Police Militarization Gave Us Uvalde

The adoption of aggressive, military-style tactics and weaponry has put American policing on the wrong track for decades.

Silhouettes of police officers in an Army-fatigues color scheme
The Atlantic

All my adult life I’ve been around policing, including working as a civilian cop, training and leading military police battalions, and studying police culture as an academic and a researcher. I’ve spent hundreds of hours riding along with cops, interviewing police leaders, and helping educate trainees. I love the police, and I love policing. Few professions will expose you to the gamut of human experience and emotion with quite the same immediacy.

It’s because I love the profession that the police response at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has me so sick at heart.

There’s a lot we still don’t know, and hopefully the promised Department of Justice investigation (run by leaders from the Community Oriented Policing program, a hopeful sign) will fill in the gaps. What we do know suggests that this is among the most profound police betrayals of the public trust. For those who care about the policing profession, it should be an occasion for deep self-reflection. The adoption of aggressive, military-style tactics and weaponry put American policing on the wrong track for decades. Uvalde is the sickening dead end.

For two decades, a group of police analysts (myself included) have been warning about the corrosive effects of police militarization, which have been unfolding for more than 40 years. Through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, the federal government has been dumping military weaponry, armored personnel carriers, even grenade launchers and drones, on police departments large and small. People of a certain age should reflect: You probably don’t recall police regularly hanging out with armored personnel carriers and automatic weapons when you were a kid. But sometime after this nation embarked on the War on Drugs, these scenes became normal.

SWAT teams have proliferated in towns and cities across the country; almost every town with more than 25,000 people now has a SWAT team, as did the 15,000-person town of Uvalde. Those teams, far from responding solely to crises such as, well, school shootings, mostly serve drug warrants, employing flash grenades and no-knock entries—the methods of a wartime-Baghdad block search—to roust suspected drug dealers out of bed (or, as in the case of Breonna Taylor and many others, kill innocent people).

I focus on SWAT not because it is a substantial component of American policing, though it is large and growing, but because it plays an outsize role in the culture of policing, in its emotional makeup. A consistent theme in my research with local police has been the way SWAT sets the tone for more conventional officers. SWAT members are considered the elites of the profession; joining a SWAT team is many younger officers’ not-so-secret aspiration (some older hands’ aspiration, too). Esteem begets emulation, and the attitudes and tactics of SWAT often set the tone in the lower ranks.

And so, with the sanction of the courts, departments have reworked their tactics to define American communities as battle spaces, and citizens in them as potential enemies. We have for years told American police officers to regard every civilian encounter as potentially deadly, and that they must always be prepared to win that death match. This is not an exaggeration; there is extensive academic literature on the “danger imperative” as a cornerstone of police training. An entire industry of grifting ex-cops have made themselves rich training police departments in fear and loathing of civilians, quite literally telling officers that they must always have a plan to kill everyone they encounter.

This has always had a touch of morbid self-indulgence about it. Policing can indeed be dangerous; Uvalde is proof. But it is not pervasively or uniformly so. Less than one-quarter of officers ever discharge their weapons a single time in their careers. Ambush killings of police have fallen by 90 percent over the past several decades. Labor statistics suggest that fatality rates for police (for all causes, not just in the line of duty) are far less than those in logging, commercial fishing, and trash collecting. This is not to say that police don’t face real dangers—they do, but the large majority of policing is routine, and the large majority of encounters with civilians are completely innocuous.

The self-indulgence itself isn’t problematic, but this “danger imperative” can have tragic consequences. I served as both a civilian police officer and a soldier in combat. It was always obvious to me that military tactics, training, and weaponry had little place in civilian policing. The goal of the military is to overwhelm enemies, regardless of whether any particular individual on the other side “deserves” to be overwhelmed. It seems clear that police should not approach fellow citizens, rights-bearers, with the same attitude. Yet a profession’s tools and tactics will not-so-subtly define its attitude and culture. When you repeatedly drill officers that everyone is out to kill them, some will shoot first and ask questions later—and not just the weaker or undertrained officers at the margin, either.

I think back especially to the death of Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2019. An officer on a routine wellness call approached a house with his gun drawn and fired into a window at the first sign of movement, barely pausing. Ordinary citizens were dumbfounded: Why was this officer so aggressive, without the slightest evidence that he was in danger? But this incident made instant sense to me. That officer didn’t need evidence that he was in danger to draw his weapon. Like so many others, he had been trained to believe that he was always in danger.

The cost of aggressive policing tactics and training can be measured in bodies: Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, I believe, died in part because of a policing culture that sanctions unnecessarily aggressive tactics in everyday policing situations. But there are other consequences. Thoughtful police leaders will tell you that frayed police-community relations—especially with communities of color—have become an impediment to good policing, and the problem is growing. Effective policing always depends on buy-in from the community. Every unnecessarily aggressive policing encounter, every viral video of people begging for their life, causes individuals to withdraw their willingness to aid police. A critical mass of everyday citizens at odds with their police is a disaster for effectiveness and democratic legitimacy.

What does this have to do with Uvalde—an event in which more, not less, aggression was called for? It would be insufficient to chalk up the tragedy at Robb Elementary to bad individual decision making. I think it reveals a hollowness that has always lurked deep within police militarization.

Having served in both, I can tell you that police aren’t the military. The intensity of the training, the resources put into developing unit cohesion, the careful cultivation of competent junior officers, the physical demands, the singular focus on obedience—military training is not simply “tougher” (in some ways) than police training; it is different in kind. This reflects the differing purpose and goals of the two institutions. That’s good; we shouldn’t want police to treat Americans like the military treats America’s enemies, and we shouldn’t train them to do so.

But in our ill-conceived attempt to refashion police into a cadet branch of the military, we have somehow managed to get the worst of both worlds. We have trained a generation of officers that being casually brutal in everyday encounters is acceptable, but these same officers show a disturbing tendency to fall back on jargon about “battlespace management” and “encounter tempo” to explain a slow reaction in the rare circumstance that really does require a rapid, all-out response. Especially in poor communities, the result has been the strange dynamic of “over-policing and under-protection” described by the criminologist David Kennedy, in which police are hypervigilant about petty offenses but unresponsive to more serious criminal activity.

Police militarization, it turns out, is largely swagger, and short on substance. What strikes me as I study the Facebook photo of the Uvalde SWAT team, standing in their tactical gear, is the theatricality of the whole thing. Any thoughtful observer of policing over the past 20 years has come to recognize the increasing childishness of the rhetoric about police militarization generally, and SWAT specifically. The journalist Radley Balko and others have documented police units’ use of military insignia and tough-guy mottos totally unsuited to civilian agencies (examples: “Hunter of men,” “We get up early, to BEAT the crowds,” “Baby Daddy Removal Team,” and “Narcotics: You huff and you puff and we’ll blow your door down”). Police education and training standards are abysmally low. In Texas, more training hours are required to be a hairdresser than a cop. National standards for SWAT training and tactics are essentially nonexistent.

So much of this turns out to be LARPing: half-trained, half-formed kids playing soldier in America’s streets and schools. Many of the thousands of SWAT-team members in this country don’t have the training and expertise to respond like they’re SEAL Team 6. It’s time to stop pretending that they do.

After this tragedy, some people will call for pumping more weapons, more training, and more money into the rotting edifice of police militarism. Resist that temptation. The New York Times has reported at length on the school-security drills that local Uvalde police conducted just months ago. The Uvalde SWAT team’s Facebook page shows that it was drilling in schools to learn their layout as recently as 2020. The materials reviewed by the Times suggest that local police were working with up-to-date training and tactics manuals. Everything necessary was in place for police militarism to fulfill its promise last month. Its failure stems not from a lack of training, but from a fundamental misapprehension of the purpose and goals of policing. The solution is not more militaristic training, but attention to police professionalism.

Above all, Uvalde is a clear sign that the benefits of police militarization have been profoundly oversold. Any police leader who does not recognize Uvalde as a foundational challenge to police legitimacy is a fool. The rationale for creating thousands of SWAT teams across the United States was that the good guys with guns would stop the bad guys with guns. For that promise, we have accepted a more and more militarized and aggressive police culture, with serious damage to basic constitutional liberties. What we got in return is 19 cops standing outside a classroom while children were slaughtered. We cannot continue to accept this culture.