Saturday, March 27, 2010

Urban Warriors and City Cops

It has been said that human progress results from seeing things as they really are, not from fantasizing wishful thinking from theories or philosophies that make no real-world sense.

I was saddened to hear today of the death of an LAPD SWAT officer on active military duty in Afghanistan. Like too many before him, he was patrolling and died due to a roadside bomb. In the middle of the L.A. Times article, one unrelated tidbit caught my attention.

More than two dozen LAPD officers serve as active military reservists. The department recruits many officers from the military, and leaves for military duty are routine.

Aside from the tragedy of combat death, I wonder what real-world impact a combat death has on police culture. The military in modern American policing - at least to the rank and file - is like a cultural touchstone. The truth is, for all the hubub about the Posse Comitatus Act [legislation limiting the role of the military in policing], police today look more para-military than ever.

What is the impact of the military in policing? The actual number of soldiers in policing is small compared to total numbers. The soldier cops I am honored to know are excellent police officers. But the individual soldier/cops are not where I think the problem lurks. Rather the militaristic attitudes and policies that permeate the culture is the problem (and often they are not triggered by soldier/cops, but by those around them).

As many in the police profession know all too well, this trend is widespread - military methods, SWAT, assault weapons, and the ever-present armored personnel carrier are present in over 80% of cities over 50,000. Not to be outdone, even Canadian police are in on the act. Consider recent military vehicle aquisitions by the RCMP reported in the CBC News.

Who cares?

Does all this really matter if cops say they need such things to fight heavily armed gangs? Is this how things really are most of the time on the street? Or is this fantasy and wishful thinking about soldiering our way to a peaceful society?

Anyway, who cares as long as they are on our side? What can happen, anyway?

From my own police training and instructing, I know the damage militaristic attitudes have on police attitudes during basic training. Gerry Cleveland and I wrote about this in our police education monograph Police PBL: Blueprint for the 21st Century.

Apparently we are not alone in our worries. In former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper's book, Breaking Rank he says:

The difference between a soldier on the outskirts of Baghdad [or Helmud Province] and a beat cop in Schenectady are noteworthy. The mission of soldiers is to win battles on foreign soil, the mission of police officers is to keep peace in America's cities. More to the point, a soldier follows orders for a living, a police officer makes decisions for a living.

Yet another alarm is raised in the documentary film Urban Warrior: The Militarization of American Law Enforcement. It poses this warning:

Within recent years, the formerly bright line separating U.S. military operations from domestic police work has become increasingly blurred.

Is this really the way to safer communities?

Check out the controversial documentary Urban Warriors. Click here.

7 Replies so far - Add your comment

todd b said...


I am a crime analyst assigned to a drug unit. I am a former Marine and current Air Guard Security Forces Troop. The idea of soliders only following orders for a living is ridiculous and insulting. That soldier on patrol overseas makes alot of decisions daily and usually a 25 year old Platoon Sergeant is making decisions which directly impact the 30 to 40 of men under his command. Most cops I know never had and never will have that kind of experience.

GSaville said...

Thanks Todd B for the thoughts and the passion. I value both, especially in debates about the less-than-clear-world of police futures where no one has the "right" answer. So your view is important and appreciated.

I'm not sure, but think Stamper's chapter on soldier vs cop decision-making probably refers more to traditional warfare and nation-state conflicts of bygone years, and less to the on-going, complex and ever-changing insurgencies that face the contemporary soldier.

No doubt the insurgency solider requires a high degree of decision-making. Your description of the 25 year old Sergeant is a perfect example. Whether the quality of that decision-making is the same, better, or an entirely different kind of decision-making compared to policing at home, is very much open for debate.

None of that demeans what soldiers do for a living. In fact quite the opposite. In the war theatre, that is battlefield decision-making at its best. But I think Stamper would say - and it seems logical to me - that isn't the same kind of decision-making we are talking about for everyday policing on everyday problems. That's why the typical cop will never experience what the 25 year old Sergeant will experience. It doesn't demean either; it just suggests they are quite different things.

Thanks again Todd.

It would be great to hear from others on this!

Josh Kyle said...

Can't speak about other agencies, but in Kansas the officer who checks your child's car seat is the same one who clads all the gadgets and breaks down doors then has to hurry to be in time for the community meeting and all the while training a recruit. Here policing is all tied together, intermixed.
Yes there is an annoying warrior cult in SWAT circles, with boys playing with very large toys. But for every SWAT Cop who watches himself in the mirror, there is a guy under a helmet who realizes that the safest thing for everyone is to take a decisive action (or no action) because it is simply the right thing to do. SWAT works when it is not allowed to develop its own culture or find its way into every cop/every car mentality.
Fort Riley is seven miles away so we receive a disproportional number of military folks, yet we somehow maintain a relaxed 'solve the problem' culture. Just don't ask these guys and gals questions about the soft uniform debate.


Anonymous said...

Todd, why is the idea of soldiers following orders for a living ridiculous and insulting? Greg clearly meant neither and yet you were insulted and found the concept of order-taking ridiculous. Greg didn’t say cops don’t take orders and he certainly didn’t say soldiers are not thinking men and women and they “only” take orders. The “only” was your addition.

The difference between a soldier on the outskirts of Baghdad [or Helmud Province] and a beat cop in Schenectady are noteworthy. The mission of soldiers is to win battles on foreign soil, the mission of police officers is to keep peace in America's cities. More to the point, a soldier follows orders for a living, a police officer makes decisions for a living.

I also thought his answer was much kinder and accepting of your views than you were of his.

Let’s examine this a bit further, because I think you are wrong to suggest that daily decision making by a soldier will have more “experience” than that of a police officer. The Uniform Code of Military Justice Articles 90-92 requires among other things, strict adherence to orders, especially in times of war. If you consider Article 90 – if you are at war and disobey a lawful order (and a subordinate challenges the lawfulness at his or her great peril) - then the military bosses can put you to death.

The requirement for following orders is clearly much more important than the street cop who will merely lose his job or take a dressing down in a a civilian court. The focus of order taking – all insults and ridiculous implied – has SO much more currency in soldiering than it does in policing.

Effectively, you changed Greg’s meaning to insinuate that soldiers were dummies and then you became offended at your own version of his story. You then discussed your own military training and the story of the 25 year old experienced Platoon Sergeant who is responsible for many lives to somehow imply that Greg didn’t understand the importance of soldiering leadership.

You then undermined policing leadership in the next sentence by indicating the relative value of the two experiences. If you want offence and ridiculous arguments look no further than your own arguments.

Most cops I know never had and never will have that kind of experience.

Really? I know lots of cops whose decisions have a HUGE impact on the lives of others?

Do you see the problem here Todd? The problem is your defence of a military approach in a civilian context when no defence was necessary. You were offended? Really? If a blog causes offence, I would hate to see you in a fire fight?

It was ridiculous? Really? What was in his blog that was ridiculous?

Unless the soldiers are wearing a blue helmets – be they 25 or 55 – private or general – Dutch or Greek or of any other nation, they have a different role than police. They have different missions and they (generally) have different training and different objectives.

It would appear that throughout history, that leaping to action with misconstrued facts or fractured feelings (as you have done) is the way to war. Soldiers are good at dealing with war.

The cops are trying to take a different approach. Good on them.

Perhaps your response is the perfect synecdoche for what Greg is talking about?

Gerry C.
Perth, Australia.

todd said...

Responce to Gerry C: Thank you for writing 15 paragraphs about my 1 paragraph. I objected to the juxtaposition of "soldier follow orders, police make decisions". At first I read it as soliders ONLY follow orders. Mr. Saville responded to my post, educated me on his view, and thereby gained my e-loyalty. Not one of the 20 cops in my office know what 'synecdoche' means, and it's not a word they'd use in a report or on an affidavit. Have a Solid Day.

todd said...

Response to Gary,
Thank you for responding to me and expanding your original point. Please consider the specific differences between Infantry and Special Forces and the rest of military in your further writings about Urban Warriors and City Cops. Additionally yYou might want to explore the contributions of Reserve or Guard MPs who are fulltime Sworn LEOs here in the US. They might have good insights for you about differences and similiarities between Soliders and Cops. Thank you for posting Urban Warriors and City Cops, it's good stuff. Have a Solid American Day.

Anonymous said...

no problem Todd. And because we don't know something, doesn't mean that we cannot learn it. This is the purpose of the current police (and military) reform happening right now.

Smart move reading Greg. He knows what he's talking about after 25 years in the business.

have a great international day.