The Militarization of Police Work

This was originally published in The Washington Post:

During the past 15 years, The Post and other media outlets have reported on the unsettling “militarization” of police departments across the country. Armed with free surplus military gear from the Pentagon, SWAT teams have multiplied at a furious pace. Tactics once reserved for rare, volatile situations such as hostage takings, bank robberies and terrorist incidents increasingly are being used for routine police work.

Eastern Kentucky University’s Peter Kraska—a widely cited expert on police militarization—estimates that SWAT teams are called out about 40,000 times a year in the United States; in the 1980s, that figure was 3,000 times a year. Most “call-outs” were to serve warrants on nonviolent drug offenders.

Posted on February 9, 2006 at 12:25 PM32 Comments


Pat Cahalan February 9, 2006 12:51 PM

Considering SWAT teams cost more to equip and train than normal police units, I think this represents a waste of taxpayer money.

Of course, you get a SWAT team to deal with potentially disasterous situations, but when the incident rate is really low for those sorts of disasterous situations, you use the SWAT team for other things, in an attempt to recoup the cost of the team.

So you wind up with these guys performing ordinary police work, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, except when they perform ordinary police work they don’t use ordinary police equipment and tactics.

Ed T. February 9, 2006 1:36 PM

Well, when you get the funding for a SWAT team, you don’t want them sitting around playing “Go Fish” — you want them out there enforcing the law, dangit!

Besides, if we let the police SWAT these pesky poker players and penny-ante pernicious persons, it will save us all the expense of trials, building prisons etc.

Indy February 9, 2006 1:45 PM

A few weeks, ago the Indianapolis Police department settled a case in which the police officers broke into an apartment and shot & killed the renter. It was early in the morning and a neighbor had reported someone breaking into the renter’s apartment. The renter had indeed, broken into his apartment having been drinking and giving his keys to a friend. After the neighbor’s call, the police responded, broke into the apartment and shot the renter.
The police story was that the renter had threatened them with a knife and that had no choice other than to shot the guy.
I think the police over reacted to the situation and because they had their guns drawn, they used the guns. Heavily arming swat teams and sending them out to be used, almost guarantees that these weapons will be used.
BTW, IPD paid out $950,000 in damages to the victims family.

DangerDanger February 9, 2006 1:46 PM

Now, I’m not one for over reacting…


As an officer, you have no clue what is going to happen.. Cops get shot at traffic stops.. You can’t be over cautious.. Remember, there maybe weapons of mass destruction.

CYA February 9, 2006 1:46 PM

I suspect that in many of the SWAT “call-outs”, a lot of the deployments have been CYA on the part of the Police Department. That is, for “these certain types” of situations, if the PD didn’t bring in a SWAT team and it turned out the “bad guy” dealer or whomever the PD was investigating had automatic weapons (i.e. bigger guns than the PD carries), then the PD would be taken to task for why the SWAT team wasn’t deployed. So now I suspect they call in SWAT “just in case”.

aikimark February 9, 2006 1:52 PM

maybe this is #12 on the list of Dr. Lawrence Britt’s 14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism

“12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment – Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.”

Although it could have characteristics of #7 and #4.

Darrel February 9, 2006 1:55 PM

I admit it is disturbing to see police with military style vehicles/weapons in our suburbs, but this is a reflection of society. As criminals become better armed, police departments need to escalate their response to be one step above the criminal’s. This is a basic principle. The key to managing this type of “militarization” is civilian oversight of the police force, such as the civilian oversight of the military. While very uncommon, it is a shame when police respond to a situation where they are completely outgunned. Than everyone wants to know why.

gbrown February 9, 2006 2:00 PM

Our local swat team has not exactly covered itself with glory. Sometime ago they shot to death a tax protester who would not leave his home.

More recently they attempted to extract a gunman who had “barricaded” himself in a house. After surrounding the house, the police sent their robot to a doorway, but the robot tipped sideways, the battery fell out, and the robot was out of action. When the gunman slipped out the back door, the “K-9 units” were not allowed to pursue because the handlers were afraid that the dogs would injure other officers.

The whole affair began when two officers entered the house to investigate a man’s complaint that another man was in bed with his girlfriend. The two officers went into the bedroom, saw the woman committing felatio, and saw a handgun on a bedside table. On seeing the handgun, the two officers fled from the house and called for the swat team.

Yes, it really happened that way.

the_spatula February 9, 2006 2:21 PM

@gbrown “…saw the woman committing felatio …”

You say that like its illegal ? is that the case or just a moral aversion coming to the surface ?

“… and saw a handgun on a bedside table …”

so she had one in her hand and one in her mouth ? I’d have found that fascinating not threatening … ‘this is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun …’

fishbane February 9, 2006 2:49 PM

I suspect that in many of the SWAT “call-outs”, a lot of the deployments have been CYA on the part of the Police Department.

And that’s the worst part. Career advancement is more important than a few civillian lives.

David February 9, 2006 4:04 PM

In Seattle, we can use them to club and tear gas smokers in taverns, drivers without seat belts, driving with a cell phone (but not a burger, latte, shaver or make-up kit) in hand, or patrons within 4 feet of an exotic dancer.

I feel safer already.

Alexandre CARMEL-VEILLEUX February 9, 2006 4:28 PM

In many small departments, the SWAT team isn’t even full time, it’s volunteer cops with a bit of extra training and special equipment. So deploying them takes maybe a half-dozen to a dozen cops of the street or called at home to storm some guy’s house and find is 1/4 oz. of pot…

Roy February 9, 2006 5:04 PM

The US military had choices in excessing those weapons, for example selling them on the international arms market and giving the money to the Treasury. Instead they gave them for free to local police departments. Why? Obvioulsy, the intent was to win the loyalty of the local cops away from the local community and over to the federal government. Your local police ARE part of the federal police force, for which the US Justice Department pays not a nickel. This is known as cost-shifting, which is supposed to be illegal.

DHR February 9, 2006 5:34 PM

“As an officer, you have no clue what is going to happen.. Cops get shot at traffic stops.. You can’t be over cautious..”

I’ve long believed that the number of unnecessary shootings by police is the result of the poor standards of weapons training and competency by police departments. An inexperienced man with a gun is going to start shooting sooner and stop later than an experienced, competent shooter who knows his capabilities and can afford to watch a situation develop for that critical fraction of a second before committing himself.

The amount of weapons training most police receive is minimal. Many departments actively discourage their officers from taking too much interest in shooting. Most officers I know practice only enough to pass their periodic qualifications which (speaking as someone who spent a lot of his youth in pistol competitions) are ridiculously easy.

I remember a statistic from the ’70s that over 90% of police officers would never draw a gun in the course of duty during their entire careers. It’s no surprise the cops are nervous, but I can’t be happy about the prospect of being faced by a nervous armed man of questionable competence.

Davi Ottenheimer February 9, 2006 5:55 PM

The article implies that the militarization is unwarranted (is it really just due to a surplus of equipment and trainers?) but surely there’s more to the story. Are the police responding to an increase threat, even if it’s just perceived? Do they feel more vulnerable? In terms of security, the article was lacking although it does have some interesting points about the difference between the old Bobby and an increasing trend toward Robocop.

Christopher Kunz February 9, 2006 6:07 PM

Funny enough – the headline reminded me of something completely different, yet related: The german Secretary of Interior wants to use the Army as a supplementary police force during the Soccer World Championship.

This has been blocked several times, since it is against our constitution. He has found a different plan – “leasing out” soldiers to the federal police, and have them assigned to protect stadiums and other tournament infrastructure.

So, this is exactly what the article says, “the militarization of police force” – only the reverse approach.

Mario February 9, 2006 6:57 PM

The proliferation of SWAT teams is becoming the “standing army” that the founding fathers were against having in peacetime. A military — and this is what the police are becoming — is not the thing to use on a democracy’s own citizens (or even denizens).

The cops are supposed to be more like us, not a group of helmeted (or even hooded, in some cases) killers intimidating the people of the United States.

Fabius Maximus February 9, 2006 7:08 PM

Over the years I’ve read studies indicating that the big expense of SWAT teams are the verdicts for excessive force that they create. A large literature on their persistent, excessive use of force.

Yet they grow larger and more common.

A parallel phenomenon in the Federal Gov’t is the increased number of agencies which arm their inspectors and agents — in what were considered normal regulatory functions.

It seems to me that this is a very bad sign, of the sort Martin van Creveld predicted in his Rise and Fall of the State — which I strongly recommend reading.

Jilara February 9, 2006 7:27 PM

Let’s not forget that DELTA Force has also been contracting out their services for training police. And the problem with the military mindset is that it factors in “collateral damage” (civilians, mistaken identity, etc.) as part of the rules of engagement.

gbrown February 9, 2006 7:46 PM

To: Spatula?

The legality of the act is not the point. My humble submission was intended to illustrate the utterly foolish nature of the swat event. I made sure that the occasion did not result in something overwhelmingly stupid.

drew February 9, 2006 10:10 PM

There are three types of SWAT teams:

1) beat cops playing soldier with all the cool toys but none of the training and solid weapons handling — these are the “militarized” units you hear about that do dumb things, kill people, shoot hostages, etc… and cover it up, because that is one thing that beat cops are good at.

2) part-timers and volunteer units: they can be surprisingly good, or incredibly bad, much like volunteer fire departments in their total dependence on the quality of their leadership and funding source(s)

3) professionals who train constantly, are highly dedicated professionals, and have the massive overtime budget and funding that a real high-intensity tactics team needs … only a few cities can afford this, and not as many Federal agencies as one would hope . . .

I would like to see a lot more (2) possibly with Federal support for training (a free ammo program tied to unpaid range time would work wonders!), a bit more of (3) as when we really need shooters, we need them bad, and the total elimination of (1) because beat cop skills and SWAT skills are mutually exclusive. It’s like having a paramedic do brain surgery because they’re both medical professionals who work under stress.

Robert Cassidy February 9, 2006 10:45 PM

Isn’t this trend also supported by the funding mechanisms? Homeland Security funds are easily funneled into SWAT teams, but community police funds are increasingly hard to come by. The simple solution for cities is to take advantage of this huge pool of DHS money, outfit their SWAT teams and use them for community police duty

Davi Ottenheimer February 10, 2006 12:42 AM

Found some interesting recent controversy on the use of SWATs:

“In order to improve officer and public safety, Lockyer announced his intent to immediately convene a Blue Ribbon Commission on SWAT Team Practices to review guidelines and develop statewide recommendations for local law enforcement agencies on the use of SWAT teams. The commission will include representatives from police and sheriffs departments, district attorney offices, judges and other state and local government officials.”

“SWAT team raids are botched due to poor training and insufficient resources, law enforcement leaders and community members told a state panel yesterday. […] UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich applauded the efforts of the [Blue Ribbon Commission on SWAT Practices and Polices] commission, but cautioned that SWAT teams are being used in situations where they aren’t warranted. ‘My concern is that small departments may tend to be a little too ready to mobilize their SWAT units,’ Dolovich said. ‘When you have a SWAT team you want to use it.’ Dolovich said that an eagerness to deploy SWAT units can result in traumatic and even tragic consequences when SWAT teams invade the wrong house or haven’t done their homework on who is inside the house, including uninvolved people and children.”

J.D. Abolins February 10, 2006 7:43 AM

Keep in mind that civil police forces are a relatively modern institution. Centuries ago, solders were often used for certain police functions, especially in dealing with mobs.

When Sir Robert Peel set up a modern police force, the police was intended to have sharp distinctions from the military. Blue uniforms instead of red worn by soldiers, limits on weapons, etc. There was a distinct set of guiding principles for civic police. Among them was “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.” (See )

In the past several decades, various developments have been encouraging a shift towards some paramilitarisation. Among them the real and perceived “militarisation” of crime in the form of heavier weapons and a readiness to use them. In the US, there have been some legal dynamics — including lawsuits for police not using more aggressive measures (as after the Columbine school murders) — that have, in part, encouraged adoption of heavier methods to deal with certain situations. (I’ll refrain from commentary on the many other social changes since Peel’s days.)

The role shifts are not only those for the police. Military, police, and intelligence roles are getting blended in various places. In the US, there has been much debate over the use of soldiers for various policing functions and the police/intelligence service interfacing. US military has been doing many operations other than war in the recent decades.

One of the costs of these shifts is that they change, also, the role and status of civilians. Among the costs can be the slip into the police seen as an occupying army rather than, as Peel had stated in his Nine Principles, “… the police are the public and the public are the police….”

Davi Ottenheimer February 10, 2006 1:03 PM

@ JD

Good points. And the US Posse Comitatus
“power of the county” Act of 1878 was meant to prohibit (post Civil War) federal soldiers from being used as civilian law enforcement. Interesting that the concept of a “posse” way back then was meant to be a local group of people brought together. Does that mean federally funded and run Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) groups are in violation?

Anonymous February 11, 2006 6:50 AM

Police are far less likely to be killed on the job than they are to kill an innocent. And in many states than an individual is to be murdered. Less to the point, but interesting, is that in 50 percent of police shootings either the cop shot himself or was shot by another cop.

It was one of your #3 professionals, from the FBI HRT no less, who murdered
Vicki Weaver in the Ruby Ridge incident. I’ll pass as to whether the conspiracy theory claims that it was on purpose were true.

drew February 11, 2006 8:14 PM

I disagree strongly that the FBI’s “Hostage Removal Team” or HRT is a SWAT team in the sense of #3 … while it has the funding and support, bureaucratic issues within the FBI leadership prevent it from ever being held accountable for results. It’s a “national SWAT team” and as such is preferably — barely — to turning terrorist incidents over to Delta Force, the SEALs, etc… as the Brits do with the SAS and SBS.

Re: Ruby Ridge. The “kill order” that caused the HRT sniper (who also showed poor judgment in blindly following the order) to murder Mrs. Weaver was written by a staffer at FBI headquarters. The author of this unilateral change to the HRT deadly force policy has never been held accountable for his crime.

Anonymous February 13, 2006 8:28 AM

The big problem is that police are almost never held accountable. The rare occasions are when the crime is exceptionally egregious and publicized.

Davi Ottenheimer March 22, 2006 1:35 PM

More tragic news:

Death raises concern at police tactics

“[Dr Peter Kraska, Eastern Kentucky University said] the chance to strap on a vest, grab a semi-automatic weapon and go out on a mission is for some people an exciting reason to join – even if policing as a profession can – and should – be boring for much of the time.

The problem is that when you talk about the war on this and the war on that, and police officers see themselves as soldiers, then the civilian becomes the enemy.”

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