Armed To The Teeth

In response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of discussion in recent days about the “militarization” of U.S. policing. Much of the talk lays the blame for this as rooted in the Pentagon’s casting off since 1997 of military surplus that is scooped up eagerly by police departments across the country. But the issue isn’t really that “new,” though: it has been evolving for decades.

For example, I recall how, in the early 1980s (I believe), a New York City police officer involved in a shootout with a suspect, was killed when his NYPD-issue six-shooter emptied and he was caught reloading. The killer possessed a stronger weapon with more bullets than the police officer’s. Subsequently, the NYPD “upgunned” and vowed no officer would ever be “outgunned” by a criminal ever again.

More recently, Newtown police responding to the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 approached that building as if they were trying to take an enemy position in Normandy in 1944. Indeed, the shooter had enough weaponry – bought legally by his mother, whom he had already killed – on him that he might well have been able to have held Omaha Beach singlehandedly for some time.

It’s no secret that firearms saturate the U.S. As a consequence, a police officer approaches you warily. If he so much as stops someone for speeding, he never knows if at the car window he will be staring down the barrel of a gun. With much of the U.S. populace owning ever more powerful weaponry, police forces have responded by more heavily arming in the face of that public they in many respects greatly fear.

Free Stock Photo: An armored SWAT vehicle in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

Free Stock Photo: An armored SWAT vehicle in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

In Britain, routine interaction with police is far less tense than in the U.S. If you encounter a U.K. police officer, he is probably “armed” with a night stick and a radio. Because of the country’s incredibly strict gun control laws, in return he knows you probably aren’t carrying a gun either.

What’s the solution in the U.S.? There probably isn’t one. U.S. police will always feel (not without reason, as Sandy Hook, for one, proved) that they need heavy weaponry as long as much of the populace is armed to the teeth. In turn, much of the populace has no desire not to be armed to the teeth…. because, after all, the police are.
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UPDATE: From the New Yorker:

Of course, the militarization of the police is not entirely new. SWAT teams date back at least to the late sixties in Los Angeles. During the eighties and nineties, many big police forces armed their officers with automatic weapons, and, partly to prosecute the war on drugs, some police departments acquired some pretty heavy weaponry. But it was 9/11 that really changed things. Under the guise of beefing up their anti-terrorist operations, police forces across the country acquired all sorts of military uniforms and hardware, sometimes using federal grants to pay for them.

Quite true. We can’t forget 9/11’s aftermath as contributing as well. Worth bearing in mind also, though, is that Britain has also invested a great deal in its own domestic post-9/11 anti-terror policing efforts, and it has done so without the overt military-style approach one sees in U.S. policing.

3 thoughts on “Armed To The Teeth

  1. With much of the U.S. populace owning ever more powerful weaponry, police forces have responded by more heavily arming in the face of that public they in many respects greatly fear.

    Something of a misstatement there; the populace isn’t owning ‘ever more powerful weaponry. First and foremost the law enforcement are armed with handguns as powerful as what the populace carries. In fact, many people are actually starting to carry smaller ‘pocket rocket’ guns – small, concealable firearms in .380 ACP, 9 mil or .45 ACP but with limited magazine capacity.

    On the other side; the police routinely carry –either on their person or in the car– select fire rifles such as the M-16/M-4. The people (even murderers like the Sandy Hook shooter) generally only own semi-automatic versions. Select Fire versions are very costly and difficult to obtain. The 1986 Hughes Amendment combined with the tax stamp and its requirements makes select fire weapons out of reach for most people.

    In turn, much of the populace has no desire not to be armed to the teeth…. because, after all, the police are.

    This isn’t an armament issue; it is a culture issue. The police have been adopting every increasingly militaristic tactics and attitudes. Combine this with the attitude encapsulated by the often heard “Its a cops first responsibility to go home safely to his family every night” and you’ll find the cops are often being too aggressive in their actions.
    If a cop really feels that his first responsibility to do anything it takes to go home safely every night; then it is likely that any actions can and has been perceived to be a threat.
    I’m for officer safety but their very job is to put themselves in danger. If they are unwilling to accept that risk; they should find another line of work.

    Bob S.

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    • Your points are well-taken. I think perhaps I was unclear in my context about “ever more powerful weaponry.” There has been a shift to some civilians owning smaller firearms, however the “militarization” of police in the first place seems to have grown out of a desire to at least match an increasing firepower held by some civilians (although certainly never all civilians, many of whom have always had much less of course).

      We seem to be in a tough spot. Who wouldn’t want “non-militarized” police? But it’s hard to see how we have “non-militarized” police in the generally weaponized environment in which we live.

      If we were suddenly to “demilitarize” them (say, cut back on what they carry), would we have less violence, and police feeling more relaxed and less threatened by us, the population? Or would we have more dead police? We would hope the former, but no one really knows.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. here has been a shift to some civilians owning smaller firearms, however the “militarization” of police in the first place seems to have grown out of a desire to at least match an increasing firepower held by some civilians (although certainly never all civilians, many of whom have always had much less of course).

    We could argue the ‘chicken or the egg’ all day long. In my opinion, the ‘arms race’ was born out of the “War on (Some) Drugs” and the resultant efforts at enforcement more than what the average person owns.

    Let’s not forget even in the 30s and 40s, where fully automatic weapons were more prevalent, the police didn’t go armed like they are now. Nor is the focus on the arms the real issue.

    The issue is the tactics and mindset that the police has. Decades of recruiting returning military veterans or officers serving in the Reserves/Guard units then coming back to teach what they learned. Decades of increasing “SWAT” —
    Special Weapons and Tactics” Teams being employed not to serve high threat warrants but warrants on non-violent offenders (use it or lose it mentality).

    Decades of the police increasingly inoculating a “us versus them” attitude that sees every person as a possible killer; despite the evidence to the contrary. Decades of “maintaining complete and total control over the situation” requiring instant obedience — these are the problems. Doesn’t matter if they have a 6 Shot Revolver or a 19 round Mag fed Glock — it is the attitude of the officers that is the problem.

    But it’s hard to see how we have “non-militarized” police in the generally weaponized environment in which we live.

    Ever really consider that ‘weaponized environment’ we live in and dangerous it truly is?

    There are approximately 285,000,000 firearms in the country. Approximate (at the low end — very low) 46,000,000 gun owners. In the last few decades, every state in the country has or enacted some form of Open or Concealed Carry for the people. EVERY STATE.

    And yet, firearm related deaths, injuries and crime have been decreasing for those same decades. I know other states track the statistics for those who carry — ones that might interact with the cops the most. — In Texas, at no point in the history of Concealed Carry have convictions of those with a license ever been over 0.5% of all the convictions. The high point was not long after the law past and people were figuring out where they could or could not carry. Now the conviction rate is around 0.18% of all convictions — the cops really aren’t in danger from the average citizen, are they?

    Bob S.

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