It has been said that human progress results from seeing things as they really are, not from fantasizing wishful thinking from theories or philosophies that make no real-world sense.
I was saddened to hear today of the death of an LAPD SWAT officer on active military duty in Afghanistan. Like too many before him, he was patrolling and died due to a roadside bomb. In the middle of the L.A. Times article, one unrelated tidbit caught my attention.
More than two dozen LAPD officers serve as active military reservists. The department recruits many officers from the military, and leaves for military duty are routine.
Aside from the tragedy of combat death, I wonder what real-world impact a combat death has on police culture. The military in modern American policing - at least to the rank and file - is like a cultural touchstone. The truth is, for all the hubub about the Posse Comitatus Act [legislation limiting the role of the military in policing], police today look more para-military than ever.
What is the impact of the military in policing? The actual number of soldiers in policing is small compared to total numbers. The soldier cops I am honored to know are excellent police officers. But the individual soldier/cops are not where I think the problem lurks. Rather the militaristic attitudes and policies that permeate the culture is the problem (and often they are not triggered by soldier/cops, but by those around them).
As many in the police profession know all too well, this trend is widespread - military methods, SWAT, assault weapons, and the ever-present armored personnel carrier are present in over 80% of cities over 50,000. Not to be outdone, even Canadian police are in on the act. Consider recent military vehicle aquisitions by the RCMP reported in the CBC News.
Does all this really matter if cops say they need such things to fight heavily armed gangs? Is this how things really are most of the time on the street? Or is this fantasy and wishful thinking about soldiering our way to a peaceful society?
Anyway, who cares as long as they are on our side? What can happen, anyway?
From my own police training and instructing, I know the damage militaristic attitudes have on police attitudes during basic training. Gerry Cleveland and I wrote about this in our police education monograph Police PBL: Blueprint for the 21st Century.
Apparently we are not alone in our worries. In former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper's book, Breaking Rank he says:
The difference between a soldier on the outskirts of Baghdad [or Helmud Province] and a beat cop in Schenectady are noteworthy. The mission of soldiers is to win battles on foreign soil, the mission of police officers is to keep peace in America's cities. More to the point, a soldier follows orders for a living, a police officer makes decisions for a living.
Yet another alarm is raised in the documentary film Urban Warrior: The Militarization of American Law Enforcement. It poses this warning:
Within recent years, the formerly bright line separating U.S. military operations from domestic police work has become increasingly blurred.
Is this really the way to safer communities?
Check out the controversial documentary Urban Warriors. Click here.