Is Tactical Gear for Police Counterproductive?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

You probably saw Yoni’s note from Sunday featuring the iconic image of a female African American protester approached by two cops in heavy armor. Yoni gave the go-ahead to include the following reader dissent for this Notes series on excessive force. Here’s Loretta:

What law abiding people see in that photo is a protestor who had been warned repeatedly not to go onto the streets and block traffic on a highway. This is what is wrong with our society today: when people feel they are above the law and do not have to listen to our men and women in blue. These police are the ones who are putting their own lives on the line to protect these people and their right to protest. But they still have to maintain civility and control in an environment where within a blink of an eye it could be lost.

And, your statement about their uniforms: After Dallas, what do you want them to wear? If it was your father, brother, sister or friend would you not want them to be protected? There are black, white, brown, and yellow policemen out there. One is my son-in-law.

But another reader, Simon, sees the extra police gear as doing more harm than good—even to the cops themselves, in the long run:

The gear in Baton Rouge on Sunday (Reuters)

I have to take issue with some people thinking that tactical units in Baton Rouge are prudent “after Dallas.” What is the problem and what are they solving?

While an average cop’s body armor is good only against pistols, and a tactical unit might be protected against rifles, that doesn’t entirely protect the police. A sniper can always use a bigger gun [or a bomb]. (It is legal, for instance, to own 50 cal sniper rifles, which can penetrate an engine block and will defeat pretty much any body armor.) More likely, a sniper or terrorist will attack a softer target. So a tactical unit is useful in a specific situation, but it’s counterproductive in lots of other situations.

This gets us to the bigger picture.

In Louisiana, the police were militarized, and we see angry protests, arrests, and a breakdown in the already bad community relations. In Dallas, the police were not militarized, and there was no riot or problems caused by the protestors. People were helping track down the sniper with the cops. People who were mistakenly identified as snipers turned themselves in: That takes trust in the police, and it saved the cops from running after false leads. Now, after the loss of life, caused by a lone sniper, the community is rallying in support of the cops, including the black community.

We learned in Vietnam, and then in Afghanistan and Iraq, that you cannot control an insurgency without community buy in. If things are so bad that you have a serious concern about snipers, then you are doing policing wrong.

That reader’s portrayal of the Dallas police department makes me think of a NYT op-ed on Friday written by Dallas-area detective Nick Selby (who contributed to our reader discussion last fall centered on the question, “How Much of a Factor Is Race When Cops Kill?, and he’s the author of a new book, In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians). Here’s Selby:

Some might ask why there are no tanks or National Guard troops in the streets of Dallas. One reason is the relationship that Chief David O. Brown has built with the community. Since taking over the department in 2010, Chief Brown has worked to get officers to reduce the tension when they confront suspects or other civilians. Even as budget cuts have trimmed the ranks and increased stress on the police, complaints about officers’ use of force have gone down, along with assaults on officers and the crime rate.

The department has also been more open. Even as his officers fought terror in the streets — the worst loss of life for law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001 — Chief Brown maintained his commitment to transparency, briefing reporters while the bullets were still flying. Last year, when a rifle-wielding gunman in an armored vehicle attacked the Dallas Police Headquarters, officers live-tweeted the attack.

But a reckless tweet posted by Dallas police this time around, during last week’s fog of war, led to an innocent armed man getting countless death threats:

For more on Chief Brown, check out the piece Chris Haugh wrote for us over the weekend, “How the Dallas Police Department Reformed Itself.” For instance:

[The department] developed a new foot pursuit policy that emphasized de-escalation. One proposal would make police officers in Dallas subject to lethal force training every two months instead of every two years. Brown released an enormous amount of police data, too, publishing statistics including 12 years worth of data on police shootings on an official online repository. The number of body cameras used by officers increased. Poor performing police officers were fired. And after Brown declared that traffic citations were not intended to “raise revenue,” his officers issued half as many tickets at last count as they did in 2006.

Read about the results here. This one is most salient to our discussion thread:

“So far this year, in 2016, we have had four excessive force complaints. We’ve averaged between 150 and 200 my whole 33-year career. So this is transformative,” Brown told a crowd of his fellow officers and policymakers at the White House in April. His department is a member of President Obama’s Police Data Initiative. “And we’ve averaged between 18 and 25 police involved shootings my whole career. We’ve had two so far this year.”