Police Militarization, Professionalism, and the Balance of Persuasion and Force | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

By Fred Leland and Alex Olesker

“The strategic success of the Byzantine empire was of a different order than any number of tactical victories or defeats: it was a sustained ability, century after century, to generate disproportionate power from whatever military strength could be mustered, by combining it with all the arts of persuasion, guided by superior information.” ~Edward Luttwak

There has been a lot of talk recently in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its evolution state to state on the topic of militarizing police forces. This topic has also come up in regards to police raids in their various forms throughout the country. Yet “militarization” is seldom defined and has grown to mean whatever the author doesn’t like about modern law enforcement. Often it’s about gear, but dressing in black does little to militarize an agency. Expanding tactical capabilities also do not justify the widespread outrage, as a more capable police force is, all else being equal, always preferable.

Though automatic weapons and armored vehicles in law enforcement are usually associated to the War on Terror, it’s important to remember that SWAT was a response to several sniping incidents against citizens and police in 1960s Los Angeles and the rise of urban guerrilla movements. The North Hollywood shooting in 1997 is yet another example of a conventional crime turned unconventional, when an armed confrontation between two heavily-armed bank robbers and the LAPD. This incident left police outgunned to the point they had to go commandeer weapons from a local firearms dealer.

We are witness to a worldwide evolving threat from highly trained active shooters. Westside Middle School, Thurston High School, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, the Amish school house in Pennsylvania and many other schools, universities and campuses have been victims of active shooting incidents. Terrorists have used small arms and small unit swarming tactics at luxury hotels, restaurants, train stations, community centers, cinemas, police headquarters and other public locations.  Recent examples include the coordinated attacks in Mumbai, India and the premeditated shootings at Fort Hood, Texas and the gangs and narco-terrorists on the Mexican border.

Police department’s large and small need to have forces capable of handling violent criminals who would arm themselves and use those arms to harm police as they attempt to stop various degrees of criminal activity. Domestic violence, drug raids, robberies, ongoing deadly action (active shooter situations) barricade and hostage rescue situations are only a few examples. This show of force does much to help keep officers safe in the performance of their duties, as well as keep any innocents safe from harm.

The term “militarization” is often used when that force goes too far, such as in the recent UC Davis pepper spray incident. Yet there is nothing military-like about mismanaging force, and we do not train out service members to harm civilians. Of all the tacit or overt definitions of militarization in the press, the most interesting and useful comes from the former Chief of Police of Seattle, Norm Stamper, who suggests that the problematic, militarized element of law enforcement is the paramilitary bureaucracy and culture. Reliance on internal reviews, a “just following orders” mentality, and rigid hierarchy may expedite the process of war, but they hinder the agility and accountability needed in the civilian world for a peace officer.

Ironically, the military itself is moving away from this brand of militarization as it’s faced with complex scenarios and interactions outside of the battlefield. As recent tactical failures, from botched raids to heavy-handed yet ineffective responses to the Occupy protests have demonstrated, law enforcement must follow suit in order to better balance force and persuasion, the core of a peace officer’s mission.

There is definitely a place for SWAT teams and more highly trained full spectrum street officers capable of handling the conventional and unconventional crisis situations they find themselves in. The question is; are we using these units and tactics in appropriate ways? Are cops doing their homework and developing enough actionable information prior to taking action? Are the courts who sign off on warrants to search and arrest asking tough enough questions before they sign off?

Understanding probable cause, that information gathered would warrant a reasonable police officer to believe that the person sought for arrest would have most probably committed the crime or the location to be searched, the evidence sought would be at the specific location. Police work is based on this premise, a much lower standard than in court which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case of probable cause cops do not always have all the information as a matter of fact most situations there is numerous things cops do not know or cannot know, prior to their taking action. For example: does the person they seek have any weapons and is the person capable and willing to use a weapon against the police when they respond to conduct a raid etc?  What type of criminal background does the person have can be researched, but what if there is no criminal background? What if the person sought has a minor or no criminal back ground but the circumstances and lessons from history show that the crime and the circumstances surrounding arrest lead to a potential for violence, such as drug dealers and even street level drug use?  What about the minor crimes or infractions such as traffic violations that have led to the deaths of officers on the street? The motives and intent of people are often unknown and very unpredictable and the circumstances surrounding arrests and raids can create psychological and physiological responses such as fight or flight making people very unpredictable and hence police full of uncertainties as they carry out their duties.  How do we prepare for this? Are we considering options, such as taking a subject into custody at a location other than the home where it may be safer and more advantageous, more tactically sound?

This being the case police must respond utilizing tactical judgment based on what they know and what they do not know and prepare for all possible contingencies. This is one of the main reasons why there is the need for highly trained response teams. The question is; are we using these teams effectively? Are we using them in the right circumstances? Are we training officers to a high enough standard, do we have the right standards and do we have the right people, with the right attributes on these teams? Are those leading the teams the right people who understand conflict, violence and the moral, mental and physical aspects, the dynamics of potentially violent encounters? Do they understand crowd dynamics in the case of a protest or employee strike, or human nature when entering a persons home, and how the tactics they choose can potentially create or decrease conflict? Are we just using attrition type tactics because that is what we are familiar with or are we thinking things through and using them when there necessary?

There must be a balance sought in the use of persuasion and force. This balance is not easily gained in a world where violence and the loss of life weigh so heavily. Cops are being killed and ambushed in record numbers but we still must understand our mission and intent, which all stems around public service and the standard mantra to protect and serve. This, rather than snappy uniforms and accreditations, is what is meant by police professionalism. All professions have their own unique standards and requirements that would seem outlandish and extreme in a different trade. Pilots are required to sleep at least 8 hours a night, taxi drivers must know a city like the back of their hand, and cops must be able to manage complex conflicts with incomplete information to achieve desired tactical and strategic outcomes.

To return to the example of pepper spraying UC Davis protesters, much of the debate has focused on rules and regulations surrounding the use of OC spray. Pepper spray is typically officially justified when subjects resist, causing critics to decry police training and procedure as brutal. Yet just because pepper spray could be justified in this instance doesn’t make it the right choice. Rather than follow policy and habit like automatons, professional police officers must consider the physical, mental, and moral implications of their actions, Physically, instead of preventing campus police from having to lay hands on the now-disoriented protesters, pepper spray necessitated it. Mentally, it escalated the conflict, riling up the crowd and increasing confusion among the ranks of campus police. Morally, it was a tremendous blow not only to campus police but to UC Davis and law enforcement trying to control the protests everywhere.

Just like the military is trying to reform their hierarchy, bureaucracy, and culture with the mission order, which spells out the goals of an operation first and foremost so that commanders have the flexibility to tailor tactics in a changing battlefield to the desired end state, police officers need to first think of “why” they are performing an operation before they consider how they will go about it and what they will do. This runs counter to the “militarized” model of sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and chiefs dictating what to do and relying strictly on procedural checklists for how to do it. Many of the problems attributed to militarization can be overcome with this approach. Overuse of SWAT, for example, can be reduced if rather than deploying a team for every drug warrant, the department asks WHY they are arresting the suspect, WHY use a team, and WHY perform a raid this night. More often than not, they will find that the suspect is a clear and present danger to anyone, does not require an immediate intervention, and can be arrested more smoothly the next day away from home by regular patrolmen.

Giving officers the “why” and trusting them to shape the how and what to fit the dynamic situation on the ground, however, is only possible and beneficial if each member of the organization is a true law enforcement professional. That means that “trained observers” must actually be trained to observe, that those who wield force understand how to balance it with persuasion, and that, in a job that primarily consists of community interaction, cops sharpen their interpersonal and communication skills, including understanding body language. Professionals should have as much hands-on training as possible so that they may be agile police officers with a wide array of workable options open to them.

Still, none of this replaces specialized units and fuller spectrum street cops. The terrorist threat is rapidly evolving and drug cartels are using more violent and innovative tactics, criminals are using more violence in their methodologies to rob banks, commit workplace violence. Sometimes and more frequently today people with no criminal backgrounds at all are resorting to violent acts testing the street cops tactical ability to handle with only the basic tools. The teams are necessary. It is in how we are using the teams and more advanced equipment that needs to be thought about to ensure we keep support of the people we serve. Staying safe and going home at the end of your shift is the priority, but let’s not lose sight of WHY we do what we do and think about our tactics, the HOW we do what we do to win in the moral, mental and physical dimensions.

Stay Oriented!


Alex Olesker is a security and technology analyst who writes for websites including Fear, Honor, and Interest and CTOvision.

Fred T. Leland, Jr. is the Founder and Principal Trainer of LESC: Law Enforcement & Security Consulting (www.lesc.NET).In addition to his work with LESC, Fred Leland is an active Lieutenant with the Walpole (MA) Police Department. He previously worked as a deputy with the Charlotte County (FL) Sheriff’s Department and before that spent six years with the United States Marines including as a squad leader in Beirut, Lebanon.

Leland is an accomplished trainer with more than 28 years experience teaching law enforcement, military and security professionals. His programs of instruction include handling dynamic encounters; threat assessment; non-verbal communications; decision making under pressure; evolving threats; violence prevention; firearms; use of force; officer created jeopardy and adaptive leadership. He is also a 2004 graduate of the FBI National Academy Class 216, and a current instructor for the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee. Outcomes based training and education (OBTE) is his approach to creating and nurturing decision makers to observe, orient, decide and act while considering consequences.

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