A Continued Call for Caution in the Aftermath of Ferguson

Police training and the police work environment are defined by low frequency, high intensity events -- the "routine" traffic stop that turns up a combative driver and an unregistered gun, or the domestic violence call that evolves into a hostage situation. When these events occur I expect properly trained and equipped police officers to respond in a way that safely resolves the situation and brings the officers home safely.

I recently offered some perspective on the police profession's moves toward "militarizing" their tactics and weaponry, generally, and in light of the Ferguson, MO incident, specifically. Some incorrectly interpreted my comments as supporting the abolition of such weaponry or tactics by our police. In fact, I trust that if we find ourselves in a situation requiring such tactics, a specialized group of law enforcement officials who represent multiple agencies are trained and outfitted for a successful response.

Many observers of the events in Ferguson, MO (including a retired Lt. General, the country's chief law enforcement officer, and a security expert), however, raised serious concerns over the police department's deployment of military-like weaponry and tactics in controlling the Ferguson protesters. Among their concerns was the fact that the Ferguson police response made the confrontation more tense and dangerous. Such a possibility deserves consideration by those in charge of training in and deploying such tactics.

The police use of SWAT interventions exploded in the decades since SWAT teams were introduced in 1960 (from several hundred times in the 1970s to nearly 50,000 times in 2005). As the popularity of "special weapons and tactics" teams rose, so too did the police use of such weaponry and tactics. Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, discusses some of the recent instances where innocent men, women, and children, were killed or seriously injured during such raids. Author of Cop in the Hood, Peter Moskos, reports that police-involved homicides of citizens in a variety of situations have been increasing, while homicides of police officers by citizens are decreasing. In addition, violent crime has been clearly trending downward over the past 20 years. This includes a decline in the types of situations in which we would expect a "military-like" response (e.g., school shooting deaths).

Taken together, these trends caution us to examine the driving force of those whom we authorize to police us and remind us, as does the founder of modern policing, that, "The police are the people and the people are the police." The balance of individual liberty and public safety that is at the heart of all police-related issues is one that we must consider as new data and other changes are introduced to the profession.