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Contradictions in Policy and Anger in Outcomes

Police Militarization and Community Policing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Louis J. DeAnda
May 8, 2015

A Brief History of Community Policing 

DeAnda mayIn the 1960s, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) initiated a concept called “team policing.” This was the assignment of officers to foot and patrol car sectors (beats) in the same police district on a regular basis. The concept was to embed the same officers within their communities with the intent that a kind of mutual socialization would occur. The officers would become familiar with the citizens, crimes and criminals within their districts and the citizens would become familiar with the officers. The New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia police departments had done similar actions for over one hundred years; so the concept was not new. However the LAPD progressively developed the concept into the community-oriented policing initiative in the 1980s.

Perhaps the most important element of community-oriented policing is the teaming of police with the community. This creates a mutually supportive partnership in which citizens trust and seek out the officers as problem-solving specialists. When properly implemented and managed, the concept produces a sector of the community that is capable of getting ahead of its crime problem and transitioning from a reactive posture to one that is proactive and preemptive through collaborative police-community efforts.

Police Paramilitary Units 

About the same time that the LAPD initiated its team policing program in the late 1960s, it was also developing a pre-existing concept into something it called the Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT). SWAT is a carefully selected and highly trained group of tactical specialists postured to respond to high-risk police confrontations with criminals. These specialists are trained to apply military tactics as a team to resolve high-risk confrontations with a reduced risk for casualties to anyone involved. These high-risk confrontations include barricaded suspects, hostage rescues and the apprehension of heavily armed criminals or those with a demonstrated history of violence. The officers often wear military-style combat uniforms, use armored personnel carriers and, when deployed, carry specialized weapons that are not normally associated with police service personnel.

That the concept is successful is indisputable – police SWAT teams have non-violently resolved thousands of high-risk confrontations over decades of service across the country. Their crisis negotiators have talked people out of committing suicide or murder and arrested high-risk, dangerous criminals without firing a shot. They leverage innovation, adaptation and critical thinking skills to creatively and non-violently resolve crises that appear impossible to accomplish.

The Columbine High School Massacre and the Emergence of Tactical Patrol 

On April 20, 1999, two high school seniors committed one of the most horrific mass homicides at a school house in the United States. Great controversy arose from the application of standard SWAT tactics of containment and attempted negotiation while the two perpetrators were actively killing students and staff. What resulted was recognition of the “active shooter” problem and what emerged was the concept of “tactical patrol,” a hybrid police posture that integrated some SWAT tactics, techniques and procedures into police patrol as an attempt to reduce the time necessary to assemble and deploy a SWAT team.

The tactical patrol concept was adopted throughout major metropolitan police departments nationwide and quickly spread to smaller urban and county departments. Many departments authorized their tactical patrol officers to wear SWAT-style uniforms that are essentially modified military battle dress uniforms complete with external body armor. To a citizen, the appearance of these tactical officers is often perceived as nothing short of a police-soldier ready for combat.

This begs the question: combat against whom?

Policy Conflicts and Public Distress 

Police deployments in the aftermath of social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland included a massive deployment of heavily armed and armored police. This policy may be intended to reduce the potential for violence through a show of force. However, when it is used in response to civil unrest caused by controversial police action, the appearance to many citizens is nothing short of police oppression. In some minority communities, where tactical patrol has become the norm, the social perception is that of police occupation.

Police departments have attempted to rationalize the militarization trend from a policy perspective of reduced risk. Even if this rationalization is statistically valid, the social cost of such policy may make widespread use of tactical patrol a losing proposition for police and city administrations large and small. It is time to reconsider this trend from a social perspective and not merely one of risk management.

Author: Louis J. DeAnda is a doctoral candidate at Walden University’s School of Public Policy. DeAnda has 28 years of federal operational, training and management experience in criminal investigation and counterterrorism both domestically and overseas. A recognized expert in hybrid threats, he currently owns and operates an international strategic security consultancy in south Florida and may be contacted on the Linked-In professional network.

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