The first images of Wednesday’s mass shootings in San Bernardino, California showed uniformed law enforcement officers pulling up to the Inland Regional Center in fleets of Bearcats. Police and special agents helped guide victims fleeing the scene of the massacre as emergency medical technicians provided care to the wounded in the parking lot.
The fast and effective response to the shootings saved many lives, though suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik managed to kill 14 and injure 21 before emergency personnel arrived on the scene. The use of military equipment and tactics was critical in this case: a rampage by two heavily armed individuals who, as San Bernardino police chief Jarrod Berguan said, “came prepared to do what they did.”
Within hours, police officers, columnists and cable news pundits began pointing to the San Bernardino shooting as proof of why local law enforcement agencies require military gear and training. They argued that depriving law enforcement of equipment like armored personnel carriers in the post-Ferguson era endangers the lives of officers and civilians alike.
Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes separately chastised the Obama administration for prohibiting the transfer of some surplus military equipment to local police forces.
“We make much about the militarization of the police,” Fuentes said Wednesday on CNN’s “The Situation Room.” “That’s because we have a militarized public in the country with military-assault rifles, armored vests, bullets that pierce armors. That’s one of the situations our police often go up against—this type of armament in the citizenry of our country.”
“Fox and Friends First” guest Steve Kardian, a retired detective who now serves as a self-defense instructor, echoed the sentiment on Thursday.
“It started in Ferguson when they thought the police were over-militarized. It’s a shame,” he said. “If it does continue to happen it’s going to take an element of safety away from not only the police officers but also the public that they protect.”
There are undoubtedly scenarios, ranging from active shooting situations to bomb threats to serving search warrants to high-risk subjects, where military equipment and training are necessary. Lou Hayes, a police training consultant with the Chicago-based Vitrus Group, told TPM that in these specific cases, military equipment and training allowed teams to stay on the scene longer while diminishing the risks associated with negotiating and de-escalation.
But the calls for police demilitarization first came when this same equipment and training was deployed in 2014 against civilians protesting the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The question, then, is not whether the equipment is necessary and contextually appropriate in emergencies—it is whether that equipment is overly used.
Seth Stoughton, a former Florida police officer and riot control special responder who now teaches law at the University of South Carolina, told TPM that military techniques and armored vehicles can be “enormously helpful in protecting the lives of officers and civilians.”
“I think many law enforcement agencies need responsible access to military style equipment and they need the training to use some of those tactics,” Stoughton said. “But that shouldn’t be read as saying that they should be implementing those as part of everyday policing.”
Shortly before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the American Civil Liberties Union published the results of a yearlong investigation in a report titled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” Of the over 800 “paramilitary” raids the ACLU researchers looked into, almost 80 percent were conducted for ordinary law enforcement purposes like executing search warrants to people’s homes. SWAT-style raids were executed in emergency situations like gaining access to a barricaded subject or intervening in a hostage situation only 7 percent of the time, according to the report.
Mass shootings may seem to occur with a disturbing regularity. But as Stoughton pointed out, they are a relatively rare occurrence for the vast majority of the over 18,000 police agencies in the U.S.
“For an individual jurisdiction, this is not an everyday encounter,” he said. “This may be a once in a generation or even rarer type of encounter. Most police agencies will thankfully never have to deal with something like this.”
Stoughton noted that law enforcement agencies may construe the expense of military equipment and training for officers as justification to use them in situations where other police techniques could be deployed.
“A responsible police agency should have a clearly defined protocol that limits the use of military style equipment or specialized units like SWAT or special response teams to the situations that originally justified them—rare, high risk incidents,” he said.
Hayes, the police training consultant, said forces needed to restrict the use of these techniques and acknowledged that their frequent use could deepen anti-police sentiment.
“One of the missing pieces is that we as the police forget that the mere presence of this heavy armor and helmets puts a wedge between the police and the community,” Hayes said. “The message sometimes received by the public is the police are afraid of the citizens. And I think that puts the two sides in this us vs. them mentality, even though that’s not how police may be feeling in the moment.”
Stoughton recommended getting hard numbers on how and how often law enforcement agencies deploy SWAT teams or military gear as a first step toward a sober analysis of police use of that equipment. He and Hayes agreed that some expense and over-militarization concerns could be resolved by encouraging the sharing of military equipment between departments in the same jurisdiction.
“Militarized policing is a tool that is appropriate for some situations in the same way that a hammer is appropriate for some situations, but that does not mean it is always appropriate,” Stoughton said. “You do not do fine woodwork with just a hammer. It is one of many tools you may need. You may find that you use it in a very restrained way otherwise you damage your product more than you help it.”