Trading Places: Swapping the Roles of Police and Military Is Bad for the Republic

by , July 26, 2016

Lately, the tactics of local police departments have been in the news because of mass shootings at Orlando and Fort Myers nightclubs, questionable police killings of civilians in suburban St. Paul and Baton Rouge, and retaliatory slayings of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas. Some commentators have argued convincingly that the militarization of police departments has caused the use of aggressive policing, which has in turn spawned counter-violence, resulting in the death of innocent police officers.

In the recent orgy of violence, one notable incident of police militarization was the jury-rigged bomb used in Dallas to kill a shooter of police. The police used C-4, a powerful military-grade explosive, that was attached to a police robot, normally used defensively to safely dispose of bombs, to offensively attack and kill the shooter. The use of such a questionable tactic was overshadowed by the deaths and funerals of the innocent slain officers.

Although before detonating the bomb, the Dallas police thought they had cleared the college building in which the shooter was sheltering; unbeknownst to them, students remained in the building. Also, in addition to the higher possibility of killing innocent bystanders than by killing the shooter with expert marksmen from a SWAT team, an even bigger danger of using a bomb is starting fires that can spread uncontrollably. In 1985, police in Philadelphia – seemingly the only other time in U.S. history that police have used a bomb against holed up criminals – dropped an explosive device from a helicopter on a house occupied by the Move group. The raging fire that ensued destroyed more than 60 homes over a multiple block area in that city.

The Dallas police chief defended using the robot-delivered bomb by saying that he would have done anything to avoid more police deaths. That is understandable reasoning but flawed, because although lives of professional law enforcement personnel are very important, the use of such indiscriminate battlefield weapons may unreasonably endanger the lives of the innocent citizens the police are sworn to protect.

Under the rules of war, militaries are permitted to kill civilians or destroy their property, even if such collateral damage is deemed likely before an attack, if the target is militarily critical. That reasoning is unacceptable for police departments, given their primary mission of protecting the public. The militarization of police with SWAT teams, armored vehicles, etc. is threatening enough to citizens’ liberty without the unnecessary use of military-grade explosives to endanger the civilians whose welfare they are supposed to be safeguarding.

And if the police are being militarized at home, the military has lately been used as a police force overseas. Instead of fighting other uniformed armed forces, the U.S. military has been bogged down in fighting police actions against non-uniformed guerrilla forces, which attack and then blend back into the population. As the U.S. military gradually learned during the Vietnam War and has had to painfully relearn in the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of the heavy firepower, normally used against regular foreign armies, is counterproductive against elusive guerrillas. The more civilians that are killed, the more the rising rage among the local populace leads to the recruitment of additional guerrilla fighters from their midst. Thus, eventually in all three wars, the military was forced to adopt what are called counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics, which have a primary goal of protecting the local population and even wining their "hearts and minds," rather than simply killing guerrillas. If this sounds like what a police force would do, it is.

In my recent book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won, I explain why these less aggressive COIN tactics have a better chance of succeeding when fighting guerrillas than simply blasting away with heavy firepower. Yet historically, even COIN tactics usually have failed because foreign police forces and social workers – essentially the roles the U.S. military is assuming in such conflicts – rarely have the local legitimacy to tame and even remodel faraway countries with vastly different cultures from that of foreign occupiers. And such overseas bogs have worn out the military and also impeded it from training to fight uniformed foreign armed forces in conventional battles, which are still the biggest threat to U.S. security. Thus, the best solution is to avoid such brushfire wars – usually in places in the developing world not very important to U.S. security – which require the use of such police tactics.

So the military is being used for policing and "nation building" overseas at the expense of U.S. security, and the police here at home are being militarized – the aggressive tactics of which threaten the safety of U.S. citizens, their property, and their civil liberties, which make America unique. This trading of places should be reversed for the sake of preserving the republic, its security, and what it stands for.

Read more by Ivan Eland