Last week I got an email asking me my opinion about the militarization of law enforcement today. Then a few days ago I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about the same topic. It seems that some people are concerned about the creation of a police state through the steady evolution of police and sheriff’s officers/deputies into domestic soldiers. The timing for the email and the article (for me) were perfect because I’ve been working on a project that centers around this very subject, and here’s my quick, simple response as to whether or not it’s a concern: Not at all. As long as our law enforcement professionals operate under the controls of the Constitution, it doesn’t matter how they dress or what equipment they use. Let me explain…
First, understand that a professional appearance is expected out of everyone in both fields of endeavor – and that makes sense. If you wear a uniform you should invest time daily to insure that you are fit. That means your physique will be better than the average person’s. That matters because your body and mind are your first and most important weapons in any conflict. No, I’m not saying police officers are all “weapons” first, but reality is that they can find themselves either under attack or having to act aggressively to protect and defend innocents, so being fit is necessary. Soldiers, no matter what their job, are in a career that may put them in harm’s way so being in shape is equally mandatory. This commonality of physical fitness combined with a clean cut grooming gives those in both fields a similar appearance.
Second, recognize that people in both fields HAVE to maintain an awareness of their environment. They are expected to respond to any potential threat in an efficient and motivated fashion. They can’t do so unless they first recognize a threat so they are trained to constantly be aware of their surroundings. This behavioral characteristic often makes them recognizable even if they aren’t in uniform and are off duty. Keep all that in mind as you read on.
If you traveled back in time to the mid-1960s and compared the uniforms of a police officer working the street to that of a soldier in a non-combat area you’d likely think that the police officer operated in the higher risk environment – and you’d be right. What about comparing a police officer to a combat soldier? At that time, with the exception of the rifle carried by soldiers you might not see a huge difference. Across the span of the next few decades (from then) both uniforms evolved, as did the equipment carried or worn.
Both uniforms evolved in a more practical fashion. Police uniforms became more comfortable (although some people seemed to feel that “more comfortable” meant less professional and/or formal in appearance). Instead of having to wear what amounted to a full suit, including tie and coat, in all seasons and climates, police officers have done the sensible thing and now can wear short sleeves when the season is appropriate, short pants depending on specialty assignment, etc. Many agencies make ties optional on midnight shifts when long sleeve shirts are worn. It’s become more about function than appearance although inspections are still held and standards do exist. For the soldier, the single color fatigue uniform has evolved into camouflage patterns in colors appropriate to branch of service. Dress uniforms are still dress uniforms.
So what’s changed that makes people think our domestic law enforcement professionals are becoming militarized? The answer is this: The equipment and weapons used in high risk situations. Where we in law enforcement begin to look more militaristic is in our special operations (SWAT) units. Body armor that’s heavier and worn outside the uniform; handguns in “tactical” (thigh) holsters; boots; helmets; goggles… and weapons that the public is more used to thinking about as soldiers’ weapons: rifles – specifically M16/M4 style weapons.