alleges public safety officials in Missouri have denied purchasing MRAPs despite a Reuters photo showing Ferguson cops in an MRAP…except the photo is clearly NOT an MRAP. Again, a simple Google search would have completed the fact checking on this.

Safety versus Perception

Having served in uniform as both a police officer and a soldier, I know that the vast majority of police officers in America don their protective gear in an effort to go home alive and uninjured at the end of their shift. Allegations that I have read that American police departments are becoming occupying armies in disenfranchised neighborhoods are frankly false or an oversimplification of the importance of good community-police relations.

It appears that some are trying to create the appearance that the average beat cop in Smallville, USA is driving around in an armored patrol vehicle and dressed in SWAT gear 24/7. The reality is that with a few exceptions, most cops are in marked patrol cars wearing the standard police uniform we are all familiar with. Some specialty units – K-9, street crimes units, and fugitive warrant units will wear a more tactical uniform during their day-to-day operations, but even then there is usually a tactical reason for doing so. Most of what we’ve seen lately, however, are cops in riot/crowd control gear and SWAT units serving high-risk warrants.

An unfortunate consequence to civil disobedience is that oftentimes peaceful protesters gathering to assert their First Amendment rights find their message usurped by cowardly people skulking in the shadows to throw rocks and bottles at the police. Additionally, police presence is a critical part of maintaining order at large gatherings. Whether it is a protest or a concert festival, there needs to be an adequate police presence to respond and ensure peace is maintained. Those cops need to be protected from unnecessary injury.

Follow the Money

The reality of the police using military equipment primarily comes down to fiscal responsibility, not some conspiracy theory of turning our disenfranchised communities into occupied war zones.

police tac 4One can easily make the argument that the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, is not the most appropriate vehicle for a local police department. This is correct. The MRAP is designed for use in a combat zone riddled with roadside bombs. There are other vehicles, specifically designed for SWAT operations, that are probably better choices. Currently, however, the MRAP makes more fiscal sense for local taxpayers.

Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, local governments can purchase surplus military equipment from the government for pennies on the dollar. In June of this year, the Fort Myers Police Department in Fort Myers, Florida purchased a $750,000.00 MRAP for a mere $3,400.00. They are not alone. Other agencies have seen similar savings in purchasing surplus equipment including MRAPs, aviation equipment, desks, rifles, and binoculars.

Given the economy of the last few years, it is any surprise local government bean counters would be enthusiastic to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by purchasing surplus equipment?

The origins of the 1033 program (and the 1208 program before it) lie in the federal government’s efforts to assist local law enforcement in fighting the “War on Drugs” in the early 90s. The September 11th attacks subsequently added a homeland defense/counter-terror aspect to the federal government’s assistance.

Operator Chic – Coyote Tan is the New Black

Are there cops out there who love the opportunity to live out their Delta-CAG-SealTeam6-Wish-I-Was-Blackwater fantasies because they never joined the military or did join but left the service before our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq? Sure. Those guys are out there, but they are a small minority. (Although, I did recently see SWAT officers from an agency in Florida wearing tan desert boots…pretty good choice given the vast expanses of high desert in the Sunshine State).

Just like the military, police departments have their geardos, too. Just like the military, they are not a representation of the organization as a whole.

Embracing Communities

Much has been written recently about the need for police to deal more effectively with the communities they serve. Many have pointed out that dealing with the citizens of a community from behind military-grade armor as if they were a hostile force is ineffective. This is true, but not a very accurate portrayal of modern American policing.

police tacComparatively little has been written about other aspects of law enforcement training. A case in point is the Crisis Intervention Team training, or CIT. CIT is a program that provides specialized training to law enforcement officers in dealing with people suffering from mental illness – especially when a person is in crisis. The program, established in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988 following the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man by Memphis police officers, has been growing for a quarter century with exceptional results. Miami-Dade County alone has trained over 4100 officers in CIT in just over a decade.

(Author’s Disclosure Statement: I have been involved in CIT since 2003 and have taught portions of the curriculum since 2006)

See the Whole Picture

The debates over the militarization of the police, police-minority relations, the war on drugs, the war on crime, and other topics are important and need to constantly be addressed, evaluated, and assessed. A free and independent media coupled with transparency in government are important tools in ensuring that what works continues and what does not work is revised.

The media plays a critical role in ensuring this process works. Whether it is news coverage from a major news powerhouse, independent reporting from freelance journalists, or grass roots coverage through social media sites, media coverage is often the eyes and ears of the nation. For this to work, however, there needs to be a high level of journalistic integrity. Factual reporting is critical.

Lazy reporting and sloppy fact checking does little more than obscure the real picture and fan the flames of discontent. Journalists, you are better than that.




  1. JoeC

    September 3, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Don’t forget that the police are also confronting a better equipped enemy than they were a decade or two ago. Gangs, thugs and criminals in general are more heavily armed now than ever. In response to that, the police need to be prepared to respond to those threats even if they only represent 0.01% of the people they will deal with.

    However, I do see a change in the mentality of not just individual officers, but some departments as well. There has been a shift from wearing a traditional police uniform for beat cops to wearing tactical gear. The cop (yes, just one and we didn’t even have one when I lived there) in my hometown wears navy blue BDUs tucked into his boots with a pistol belt full of gadgets. That is the standard uniform in the department and I see beat cops on the side of the road doing traffic stops in similar gear. This move creates a sense of intimidation for the public in general and seems to remove the terms serve and protect from the officers’ job description.

    In a time when trust of the police is at a low point, it seems that departments are opting to consciously do things that reinforce what we are hearing about on the news regardless of whether or not those things are based in truth.

  2. Last Round

    September 3, 2014 at 10:48 am

    When I first put on a police duty belt there was a revolver with two speed loaders, a PR-24 baton, a radio, a cutting tool(for stuck seat belts in a crash) and a set of handcuffs (2nd set was optional). My options for interaction with resistant subjects later added OC spray and the TASER. A personal protective kit of rubber gloves and a cpr mask got added for when we beat the FD to a medical call. A remote microphone for the dash camera got added as well. The revolver and speed loaders were retired in favor of a succession of auto-loading pistols in ever increasing security level holsters. By the time I was eying retirement, small-statured officers were finding it physically impossible to put everything on their belts that the duty manual required. All of those extra items were meant to add safety or accountability and add use of force options beyond talk-touch-club-shoot. The Batman belt is trying to give patrol officers a variety of tools to more effectively tailor how to handle encounters that go beyond cooperative subjects.

    As far as the blue BDU’s are concerned, I would have loved to have been authorized to wear them instead of shredding the striped wool blend trousers every time I had to cover a dog handler doing a track through the brush looking for a burglar, a lost kid, or a dementia suffering senior citizen. The dog handler was dressed for the terrain and I was out a $50+ pair of pants.

    Wearing military camo makes sense when you are crawling around a perimeter of a barricaded and armed hostile subject. I know that when I saw detectives wearing crisp white dress shirts in the middle of a bush, I would usually think upward mobility within the department was only one hostile act away.

  3. Thoreau

    September 3, 2014 at 11:08 am

    I feel that this article missed the point a little bit. There is certainly an expectation that cops should be safe and secure on the job and having dead cops isn’t going to help anyone. However, the author chose to only address the fact that the police have these things and that they might be useful in proper situations.
    What about the excessive use of these “tools”? What about MRAP’s and SWAT teams rolling up to serve no-knock warrants and injuring innocent civilians through their excessive use of force from the military equipment they have procured? And why did the addition of a homeland security aspect drastically increase the militarization and spending on police forces? If I’m not mistaken we already have an entity for that role, the National Guard. Hell, the name alone states their mission and the fact that the Militia Act determined them to be the militia why do we have police forces that seem to be usurping that role? It’s all well and fine if the police have military grade equipment but for the most part it should be sitting idle until the appropriate situation arises to use it.
    As an outsider looking in it seems that often times police forces think they are raiding houses in Fallujah rather than serving warrants for arrest in small town America. Does that have to do with the fact that many police officers serve in the Reserves/Guard and got deployed? Or that many are prior service? I don’t know but that’s what it looks like to me.

    • JoeC

      September 5, 2014 at 9:08 am

      You are absolutely correct. I don’t really know what they are thinking when they decide to use them. My cousin owns a welding shop that was next door to a business that was being used as a front for drugs. One day the door got kicked in and the SWAT team raided his welding shop. In the process they beat the shit out of my wheelchair bound uncle and pretty well tore the place apart. This is in a place lots bigger than my home town, but it’s still in a city of less than 3,000 people. Everybody in town knew what was going on and where it was happening. How do these mistakes happen? Are these raids not planned and briefed? If they are, do the participants not get to speak up and say something is wrong? Why the hell does a city of 3,000 people have a SWAT team? When every member of that SWAT team lives locally and knows the entire city, how do they raid the wrong business? Are they so anxious to use their toys that they make up reasons to use them? As was said by Phelps, where was the adult in the room when these decisions were made?

  4. Phelps

    September 3, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Without getting into the whole depth of things, I think this sumarizes it best:

    In the county that I live in (Collin Co Texas), an unnamed agency received 17 bayonets. Even if you can come up with some reason for cops to have bayonets, where was the adult in the room when they were filling out the forms that should have said, “you know what, maybe bayonet charges aren’t the ideals we want to go into the field with?”

  5. Joe

    September 3, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    Kudos to RU Pablo for injecting intelligence, rationality and insight into this conversation. Seriously RU should consider getting a bunch of crusty ass vets together to talk about issues macneal/lehrer style. Oh wait, damn few… Never mind.

  6. Whitey

    September 5, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    I see merit in both sides of this argument. As a firefighter, I both empathize with and emphatically support the notion of ensuring that every officer goes home safe. At the same time, I worry that this legitimate motive is often used as a smokescreen for trigger-happy Barney Fifes who want to play Rambo and duck the consequences.

    While some say that cops have no need for ARs, I disagree. Any officer should have a patrol rifle of some kind riding the rack next to his big-gauge. While most cops will never need to fire their weapon in anger, there is the outside chance that they may need to counter a threat with overwhelming firepower, quite possibly beyond pistol or buckshot range. An AR or comparable rifle or carbine will work fine for most officers. A few here and there would be wise to move up to a .30-cal, so a few M14/M1A or comparable weapons are reasonable for longer engagement ranges or bad guys behind brick walls. Hell, my uncle kept an SKS in the trunk of his cruiser for over a decade until his department finally decided to issue him an AR. Hell, if I can justify have such a weapon (or weapons) as a citizen (never mind the off-duty fireman part), then they can justify it too.

    The caveat is that there is almost never a good reason for the patrol rifle to leave the rack, yet we are seeing an uptick in guys walking around with their patrol rifles based on the slightest pretense. Couple that with less-than-stellar performances like the Dorner fiasco. Do I need to worry about some Ossifer Fife showing me his bore from the muzzle end because I might (or might not) resemble the description of somebody else? As trigger-happy as some individuals (who honestly shouldn’t even be cops) have proven to be, this is all the more worrying. And can anybody explain to me why, at a vegetation fire I responded to a while back, a municipal cop showed up in desert-pattern MARPAT under a plate carrier with a dozen STANAG magazines on his chest?

    • Nathank

      September 6, 2014 at 10:31 am

      Fire their rifle in anger? I would be concerned if an officer would fire their rifle in anger. I think you meant in order to defend themselves or others.

    • Phelps

      September 12, 2014 at 10:30 am

      And can anybody explain to me why, at a vegetation fire I responded to a while back, a municipal cop showed up in desert-pattern MARPAT under a plate carrier with a dozen STANAG magazines on his chest?

      Because he isn’t suited for police work and should find another job. There isn’t any other answer.

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