Are cops becoming ‘warriors’ instead of police officers?

This blog was orginally published in November 2011

There has been a lot of speculation and comment over that last 12 months about the police use of force and whether the police are becoming too militaristic.  In the UK the police use of force is governed by legislation in the form of the Police and Criminal Evidence act (PACE) and the Criminal Law Act 1967 (Sec 3(1)).  This section in particular says “A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large.”

However, this article seems to support the hypothesis that the police are becoming too militaristic There are many police officers who have fallen foul of this legislation and have been prosecuted for using excessive force.  The death of Ian Tomlinson on 1 April 2009 at the G20 summit protest and subsequent charging of Constable Simon Harwood is a case in point. The question for me is, as the police obtain more and more weaponry, do they make less use of their tactical skills to defuse a situation and rely on the weapons that they have at hand?

Here are two cases that point towards this being the case.  There is a caveat to these stories and that is that they were sent to me by a colleague from USA and have not been verified by me, but you can assess the validity of each case yourself.

The first relates to a You Tube clip of a police officer spraying pepper spray over a group of protestors at the University California, Davis.  The video of this incident has gone viral and according to the police department concerned the officers involved have been put on leave.  The incident can be viewed here  It appears that a seated and passive group of students are repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray.  We do not know what has gone on before, however, on the face of it this use of force seems to be excessive.  

The second incident is the Malaika Brooks incident. Brooks was stopped for a speeding violation and was issued a citation.  Brooks was seven months pregnant at the time.  Washington state requires that the violator sign the citation as proof of issuance.  Brooks refused, was told she would go to jail if she did not sign and two other officers came on scene to try to persuade Brooks to sign the citation.  When these efforts failed Brooks was ordered out of the car and refused.  An officer cycled his Taser (test arc to show Brooks what a Taser did) in an effort to get her to comply without having to deploy the Taser.  Brooks continued to refuse. One officer opened her car door and another used a Taser in drive-stun mode three times in less than a minute (first to her clothed thigh, her bare left arm and finally to her neck).  She did not have any lasting injuries but did sustain burn scars.  The court decided that the use of the Taser in that fashion was excessive force.

In both of these incidents a heavy use of force was used on passive individuals.  This is the point where I asked three US colleagues as to whether the police were becoming too militarised.  Interestingly two said yes and one said no.  The officer who said no referred to battles that are taking place against drug cartels and referred to fighting fire with fire.  This is a very interesting comment as Bittner states 

“The police are posted on the perimeters of order and justice in the hope that their presence will deter the forces of darkness and chaos, because they are meant to spare the rest of the people direct confrontations with the dreadful, perverse, lurid and dangerous, police officers are perceived to have powers and secrets that no one else shares…..and policemen are viewed as the fire it takes to fight fires”
                    (Bittner, 1991: 36)

The juxtaposition of this was referred to by Chief Edward Flynn in the 2008 Milwaukee Policing Plan. Flynn quotes George Kelling 

The “war” on crime and the “war” on drugs are not actually being waged on any front. We cannot wage war on a symptom. We cannot overcome crime or drugs with force. We cannot, as police professionals, be led into employing strategies that alienate us from the very communities that need us the most. We cannot wage war on our citizens.
            Milwaukee Police Dept. Annual Plan 2008:5)

So here we have an academic saying that we should not wage war on our citizens, whereas another seems to accept the use of force as a necessary evil that is legitimised by the public.  Certainly many US commentators now refer to the police as ‘warriors’, but if you have warriors, who are they fighting the war against? It could be said that a war against drugs cartels is acceptable as they use extraordinary levels of violence.  However, pregnant women and passive students do not on the face of it fall into the same category and as the use of terms such as ‘warriors’ to describe police officers extends, should we expect anything other than increases in excessive force as the police themselves begin to believe that they are at war?

There should perhaps be one other factor that is considered here and that is the number of US police officers killed in the line of duty this year.  Earlier this year the comment such as this article referred to a ‘war on cops’ as eleven officers were shot within a 24hrs period  According to this web site there have been 144 police officers killed in the line of duty in 2011, 54 of which were shot, so maybe it is understandable that police officers in USA take a ‘warrior’ like stance on public engagement.

Certainly issues such as the ‘Occupy’ protests test the mettle and the patience of the police.  On more than one occasion there have been calls for the National Guard to be called in to remove the protestors.  The interesting point is that in 1800s England the militia were used to ‘police’ protests.  In many cases clashes resulted in excessive force being used resulting in death.  This was one of the founding reasons for the creation of a ‘civil’ police force with Wellington, who was Prime Minister, convincing Peel that he should, without delay, set up a civilian police force specialising in crowd control following rioting after Queen Caroline’s trial in 1821 (Reith, 1948; Ignatieff, 1979; Emsley, 1983; Alderson, 1998). 

Maybe it is time to take a step back and consider what the police are here to do.  Should we fall into the ideas of Bittner and be the fire necessary to fight the fire, or should we consider the views of Kelling and stop alienating those citizens and communities that require protection?

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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