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Waging War vs. Keeping the Peace

Rethinking How We Hire Cops

One hot muggy summer day a few years back I was walking with a friend across a public university campus when the friend took note of a pair of police officers sporting bulletproof vests and “high and tight” military style hairdos while patrolling the empty campus. The friend wanted to know what was up? “That’s just how they dress,” I responded. There were no precipitating incidents. No tactical threat. The friend’s concern, however, reminded me that this really was sort of inappropriate dress for a community police force patrolling what has historically been a peaceful tranquil community. So I asked a veteran of the force, what was up? “It’s the young guys,” he responded. “They’ve got a whole different style.” He went on to describe new agro police culture among young recruits, many of whom are recently back from overseas combat.

This police agency, like most, allowed a bit of leeway in their uniform regulations. Officers had a choice to gear up with Kevlar vests, even in the absence of any threat, despite the implied threat, on many levels, that such dress visually communicates to the public. “Why are the police here so scared?” “Who’s gonna to be shooting who?” Or simply, as my friend put it, “What’s up with the combat costume?” These officers, I learned, regularly wear such attire to meetings with dormitory residents and student leaders, as if they were expecting incoming fire from random students. The military haircuts were just an extension of the look. And they were also allowed, though beards were and are banned as somehow projecting the wrong message, as was male hair that strays over the ear line.

Many of us, especially in the alternative press, having been talking about the creeping militarization of our police forces, at least since the Reagan administration. I remember back in the late 1980s when the Broadway Area Business Association in Buffalo asked the local police to stop parking their new to them full track armored personnel carrier in front of one of their precincts as it, like the aforementioned vests and hairdos, projected the wrong message to the community. The tank-like vehicle in question, which tore apart the street the one and only time the police unnecessarily deployed it in a drug bust, was a gift from the Reagan administration, on the cusp of the same program that eventually gave us the obscene military equipment display we’ve seen this year in Ferguson, Missouri, and last year at about a dozen Occupy camps, for example.

What made Ferguson a historical punctuation mark was the fact that the Ferguson Police Department’s deployment of military force and aggression was so remarkably stupid and grotesque, while being so similar to visuals we were seeing on the news from warzones in places like the Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Syria, that the mainstream press actually began to cover domestic police militarization. Now, maybe 30 years later than it should have been, the nation is finally discussing the brutal police tactics that communities of color and nonviolent political activists have been falling victim to for decades.

So far the reporting has been focusing on the military equipment rather than the military culture. This is to be expected from a techno-fetishistic media culture that has for decades covered American wars in much the same way, marveling at the so-called smart weapons while mostly ignoring the casualties and hatred they create. But what we saw in Ferguson wasn’t just the deployment of inappropriate technology—it was also the deployment of an inappropriate attitude and strategy, one more becoming to an occupation army than a community police force.

And that’s the problem with this myopic focus on military equipment. It ignores the military mentality that issues orders to deploy it. The military weapons actually serve a purpose here, creating the visuals that illuminate the militarization that would be going on with or without the military equipment. At the risk of sounding like the National Rifle Association, that’s the bigger problem. The human factor that actually called the shots to roll out a military occupation. The toys could have stayed in the garage and rotted.

Looking at the human factor, however, is politically much more dangerous—because it means we have to question the way police officers are recruited and hired. A police officer is essentially a social worker with a gun. Beyond accident and medical response calls, most calls are of a social nature, often defusing a social crisis, be it in the way of a robbery, a gang turf war or a marital dispute. Some police departments require college training in areas such as psychology, criminal justice or public administration. Criminal justice courses are usually administrated by sociology departments since policing is a social function of society. A social work degree and experience would be ideal. The arms and martial arts training usually comes once a candidate is recruited. To hit the streets the successful officer needs both. Seasoned police officers often point out that a good mediator could avoid using force in all but extreme cases. Put simply, you can’t successfully address social problems with brute military force. Historically such strategies, while maintaining despots in power for the short term, ultimately have seeded revolutions, for better or worse. Syria is the latest horrific example.

Much of our current police recruiting, however, is now geared to recruiting warriors over social workers. Let’s look at the Philadelphia Police Department. I start with them since they executed the most grotesque use of military power in modern history—and they did it without the modern military toys we saw in Ferguson. In an attempt to end a 1985 SWAT standoff with armed suspects, they dropped a crude incendiary bomb from a helicopter onto a row house in a black middle-class neighborhood, destroying approximately 60 neighboring homes. So, almost 30 years later, how have they changed?

It’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t be bombing any neighborhoods soon, seeing the inefficacy of their tactic. But a military culture still dominates the department. In their recruiting material, they state, “The Police Department is structured as a para-military organization,” going on to explain, “This means that we employ a culture and protocols that closely approximate those of the armed forces.” This language is certainly not unique to the Philadelphia Police department. In various forms it’s echoed across the country. On the left coast, the San Jose Police department describes itself as “having a paramilitary structure.” Departments in between and south to Mexico post variants on the same language. San Jose is correct. The organization of any police department is correctly described as paramilitary as it has rank and officers, a ridged chain of command and uniforms reflecting rank. This is not where the problem lies.

The problem lies when the Philadelphia and San Jose Police Departments, and to various degrees, hundreds of others, go on to explain that because they are paramilitaries, they have found that veterans can transition easily from active military duty into their departments, with many, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, actively sending recruiters to military bases around the world recruiting active duty soldiers from warzones to the streets of L.A. Many, if not most, police departments offer some sort of military preference in hiring, either by adding points to civil service scores, or in fewer cases, waiving educational requirements, or some combination of the two.

I need to be clear that veterans have a lot to offer. Understanding a military command structure does help with understanding a police bureaucracy, and more importantly, the discipline and restraint that a successful professional soldier learns and practices are essential to success as a police officer. But it is also important to understand that the skillset and experience needed for successful policing is extremely different than that which combat veterans acquire deployed as an occupation force in a military theater of operation surrounded by well trained and equipped enemies sworn to their destruction. It is essential to remember that community policing is a radically different job, and while it requires a military level of discipline, it also requires a radically different skillset, which prospective police officers must possess if they are to be successful in not acting like an occupation army. Waging war and keeping the peace are different jobs and require different skills.

The blogosphere has become alive with many veterans articulating their disgust with the paramilitary tactics we’ve seen in Ferguson. Writing for Business Insider, former Marine and Afghanistan combat veteran Paul Szoldra, points out that his unit wore less military equipment when it rolled in Afghanistan than what he was seeing in Ferguson. In his article he cites various combat veterans voicing their disgust at the militarization of a community police force while pointing out how militarization is “counter-productive to domestic policing and has to stop.” Szoldra ends his piece, writing, “If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”

Veterans tend to be excellent students, and veterans benefits often offer veterans the opportunity to go to school and acquire community policing skills. Fast tracking warriors from battlefield to police service, as many departments are doing, however, can be a deadly mistake. Hiring yahoos with military aspirations and no training is an even bigger mistake.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

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