Have U.S. police become a militarized force? A 2017 analysis by the Washington Post found that police departments which invested in more military hardware were associated with more civilians killed each year by police.
News photos of demonstrators facing police in military vehicles, or the aggressive behavior of SWAT teams, have buttressed fears that the civilian character of law enforcement has been eclipsed by a “warrior” mindset.
George C. Klein, author of the recently published book, The Militarization of the Police?: Ideology versus Reality, wants to turn that debate in a different direction. A former part-time Chicago police officer, and former consultant to the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy, Klein argues that American police are often forced into roles they were never trained for.
In a recent conversation with The Crime Report, Klein, who is also a professor emeritus at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., discussed how the paramilitary structure that characterizes modern American policing often leads to misperceptions about “warrior cops.” But he also conceded that using police as instruments of now-controversial government policies such as the war on drugs has undermined their legitimacy in many U.S. communities.
The transcript of this conversation has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
The Crime Report: Is police militarization a valid concern today?
George Klein: The “optics” (supporting the perception of militarization) are really striking. You can make a good story about it and get lots of photos. If you look at the videos and photos of Ferguson you see officers with guns, and SWAT officers, leading to politicians, and some journalists calling it a “war zone.” It’s not. People aren’t getting killed, there are no tanks; shells aren’t exploding. It’s a riot.
There’s also a political aspect: [When such riots occur, it usually means] the government has lost control of the situation. But when police step in, it raises questions about law enforcement legitimacy. In a lot of minority communities, police don’t have legitimacy as it is. That’s because of how they acted in the past and because of the war on drugs. One of the things people don’t appreciate is that law enforcement is selective. If you look at how law enforcement works in the suburbs, it’s more restrained. Because that’s how you’re supposed to act with people who have political power. In poor neighborhoods, where there’s high crime and some concern about officer safety, the officers are less constrained among those who don’t have political power.
TCR: So what realities are being lost in the debate over the militarization and violence of policing?
GK: Officers are jacks of all trades. No matter what the call, a lost kid, a disturbed individual, police handle all sorts of calls, and the vast majority are nonviolent. The actual use of force or the threat of use of force is minimal. Police are problem-solvers. And while most people don’t appreciate this, police departments are the only government agencies that are open 24 hours a day, and will respond. Fire departments are available, but they arrive, they say “did you have a heart attack?”, and, if not, they’re gone.
Now, if things get out of hand, which is very rare, you call other patrol officers; if things get out of hand further you call more patrol officers; and if things become a catastrophe, then SWAT arrives. In Ferguson, one of the points worth noting is that the officers were not trained in riot control; same for Baltimore. The only ones who were trained were SWAT, which had to take over where it really wasn’t necessary or appropriate. In a riot situation, you don’t need officers pointing guns. You need a line of officers, you say “no further,” and if they keep coming you throw tear gas.
The only officers who know how to use tear gas are SWAT officers. Average patrol officers never use that sort of thing. Some 90-plus percent of patrol officers have a pistol. And liability is a real concern of police chiefs and also police officers. When you fire that bullet, it’s ballistic. It goes where it wants to go. If you shoot and miss a person, the bullet can travel a mile or more, go through a wall, and hit a kid. So, irrespective of what’s portrayed on TV, officers are reluctant to use their weapons. Seventy percent of officers involved in shootings retire early. They’re traumatized. They’re not soldiers. This notion that cops are gun guys and use force all the time is just not true.
A point I make in the book is that policemen are social workers with guns. They mostly try to solve people’s problems that can’t be solved any other way. It’s band-aid work. A phrase I used to hear very often when I was a cop was “how do we solve this problem tonight?” You’re not gonna solve this family disturbance; you’re not going to solve this kid who’s run away from home repeatedly. How do we solve the problem in the next 20 minutes? Sergeants say all the time that there are calls waiting, all human problems need to be solved in 20 minutes. That’s how police operate.
TCR: How does the political narrative of a war on drugs contribute to the problem?
GK: That narrative wasn’t created by the police. The police didn’t create the war on drugs, politicians did. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense. Politicians represent society and most of society doesn’t want drugs. The police are a blunt instrument. They are a paramilitary organization. Officers take orders. If the orders are to go arrest drug dealers, then they go arrest drug dealers. A problem with this is that the typical drug user is a 32-year- old white male living in the suburbs. Those people don’t get arrested. The police aren’t involved with or interested in them.
But in the street, drug suppression becomes a major focus because it represents disorder; and disorder is something that police are really concerned about. There was an operation called Pressure Point, which targeted open-air drug markets in New York City. In that operation, police began to arrest the people going there to buy, as well as the dealers. People were very pleased; the captain in charge was promoted. It was considered a great success. But drug dealing didn’t stop. If you drive drug dealers out of one neighborhood, they’ll just go to another neighborhood.
TCR: A lot of advertising for hiring in police departments can over-emphasize the action side of the job. Should there be a change in how police departments advertise to better emphasize the current popularized need for guardians, not warriors?
GK: Well, because of the recession, the number of officers [joining police ranks] fell by a significant percentage. And young people today, the video game kids, like action. Video action. So the way the departments try to recruit young people, remember these are 19- 25-year-olds, is through these “slick videos.”
In Illinois (a few years ago), the Republican governor and the Democratic state legislature couldn’t come to a budget for two years and, as a result, the state police budget, and the number of officers, fell dramatically. So, they put out a slick video. If you can go become a sales associate full time at Best Buy or go become a cop, what are you going to take? If you’re going to make roughly the same money, why put your life in danger? I think a lot of people feel that way. There was a tradition of people becoming cops after their fathers and grandfathers; it was, in effect, their company. Well, today that’s gone. So, you’ve got recruitment problems, young people don’t want to be cops, and police are desperate. It’s difficult.
TCR: When considering de-escalation, does American policing have more to learn from police in other parts of the world?
GK: [Things are a little different here because of how people react to] the duality of police roles. You have authority—and you are authority. There’s no way to avoid that, and people resent that because you’re telling them what to do. When we were in training, we were told your job is to take control of the situation, which is often chaotic when you get there, and once you take control then you can do other things.
I was having a conversation with someone and I mentioned that I wanted to go do research in Scotland where police don’t use guns and he looked at me incredulously and said do you think that police in America shouldn’t carry guns? I said of course not. When I was in uniform I would never go anywhere without my gun and my vest. Even when they’d call me in on a Friday to go fingerprint kids in a grammar school, I wore my full uniform. I wore my vest, and I carried my gun.
A phrase that police say is “you never know.” You never know what situation may occur. And 99 percent of the time nothing occurs, but you’ve gotta be prepared. Guns are prevalent in America, and so you have to be prepared to have a gun and use it if necessary.
TCR: How do you fight what seems to be the anti-policing rhetoric of some media and protest groups and create, instead, more empathy for what is truly a very difficult and dangerous job?
GK: People think SWAT teams and what they saw in Ferguson are regular police work. But if the media wants to make a fair portrayal, then it needs to look at the mundane things that police do: intervening in family disturbances, with the mentally ill, with alcoholics in the street. That’s what you need to look at if you want a fair and balanced view of police work.
But, of course, people don’t want to look at that sort of thing. When I first began doing my police research, reporters would come in to the department I was riding with. I’d spend a whole summer riding with them to understand real police work.
A reporter would come in from the local action work and say I have three hours, show me police work. And they’d zoom around and make traffic stops and put people against the wall and they’d put on a show. The media would be happy, police would get rid of those people, and that would be a two-minute news report with 30 seconds of video. That’s not real police work.
TCR: Are police departments wearing too many hats?
GK: One of the topics that everybody in criminal justice is aware of is the breakdown of the mental health system. I began doing my research in the 1960s and 1970s when everyone was aware of the horrors of the state hospital. Crowded wards with 150 people in one room with beds six inches apart. It was terrible. But the civil liberties perspective has gone to the extreme. You can’t commit anybody anymore. Everybody used to get committed. You’d have 40-50 guys committed daily in the mental health court. Now the mental health system is totally different.
The police have an impossible task. Police in Ferguson were really terrible before the riots. But issues like segregation or housing discrimination are historic social problems that police can’t solve. Take truancy. Why is truancy part of the criminal justice system? It really doesn’t make any sense [for police and courts to be involved]. It’s social, it’s personal, it’s psychological. But we don’t have any other way to deal with it, so that’s where it winds up. Same for mental health.
We don’t know what to do with these people, and so the police end up dealing with them, the courts end up dealing with them, the criminal justice system ends up dealing with them, and it’s just not appropriate. They need social services, mental health services, and they just don’t get them.
TCR: Is that a reflection of how our society sees these problems?
GK: We really don’t take care of people’s problems very much. And that goes back to a larger issue about what American society’s about. It’s about production. Making money. Being Number One. I used to talk to my students about this, and it’s kind of ridiculous, but I’d say, “Who wants to grow up and be a loser?” Nobody wants to grow up and be a loser; everyone wants to grow up and be a winner. Donald Trump is an aberration, but he really is simply an extension, to the extreme, of the entrepreneurial, making-money kind of guy in America. That’s who we celebrate.
We don’t really care about people who fall between the cracks. And, therefore, the kinds of social services that are needed aren’t available to a lot of people. Those are the kinds of things that get cut a lot or are really never funded adequately. And when it comes to criminal justice, we don’t really care about these people.
Other countries, especially European countries, try rehabilitation and dealing with social problems in a way that we don’t. That’s because we’re an extremely individualistic, entrepreneurial country, and either you make it or you don’t. If you don’t make it, we don’t really care that much.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer to The Crime Report on policing issues. He welcomes comments from readers.