After America’s various foreign adventures resulted in a significant surplus of military equipment, there was a need to get rid of this excess. While this had sometimes been done by simple disposal or mothballing in the past, this time it was decided that some of the equipment would be provided to local police forces. While this might have seemed to be a good idea at the time, it did lead to some infamous images that showed war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians—an image one would expect in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.
While these images did fan emotional flames, they also helped start an important debate about the appropriateness of police equipment, methods and operations. The Obama regime responded by putting some restrictions on the military hardware that could be transferred to the police, although many of the restrictions were on gear that the police had, in general, never requested.
As might be expected, Trump has decided to lift the Obama ban and Jeff Sessions touted this as a rational response to crime and social ills. As Sessions sees it, “(W)e are fighting a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism, combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law.” Perhaps Sessions believes that arming the police with tanks and grenade launchers will help improve family stability and shore up discipline.
While it might be tempting to dismiss Trump and Session as engaged in a mix of macho swagger and the seemingly deranged view that bigger guns are the solution to social ills, there is a very real issue here about what is appropriate equipment for the police.
Obviously enough, one key factor in determining the appropriate armaments for police is the role that the police are supposed to play in society. In a democratic state aimed at the good of the people (the classic Lockean state) the role of the police is to protect and serve the people. On this view, the police do need armaments suitable to combat domestic threats to life, liberty and property. In general, this would entail engaging untrained civilian opponents equipped with light arms (such as pistols and shotguns). As such, the appropriate weapons for the general police would also be light arms.
Naturally enough, the possibility of unusual circumstances must be kept in mind. Since the United States is awash in guns, the police might be called upon to face off against opponents armed with military grade light weapons. They might also be called upon to go up against experienced (or fanatical) opponents that have fortified themselves. They are also sometimes called upon to face off against large numbers of rioters. In such cases, the police would justly require such things as riot gear and military grade equipment. However, these should be restricted to specially trained special units, such as SWAT.
It might be objected that police should be more generally equipped with this sort of equipment, just in case they need it. I certainly see the appeal to this—my view of combat preparation is that one should be ready for almost anything and meeting resistance with overwhelming force is an effective way to get the job done. But, that points to the problem: to the degree the police adopt the combat mindset, they are moving away from being police and towards being soldiers. Given the distinction between the missions, having police operating like soldiers is problematic. After all, defeating the enemy is rather different from protecting and serving.
There is also the problem that military grade equipment tends to be more damaging than the standard police issue weapons. While a pistol can obviously kill, automatic weapons can do considerably more damage in a short amount of time. The police, unlike soldiers, are presumed to be engaging fellow citizens and the objective is to use as little force as possible—they are, after all, supposed to be policing rather than subjugating or defeating.
Of course, the view that the police exist for the good of the people is not the only possible view of the police. As can be seen around the world, some states regard their police as tools of repression and control. Roughly put, the police operate as the military, only with their fellow citizens as enemies. If the police are regarded as tools of the rulers that exist to maintain their law and order and to preserve their privilege, then a militarized police force makes perfect sense. As just noted, these police function as an army against the civilian population of their own country, serving the will of the rulers. Militaries serve as an army against the people of other countries, serving the will of the rulers. Same basic role, but somewhat different targets.
It could be argued that while this is something practiced by repressive states, it is also suitable for a democratic state. Jeff Sessions characterizes policing as a battle and it could be contended that he is right—there are interior enemies that must be defeated in the war on crime. On this view, the police are to engage these enemies in a way analogous to the military engaging a foreign foe and thus it makes perfect sense that they would need military grade equipment. This does endorse the view that the police are an occupying army, but it is regarded as a feature rather than a flaw—that is the function of the police.
While I do think that the militarization of the police impacts their behavior (I know I would be very tempted to use a tank if I had one), my main concern is not with what weapons the police have access to, but the attitude and moral philosophy behind how they are armed. That is, my concern is not so much that the police have the weapons of an army, but that they are regarded more as an army to be used against citizens than as protectors of life, liberty and property.