Dan Popp
What does "militarization of the police" mean?
By Dan Popp
August 20, 2014

I'm bothered by the phrase, "militarization of the police." I'm bothered because I'm almost certain that the people using it cannot define it. The phrase seems to require that (A) the police may use certain kinds of weapons and (B) only those kinds of weapons, while (C) armies have other kinds of weapons, or unlimited choices of weapons. But at least the first two of those requirements must be false. I doubt that anyone would say that police today must use only the arms they used in the 18th Century, or that police in America are restricted to those weapons used by Bobbies in Great Britain.

Even though "militarization of the police" has been mouthed by conservatives, it seems to follow from the typical leftist mistake of confusing a difference in degree with a difference in kind. "No private citizen needs an assault rifle" is exactly analogous to, "the police don't need military weapons." I've never understood why 8 bullets in a magazine is moral, and 9 would be immoral. Nor is there anywhere on the continuum of firepower that a thinking person can draw a hard line and say, "armored cars good; tanks bad."

These writers are concerned that "excessive" (degree) weaponry could be misused. Well, certainly – but that's not the issue. First we have to define "excessive." When law enforcement is called into an unpredictable situation, they can only know if they're over-equipped after the fact. Before and even during the event, it is not known how much firepower will be needed to protect lives and property. From the recurring lawlessness in Ferguson, Missouri, we'd have to say that the police and Highway Patrol have been ineffective. That may be due to strategy, tactics, firepower, press conferences or a number of different factors, but we can hardly say that the authorities have been too heavy-handed if they haven't accomplished their mission.

What if, for "militarization of the police" we substituted "carpenterization of plumbers?" We know that a plumber carries wrenches and washers and a heating torch – not hammers and nails. But what if a plumber were confronted with a situation that required him to nail something in place before he could proceed with his plumbing? What if he encountered that scenario often, and started carrying a hammer in addition to his more expected tools? Would we consider him some kind of reprobate for using the tools he needed, rather than the tools we expected?

Isn't this the issue?

The editorialists are chagrined that "military" hardware has come to local peacekeepers through the federal government. OK, the national government shouldn't be giving out goodies to States and municipalities, any more than to businesses or individuals. Absolutely right. But again, that's a different issue than "militarization of the police."

The professional police force is a novelty, historically speaking – only 300 years old. You can make up rules that police should be like this or like that – but those are just rules you made up. God gave governments the "sword" to punish evildoers (here I am back at Romans 13) without distinguishing between evildoers inside the country, and outside. It's the same grant of authority and the same sword. The kind distinction – the principle – doesn't limit police other than to demand that they use their power justly.

There is some fear that local authorities might come to wield these powerful weapons (and wield them clumsily) against law-abiding people. Fair enough. But isn't it also imaginable that, in some dark day in the not-too-distant future, the federal government with all its armaments comes over the hill toward your town to enforce its arbitrary will? In that hypothetical day, will it be a good thing or a bad thing that your Sheriff's Department and your cops have tanks?

Today on my way to work I was passed by a car with a light bar on top. It had labels reading "Police," as well as "Veterans Affairs." Great. Now I have to worry about the policization of the military.

© Dan Popp


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