Why the police have ‘militarized’

Michael J. Bouchard

With a sense of stability returning to Ferguson, Missouri, now is a perfect time to revisit the reality of modern law enforcement. The events have raised two reoccurring questions.

The first is the so-called “militarization of police.”

The second, somewhat related to the first, is a perceived uptick in the aggression of police when responding to various incidents.

While repeated images of police in riot gear may suggest overkill and perhaps symbolize a challenge to liberty, we need to acknowledge the substance behind the imagery and the reality beneath the perception.

A 24/7 media cycle has focused on the “militarization” of law enforcement. After one outlet used that term, many more parroted the words.

Let me break down the claim and the reality.

As of 2012, there are an estimated 2.5-3.7 million rifles from the AR-15 (.223 caliber) family in civilian use in America. They are favored for target shooting, hunting, and personal protection, and have become the most popular rifle in America.

Yes, many police agencies have also sought .223 caliber rifles and armored vehicles. Why you ask? After two tragic shootings on different sides of the country, it became evident that police were clearly outgunned.

In a Los Angeles shootout that injured 11 officers and 7 civilians, suspects engaged officers with fully automatic assault rifles. Tactically outmatched, the responding officers had to borrow weapons they did not have on-scene from a local civilian gun retailer.

In Miami, two robbery suspects used a .223 caliber rifle against FBI agents. Outgunned and pinned down, two agents were killed and five wounded before the incident was over.

The shooters in the Colorado theater, in Sandy Hook, and many others have used .223 caliber rifles as well.

Our job as police officers is simply to respond to the threats that face our communities each and every day. The reality of this world is that those threats are high-powered, deadly, and unflinching. When we obtain the updated equipment, we hope and pray we never have to use it. However, hope is not a strategy in our business.

As for the armored vehicles, they are large, safe boxes protecting first responders. They are not weaponized in any way.

They give both police officers and at-risk civilians a path to exit a dangerous situation involving an armed assailant.

We utilized one to evacuate residents whose homes were being hit by fully automatic gunfire from a murder suspect.

We see armored vehicles pick up cash receipts from grocery stores every day in America. Why, then, do we find it odd that police agencies might need one to respond to an armed robbery at that same store?

Discussions have, and should, continue to focus on deployment and training. The need has been well-documented. Actions of police personnel are well observed by the public and any criminality or negligence brings both criminal and civil liability, as it should.

What happened in Ferguson and the law enforcement response therein does not represent the norm.

While the initial incident is still under investigation, day-to-day policing across the country is very different.

Tragic incidents where an innocent victim is injured or killed during a law enforcement interaction and are rare and represent a thankfully small exception, and not the rule.

The data does not support the idea that police officers, regardless of what gear they utilize, are increasingly aggressive in response or lethal in action.

Some basic figures provide clarity.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over a six-year period from 2003 to 2009, arrest-related homicide deaths averaged around 400 per year. The latest numbers from 2013 are consistent with that average.

While that might seem high at first blush, the FBI estimates that a whopping 98 million arrests occurred across the country during that same period.

This means that 99.9998 percent of arrests did not result in death.

While every death, civilian or police, brings heartache, these figures hardly suggest that trigger-happy commandos are patrolling our streets.

Yet some have recently tried to impress this falsehood upon the public.

Also missing from the debate are the protocols that departments follow when any officer is involved in a duty-related death — including transfers from patrol, extensive counseling, psychiatric evaluation, full investigation, prosecutorial review and time off.

What about officer deaths? On yearly average, a police officer dies every 58 hours.

Thus far, in 2014, there have been 69 American officer deaths and 13 police K-9 deaths in the line of duty.

By comparison, that is 27 more than what the military has tragically lost in the line of duty over the same time period.

In 2012, 52,901 officers were assaulted while performing their duties. Of the 52,901 officers who were assaulted, 14,678 (27.7 percent) suffered injuries.

Many departments also mandate that officers live in the communities in which they work, raise their families, and pay their taxes.

Meaning, the roughly 700,000 law enforcement officers in America are citizens of the same community they police.

They work sleepless nights to solve murders and keep drugs and violence out of playgrounds and neighborhoods.

They stop drunken drivers from harming innocent motorists.

They are on scene with firefighters at blazing infernos and twisted wrecks on the highway.

And they respond to situations of complete danger and chaos – 60 NYPD and Port Authority officers lost their lives at ground zero when the towers crumbled.

The list of duties police perform — often heart wrenching, stomach-turning, and pulse-pounding — goes on.

Clearly, they can’t solve or prevent all crimes. They are imperfect human beings, working in an imperfect system, in an imperfect world. They make mistakes like the rest of us.

But as newsman Paul Harvey stated “less than half of one percent of police do bad things, and that is a better percentage than the clergy.”

The overwhelming majority of those that wear a badge, don a vest, and face a workday of uncertainty are guided by a sense of professional commitment, impartial duty, and appropriate response. We would do ourselves well as fellow citizens, as honest adherents to justice, and truth, not to forget these facts.

Michael J. Bouchard is sheriff of Oakland County and vice president and government affairs chair at the Major County Sheriffs’ Association.