Skip to navigationSkip to content

Three very good reasons Americans should worry about the militarization of the police

AP Photo/Max Becherer
There are important reasons for keeping the military and police distinct.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Last week, the Dallas police used a bomb robot to kill a man who had shot five police officers. Their decision, along with recent images of police outfitted in riot gear and other heavy-duty equipment during protests against police brutality across the US, has set off a storm of debate about the militarization of law enforcement in the US.

Not all countries have a strong institutional distinction between the police and the military. (Think of France’s paramilitary Gendarmerie, for example.) But the English-style police model–which is used in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia–is based on Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police in London. This model emphasizes the importance of the ethical distinction between the police and the military. The clear separation is meant to prevent police from adopting a mindset in which they believe they are fighting a war against the same people they are supposed to protect.

We want to prevent police from adopting a mindset in which they believe they are fighting a war against the same people they are supposed to protect.

It’s true that the police and military have a number of things in common. Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler, for example, point out that the police and the military are “the state’s primary use-of-force entities, the foundation of its coercive power.” And in Above the Law, Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe note that both organizations wear uniforms, use specialist language and codes, are overwhelmingly male, and operate within a strictly hierarchical setting. Like soldiers, they suggest, police officers are part of an institution that is organized into a hierarchy where orders from superiors can have a greater impact on their actions than the law.

Despite these commonalities, the purpose of the police is distinct from the purpose of the military. Police are supposed to enforce the law and preserve public safety within a legal jurisdiction. In contrast, the military defends the “common good,” which includes, but is not limited to, fighting wars against external aggressors. Paul Sieghart reflects on this distinction in a 1978 article for New Scientist, writing that “the job of the soldier is to kill the Queen’s enemies in war-time; that of a policeman is to protect the Queen’s subjects in peacetime.” He suggests that police, like soldiers, are permitted to use lethal force in the course of their duties, but that injuring and taking life are nevertheless fundamentally in conflict with the police duty to protect life.

There are three big moral concerns about the militarization of the police. One concern involves the risk that the police become a repressive tool of the state. The political philosopher John Rawls held that in developing the principles of domestic justice, a state should not use an army against its own people. Instead, it should use the police to keep domestic order and a judiciary and other institutions to maintain an orderly rule of law. This is very different from the institution that is needed to defend against aggressive states, he suggested.

A second moral concern involves the move away from standard policing methods to increasingly embrace military approaches. The military ethicist George Lucas Jr. points out that the military have a “warrior mindset,” which means soldiers instinctively think that their job is to “kill people and break things.” The risk here, then, is that the police take on the warrior mindset of the military and act with less restraint than they should. The police should adhere to a principle of minimum force–that is, they should use the least amount of force necessary to protect the public.

Military-grade weapons and technologies are designed to maximize the destruction of enemy combatants.

A third moral concern with the police militarization is the extensive harm caused by military-grade weapons and technologies. Military-grade weapons and technologies are designed to maximize the destruction of enemy combatants. Weapons with such highly destructive properties include high-powered automatic rifles, grenades, tanks, ships, fighter aircraft, high explosives, precision-guided missiles, and so on. The purpose of overwhelmingly destructive weapons is to achieve a particular political effect on an enemy force. So the state using this kind of technology against its own citizens necessarily raises troubling questions for many people.

A police service derives its moral and legal authority to use force from the state, and, for this reason, we give police a monopoly in using force within its jurisdiction. If we agree that police have such a monopoly on the use of force, then we should expect police officers to be armed and trained in the effective use of those arms. But if we conclude that police should adhere to a principle of minimum use of force then, at most, we should want police officers to carry small arms (other than specialized units), use them sparingly, and prioritize the use of non-lethal weapons whenever possible.

This does not mean that non-lethal weapons should completely replace the need to use lethal force. Non-lethal weapons create their own set of problems. The police ethicist John Kleinig, for example, points out as police increasingly rely on tasers, the effect has been to make police more likely to use (or threaten to use) them to subdue people rather than engaging in the harder work of persuasion. Nor does it mean that Dallas police were wrong to use a robotic bomb against Micah Johnson. The police clearly have a responsibility to confront a serious danger to public safety.

But incremental moves towards police militarization–such as using a remote-controlled robot to detonate an explosive–do increase the risk of disproportionately harmful outcomes. If we want to maintain a police system that preserves public safety, we need to proceed with caution.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.