The militarization of the police has been a hot topic recently due to terror attacks in Orlando and the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The police response to Orlando and Dallas made the police no longer look like police, but soldiers. They look like soldiers on a battlefield equipped with body armor, Kevlar helmets, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and the list goes on and on. Their appearance is far from the modest, uniformed, friendly peace officer that comes to mind. This uneasy evolution in the appearance of the police is not driven by a sinister need to militarize and oppress the population; rather it’s driven by the need to deal with the evolution of the threats they face.
Law enforcement has to walk a very narrow road when it comes to the gear and equipment they use. When a police officer is responding to a call looking like a soldier in Afghanistan, it makes us uneasy. We want our police to be safe, but we want them to look like police. They have to balance appearance and safety, and that can be difficult in today’s environment.
It would be easy to discount and criticize the militarization of the police without putting it in context. Most police officers like their role as police officers and not as soldiers here to keep order. They recognize that we can mostly govern ourselves. But, there are segments of society that take advantage of the low profile, relatively friendly nature of the police. When this happens, we depend on the police to be able to deal with these threats. In the Pulse nightclub shooting the police went from dealing with an active shooter situation to a hostage situation to a terrorist attack in the span of a few short hours. The police needed multiple tools and options to deal with that situation to quickly resolve it. We expect them to be able to stop a terrorist attack. We want them to track suspects that target police officers and apprehend them. We want the bad guy to get caught. Our American sense of justice is offended when drug traffickers and cartel members can operate with impunity because they can fight the police. However, after they are caught, we want peace and calm to resume with our regular uniformed police officer minding the streets.
Perhaps then the balance doesn’t reside exclusively with the police. We as citizens need to balance our tolerances for how the police conduct themselves and how we want them to look while doing it. A mutual understanding is needed. We need the police to understand that they can’t roam the streets with M-16s and armored vehicles on a daily basis and the police need us to understand that if they are to do their job safely and efficiently, sometimes an M-16 and an armored vehicle does the trick. It is important to remember that our police are our neighbors, and they are like us. They do not want to live in a police state anymore than the rest of us.
John Kruse practices criminal defense at the Reed Law Firm in Clermont, Florida.