The “Warrior Cop” Redux

August 30, 2017
Guest Post

by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Departmentpolice lights

Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the 63rd Biennial Conference of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) on Monday, August 28 in Nashville, Tennessee. In his remarks, he observed that the police are “fighting a multi-front battle” that is characterized by “an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, (and) threats from terrorism.” This set the stage for his depiction of law enforcement as the “thin blue line,” that is the only thing standing between “sanctity and lawlessness.” It was within this context that Sessions cited a rollback of former President Obama’s January 2015 Executive Order 13688, which established a Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, a group charged with establishing guidelines and processes for law enforcement agencies’ acquisition of surplus military equipment from the federal government. In an executive order to be signed later in the day, the police would once again have unfettered access to surplus military equipment and be free to use federal funds to purchase military-grade weapons, ammunition, vehicles, aircraft, and other military equipment.

Executive Order 13688 had sharply curtailed what many had observed were a widespread lack of controls and oversight in the distribution of surplus military equipment under the Department of Defense’s “1033 Program.” The working group was directed to (among other things) require “local civilian government (non-police) review of and authorization” of any acquisition of military equipment; to ensure that officers were properly trained in the use of any military weapons, vehicles, and aircraft, and to create a process to monitor and record the distribution of military equipment to law enforcement agencies, all reasonable and necessary means of oversight that were historically and conspicuously absent in the 1033 Program distributions.

In May 2015 the working group promulgated a list of equipment that law enforcement agencies were precluded from purchasing with federal funds. The list included weapons, vehicles, and aircraft that are largely inappropriate for use in domestic law enforcement operations and inimical to long-established community policing principles that privilege partnerships and collaboration between the police and their constituent communities. The list included: tracked armored vehicles; weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles of any kind; firearms of .50-caliber or higher; ammunition of .50-caliber or higher; grenade launchers; bayonets, and camouflage uniforms. Law enforcement would of course still be free to purchase the weapons, vehicles, and aircraft through funding means other than those provided by the federal government.

There are no doubt situations and circumstances that justify, even mandate, a law enforcement response that deploys military vehicles, watercraft, aircraft, and weapons. The heroic rescue efforts currently being undertaken in Texas come immediately to mind. And no one would suggest that the police should not be equipped with and utilize, when necessary, high-powered weapons, protective gear, and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles when confronting barricaded-suspect, hostage, or terrorist-related incidents.

But to endorse the worldview of the attorney general (one no doubt shared by the FOP and its membership), is to embrace the fiction of a “thin blue line” and its accompanying binary and dichotomy: good vs. evil, “sanctity” vs. “lawlessness,” (us vs. “them”). This is a world fraught with ever-present peril, violence, and danger. This is a world plagued and beset by violent crime, “vicious gangs,” and ubiquitous threats from terrorist “others.” This is a world where the police alone are “fighting” the opioid epidemic (and not one where opioid addiction and related deaths are a public health crisis). In this world it would seem entirely appropriate, even necessary, that the police would be equipped with grenade launchers, weaponized vehicles, aircraft, and watercraft, .50 caliber firearms, bayonets, armored vehicles, and tanks.

In another world, the essential humanity, compassion, generosity, and selflessness of mankind is on conspicuous display (#CajunNavy is trending on social media as I write this). This is a world where law enforcement is supported and respected, but also receptive to criticism when warranted and keenly aware of their privileged role in protecting and safeguarding communities and ensuring that the civil rights and civil liberties of those who live and work in those communities are held sacrosanct.

We have both an obligation and a right to sharply interrogate law enforcement’s acquisition and use of military weapons in our communities. The events of the summer of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri come into sharp focus when assessing and evaluating the propriety of equipping our police with military armaments, particularly as it relates to individuals and groups engaging in constitutionally protected activities, as the protesters most certainly were in Ferguson. There is no place for Long-Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs, sound cannons), tear gas (banned by the Geneva Conventions for use on the battlefield), water cannons, rubber and wooden bullets, stun grenades, smoke bombs, and other implements of war in suppressing those lawfully assembled in peaceful protest.

My concern and fear is that (some of) the police will become emboldened by the strident rhetoric emanating from the attorney general and the White House and see their mandate become as militarized as the equipment and weapons many of them will now conspicuously display in our communities. There will be many more incidents and demonstrations such as those that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, and in Boston, Massachusetts on August 19. The appearance of “warrior cops” at such events may have troubling and potentially disastrous consequences.