The culture of police agency and the general public's perception of that culture is critical to that agency's ability to be effective in the community. We are in a period of unprecedented scrutiny of police methods and tactics, and that scrutiny can be used as motivation by forward-thinking police agencies to build a deeper trust and understanding of the community-police relationship. The scrutiny can also elicit a defensive posture by some police agencies that serves to deepen mistrust between the community and the police.
Communities are not homogeneous; public consultation across cultural and socio-economic lines is essential in order to ensure that any police agency understands the potential barriers that may block effective engagement on important community issues. Such is the case with recent issues related to the militarization of the police. Let's talk about three examples where the evolution of equipment appears to move the police toward a more militaristic style: uniforms; guns; and armoured vehicles.
There have been issues related to uniforms and public perception for years; an interesting example is the use of body armour. While body armour has been standard issue for the police for more than 30 years, it was initially worn internally, under the uniform shirt. This was considered best practice as it committed the officer to wear the armour for the entire working shift rather than sporadically and based on personal comfort. By the 1990's many agencies were transitioning to external body armour, which evolved toward external carriers with options to allow for carrying equipment close to the upper body. This type of load-bearing vest has very well-founded practical advantages for the user, but it also presents an aggressive look and feel to the public- the officer looks battle-ready. A change from the from the traditional baby/light blue to dark blue uniforms also increased the military perception. The dress of a police service member can present a barrier to communication and engagement with the perception of militarization, if not addressed proactively by the police officer.
The transition from revolvers to pistols for many Canadian police agencies occurred in the 1990s and was a very well-founded upgrade in equipment. While there was some discussion in the media about the cost and justification, it was a relatively straightforward transition. The adoption and deployment of conducted energy devices (such as taser guns) attracted substantially more negative attention due to a number of deaths associated with its use, having previously been thought of as a non-lethal alternative.
The deployment of patrol carbines and armoured vehicles over the last 10 years in police agencies across Canada and United States has presented a significant challenge in assuring the community that police are not evolving along a continuum toward military-style policing.
The police in Canada have for many years used shotguns and rifles to augment the officer’s sidearm under certain restricted circumstances. These long-barreled guns were familiar to many Canadians because of their origins as hunting weapons that were widely owned by family members or close relatives.
The ubiquitous shotgun became more difficult to deploy, as an increasingly urban Canadian population began to lose touch with its hunting past. Recruits were less likely to have hunted in their youth, and so the harsh recoil of the shotgun became problematic during firearms requalification. Coupled with the shotgun's low magazine capacity, and the tragic results from cases such as the murder of four RCMP officers in 2005 at Mayerthorpe in Alberta, the die was set for a widespread transition to patrol rifles.
Of course, the modern patrol carbine is either based on a military assault rifle or is the same assault rifle sold to the military.
The use of armoured vehicles by police agencies in Canada and the United States has been a long-standing practice with tactical units, generally in larger police agencies, since the 1980s and sometimes earlier. Often acquired as surplus military vehicles, or from armoured transport companies renewing their fleets, the vehicles were reserved for use when officers might be exposed to gunfire. An armoured vehicle, in its very nature, evokes an aggressive military style.
In these three examples, the evolution in policing under scrutiny is either a use of force option or a response to a use of force against the police. Yet police insiders know that the use of force by the police is such a minuscule portion of the day-to-day activities in which the police are engaged. But as we also know, the use of force by the police as agents of the state - when mishandled - has a fundamental and transformative effect on communities, and not for the greater good.
In each of these examples, I happen to be fully supportive of the particular evolution. In each case, there is a well-founded and well-researched reason behind the change and a risk that is being mitigated. But if any police agency is spending money on initiatives like these, while at the same time ignoring their responsibility to properly train their officers to, as an example, intervene and prevent intimate partner violence, I would say that the police agency is putting police officer safety at a higher priority than the safety of vulnerable members of the community; which is unacceptable.
When the police are making changes in equipment and tactics that look aggressive in nature, the community must be engaged in the discussion; they must hear and understand the rationale. They must know that the police are addressing community safety priorities appropriately. The results of the evolution can appear intimidating to a Syrian refugee, anyone who has experienced a totalitarian government or is a surviving child soldier. Therefore, an effort must be made to ensure that the community knows that the police are not defined by the weapons to which they sometimes must resort.
More importantly, the public should be engaged in each and every stage of the evolution of policing practice, so that they can witness and understand that the police are evolving in all areas, and not simply those areas that are about the use of force, or the safety of police officers.
For further reading, check out this blog post: What Can I Do with a Bachelor of Arts in Policing & How Can I Work Toward My Degree While in the Service?