Can Militarization Be a Good Thing for America’s Police?


In Sangin, Afghanistan, during the fall of 2011, Marine Lieutenant Joshua Waddell identified a suspected bomb-maker while conducting surveillance operations. After obtaining permission from his battalion headquarters, Waddell ordered his men to engage the bomb-maker, wounding the suspected insurgent. As soon as the bomb-maker was hit, a group of civilians — possibly teenagers — rushed to his aid, placing him on a tractor in an attempt to evacuate him from the battlefield. Waddell ordered his snipers to fire on the tractor to disable it so that they could capture the bomb-maker. After discovering that the civilians were minors, Waddell’s chain of command accused him of violating the rules of engagement. They removed him from his leadership position and froze his promotions for two years. Later exonerated and permitted to continue his career, Waddell’s story exemplifies the extent to which the U.S. military can hold its personnel to account in how they use lethal force.

With so many recent cases of police officers using lethal force against unarmed civilians, could it be that the problem with America’s police is that they are not militarized enough? That is the provocative suggestion offered by Rachel Tecott and Sara Plana at Monkey Cage. While most writing on domestic police militarization focuses on equipment, Tecott and Plana describe the differences between military and police rules on the use of force, proffering that U.S. police would do well to adopt the training and legal standards used by the military. They are absolutely right that police often do not train on the use of force — or rather the means to prevent using force — but they exaggerate the standards of accountability in the military, particularly compared to police forces.

Still, the core of their argument is correct: Increased militarization of American policing would undoubtedly improve civil-police relations. But Tecott and Plana use the term differently than most, referencing accountability, discipline, and training when commenters generally use it to refer to equipment and mindset. In other words, American police need professionalization.

Before addressing this bigger picture, we should recognize that, contrary to Tecott and Plana, the standards governing police use of force are not weaker than those that govern uniformed members of the military. As an example of stricter military standards, Tecott and Plana point to the escalation procedures printed on the back of the rules of engagement (ROE) card given to every service member who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Escalation of force procedures are designed to prevent the use of deadly force when less-than-lethal means might have the same effect, beginning with a verbal warning through physical restraint up to deadly force. The escalation procedures, however, are easily circumvented if the service member feels that U.S. forces or key U.S. property are in danger, as encapsulated by the “nothing in these rules limits your inherent authority and obligation to take all necessary and appropriate action” sentence printed in bold capital letters on both sides of the card. This “self-defense” standard is in fact similar to that used by law enforcement officers. Tecott and Plana’s criticism of the rules governing the police and praise of military standards, therefore, obscures existing similarities between the two.

It is difficult to discuss the legal restrictions on police in the United States because of the plethora of laws and authorities that govern them across states and localities. For the most part, major training and conduct concerns are under the purview of individual states, which can have drastically different standards and norms. Nonetheless, states as disparate as Illinois and Texas have explicit restrictions on the use of deadly force, with state training standards on the conduct of measures short of deadly force. In practice, these statutes provide equal guidance with equal legal compulsion as the military’s ROE.

Holding police officers and military personnel accountable for their use of deadly force rests with the prosecutors that stand partially outside, and yet beside, those they ostensibly should hold to account. Civilian and military prosecutors are put in a tough place where they are expected to work with their colleagues on the line, making it difficult to aggressively pursue wrongdoing. Tecott and Plana are right to point out that police are rarely held to account for their use of deadly force. But the idea that ROE violations are much better prosecuted in the military strains credulity. Most successful prosecutions occurred far from a combat situation, where the facts are easier to discern and the absence of hostile intent and acts, therefore making the use of lethal force illegal, easier to establish. But charges against soldiers who appear to violate the ROE in the heat of combat rarely stick, even in the most egregious cases.

While most states provide instruction on escalation procedures and the legal and moral ramifications of the use of force, these blocks of instruction are rarely required in annual training, as opposed to the annual requirement for officers to show proficiency with their weapons. Police professional organizations should push state bodies and individual agencies to adopt rigorous and regular training, as suggested by Tecott and Plana. But we also must keep in mind that the U.S. military is sized so that it can cycle its forces through operations, rest, and training. Police forces are not; and adding training to their schedules removes personnel from their operational roles.

Training of this sort, if emulating military training, is one element of the concept of professionalization.  In the field of civil-military relations, Samuel Huntington’s The Solider and the State is the seminal work that defines civilian-military interactions and the concept of the professional. Professionals are distinct from tradesmen in three characteristics: expertise, corporateness, and responsibility. The first, expertise, is gained through two phases: liberal and specialized educations. Specialized education extends beyond the technical details of the profession, but also includes immersion in the traditions of that profession. Corporateness is “a sense of organic unity and consciousness […] as a group apart from laymen.” Many advanced trades would qualify as professions under these two characteristics, but what sets professions truly apart is the profession’s inherent responsibility whose client is society itself.

While elements of Huntington’s book have not aged well, his elucidation of professionalization and professionalization’s relationship to how the military interacts with civilians has. However, the law enforcement profession has no such seminal work, suggesting that The Police and the State is long overdue. With over 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies with at least one sworn officer, establishing norms of police professionalism and civil-police relations is not an easy task, especially when compared to civil-military relations. Without a critical examination of the nature of the police profession, and its implication on how the police interact with those they serve, law enforcement is unlikely to evolve into a true profession capable of making changes of the sort suggested by Tecott and Plana.


Jason Fritz is a senior editor at War on the Rocks. He is also a senior consultant at the Noetic Group and a doctoral student in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

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