Giving military equipment to police will not lead to safer streets

Giving military equipment to police will not lead to safer streets
© Greg Nash

It was the spring of 1992, and Rodney King’s LAPD assailants had just been acquitted. The beating wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the culmination of “a massive show of force designed to deliver a strong message to the gangs.” That message included military-style raids like “Operation Hammer” with military equipment such as battering rams and massive armored vehicles.

That’s what happens when the military practice of “a show of force” is mistaken as an option for law enforcement strategy to “protect and serve.”

Now that mistake is about to become national policy. The Trump administration has quietly reversed rollbacks put in place by Obama that limited the amount of surplus military equipment police departments could use. The White House says this program will boost law enforcement, from fighting crime to preventing terrorist attacks like those we’ve seen in places like Barcelona and Orlando.


Since 2001, some $5 billion in military surplus equipment has been handed to police officers, including large-caliber ammunition, battering rams, and other weapons more suitable to a combat zone than an American city. When President Obama put stricter limits on the transfer of military surplus to local law enforcement, he noted how “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force.” Occasionally this transfer has drifted into the realm of the absurd. Keene, NH — population: 23,000 — applied for a military grade armored personnel truck to fight the “terrorism threat” at its annual Pumpkin festival.


But without proper training, procedures, or doctrine that the military spends years developing, arming police officers with armored vehicles will not make our cities safer, whether from violent gangs or violent extremists.

It would seem advocates of this program learned all the wrong lessons from watching our wars unfold abroad. What the U.S. military did to pacify Iraq’s cities was 90 percent policing and 10 percent military. It spent the last fifteen years developing tools that are less powerful and less lethal. That goes in spades in its fight against insurgents based in dense urban terrain, whether for legal, normative, or public relations reasons.

Our soldiers turned a corner in Iraq not by applying more military force but by becoming more like policemen. They came out from behind their fortresses. They studied the human terrain. They mingled with locals to build trust, understand their environments and glean intelligence about those they are trying to protect. That is the essence of good police work.

Meanwhile, American police officers are moving in the opposite direction. They are walling themselves off from the populace behind armor and shields and mountains of military gear?

Take, for instance, Los Angeles in the 1980s. Police brutality complaints skyrocketed as Angelinos became increasingly isolated from an increasingly militarized police force. Isolation became resentment, which became hostility which exploded in the spring of 1992. The city burned.

Fast-forward two decades and the militarization of our police departments should give Americans pause, especially at a time of such deep racial distrust in our communities. In the wake of Ferguson, police see themselves as being unfairly maligned. They also might make the case that the murder rate in Baltimore exceeds that of Baghdad. Don’t they have a right to defend themselves?

Sure, there have been notorious cases where police were outgunned, such as the 1997 California shootout where police carrying pistols faced bank robbers armed with AK-47s and clad in body armor. But that is what special teams like SWAT are for. The push for more lethal military gear, whether for offense or defense, will not make police any safer. Greater lethality does not equate to greater security. Nor will turning the police into a military formation prevent terrorist attacks or eradicate gangs like MS-13, as some tough-on-crime politicians believe it will.

Not to oversimplify solutions but often the most effective measures to secure our cities are the most primitive. When a deranged driver went on a rampage in Times Square and ran over pedestrians earlier this year, what stopped him in his tracks were concrete stanchions, not policemen armed with military grade weapons and equipment.

Global demographic trends mean the future of urban operations will require the military and police to work closer together. With little training or equipment for operating among large civilian populations, the military has much to learn from the police. Likewise, police can benefit from the military lessons of urban operations like how to respond to snipers and using barriers to prevent mass casualties.

In Iraq, soldiers learned non-lethal techniques and tactics rooted in the community policing developed across the United States. The point was to de-escalate tensions and avoid crises, and not come off as an “occupying force.”

Arming our police with military surplus equipment is not a path to safer streets. It is a recipe for a frightened populace.

Maj. John Spencer is an Army infantryman and deputy director of the Modern War Institute at West Point's U.S. Military Academy. Max Brooks is the author of “World War Z” and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute.