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Demilitarize the Police: A Framework for Safe Communities

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

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom & Mark Kling
May 20, 2021

In recent years, there have been calls to “demilitarize” the police. The proponents advocate a shift away from law enforcement taking on the appearance and behaviors of “soldiers of war,” and to embody the role of peace officers. Beneath this seemingly simple vision lays a number of issues and ramifications that need to be explored by decisionmakers in cities and counties throughout the country.

Evolving Role of Law Enforcement

With increasing calls to “defund the police” and “demilitarize the police,” the question that community leaders need to explore is, “What does society want from law enforcement in the United States?” Should law enforcement respond to protests if they turn violent? If so, how do they protect both the community and themselves? How should law enforcement respond to violent bank robberies? In 1994, a North Hollywood bank robbery in Southern California left the police unable to de-escalate the situation for several hours because the bank robbers were better armed (with automatic rifles) and were better protected (with full body armor). In 2015, law enforcement in San Bernardino, California, responded to a terrorist attack consisting of a mass shooting and attempted bombing. In these life-and-death situations, how can law enforcement ensure officer safety, protect citizens, protect property in communities and safely apprehend criminals simultaneously?

To frame the discussion, we will explore concepts in three different areas: equipment and supplies, appearance and operations and conduct.

Equipment and Supplies

In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed HR-3230. Within the bill was Section 1033 that authorized the transfer of excess military surplus for use in law enforcement activities. In 2019, 92% of the items received through the 1033 Program were classified as “non-controlled” property including office supplies, nursing equipment and computers. Local agencies also received items such as fire extinguishers, robots for explosive removal, first aid kits, cold-weather coats and shirts, utility trucks, etc. However, there were also some items that many people in (and out of) law enforcement believe should be removed from the acquisition list such as bayonets, grenade launchers and weaponized drones. Although these items are rarely requested or distributed, they are the items that placed the entire 1033 Program in jeopardy. Many law enforcement agencies, especially in disadvantaged communities with scarce resources, benefit from the surplus supplies at no cost. But attention should be directed at the local levels for each jurisdiction to develop transparent policies regarding which 1033 Program items are eligible for acquisition.

Appearance

During heavily televised protests that turn violent, the nation watches as law enforcement officers don their riot gear complete with shields, batons, bulletproof vests, gas masks and protective gear. Does the sight of officers wearing, what appears to be military style equipment, further provoke crowds and lead to violence, or are officers taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves? If agitators in the crowd become violent, endangering citizens and property, what is the role of law enforcement? Should law enforcement stand down as the violence erupts? Should officers confront the agitators? How do officers keep their community safe, without leaving themselves at risk? Are the black shin-guards, shoulder and elbow protection military surplus? Many of those items are actually re-purposed equipment originally designed to protect baseball players and skateboarders. It may not be realistic to ask officers to go into an agitated crowd, that may be throwing projectiles at them, without protection. But how do we, as a society, find the balance to protect life and property, while avoiding the provocation of a military-style appearance for law enforcement?

Operations & Conduct

Although much of the attention surrounding the “demilitarization” of the police has been focused on protests, those same officers, all across the country, train to prevent bank robberies, assaults, mass shootings and terrorist attacks. They are trained to save hostages and rescue abducted children. They partner with other jurisdictions to rescue people from heavily armed human and drug smuggling operations. Once on duty, officers can encounter anything from homicides and assaults to situations where they must show compassion by helping a homeless individual find shelter or need to comfort an innocent child who has just lost their parent in a gang crossfire. Officers today require a vast breadth of interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to be tactically prepared when a crisis occurs. Examining the training, equipment and operations of law enforcement must be done through a wide lens, encompassing all situations that citizens expect law enforcement to address.

Next Steps

As cities and counties across the country begin earnest dialog on the issue of “demilitarizing” the police, it may be productive to first find the areas of agreement (such as items from the 1033 Program that the specific jurisdiction will choose not to acquire). Then explore the wide variety of roles the community expects law enforcement to address. Lastly, explore requirements of equipment, appearance and operations in each context. As we have learned all too well, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. With open dialog and appreciation for the depth and breadth of services required, steps can be made to keep officers, communities and property safe while gaining the trust and support of citizens.


Authors:

Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

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