Police militarization and the need for officer safety

Police employ their Kevlar helmets, tactical vests, ballistic shields and armored vehicles when there is an identified heightened threat, not on regular patrol

Governor Mike Huckabee recently complained about the “militarization of law enforcement” on his Fox News program

Knowing the governor commuted the 75-year sentence of Maurice Clemmons made it difficult to watch as the governor questioned the need for police officers to wear “armor” and carry “assault weapons.” 

The governor’s leniency allowed Clemmons the freedom to murder four police officers in Lakewood, Washington.

Police employ their Kevlar helmets, tactical vests, ballistic shields and armored vehicles when there is an identified heightened threat, not on regular patrol.
Police employ their Kevlar helmets, tactical vests, ballistic shields and armored vehicles when there is an identified heightened threat, not on regular patrol. (AP Image)

Pre-Kevlar History
Whenever members of the media use the term “militarization,” they are usually talking about armed tactical officers in Kevlar helmets and tactical armor performing “no-knock” warrants.

Most do not remember the days before such equipment and tactics, when the only thing to stop a bullet fired from a criminal was a Class A uniform shirt over the courageous heart of a police officer.  

They probably long for the days when a chief or sheriff would disarm themselves during a standoff to conduct face-to-face negotiations with suspects. There were even cases where they traded themselves for hostages. 

This approach led to the tragic death of Mequon, Wisconsin Chief Thomas Elroy Buntrock in 1979.

Not Militarized
People who speak of “militarized” police ignore that on a daily basis police officers patrol in standard uniforms, wearing a standard issue semi-automatic handgun on their hip. Some choose to wear concealed body armor 24-7 (all should wear body armor of some kind). Officers arrive at the scene of the vast majority of calls for service driving marked patrol cars, not armored vehicles.

Sometimes patrolling in this manner leads officers to roll up to very dangerous situations ill-equipped and outgunned. An example of this was the North Hollywood shoot-out, where Los Angeles officers bravely stood their ground with 9mm handguns and shotguns against two heavily armed and armored bank robbers.

What Governor Huckabee failed to point out to his viewers was that police only don their Kevlar helmets and tactical vests, let alone deploy ballistic shields and armored vehicles, when there is an identified heightened threat.

Better Salesmanship
When Kevlar was first released, there was push from within law enforcement to not discuss the use of vests with the public and the media. If criminals were constantly reminded of the fact that officers were wearing body armor, they would adjust their fire to thwart the armor, according to this thinking.

The cat is out of the bag — cops use Kevlar for protection — so we have to do a better job of selling the idea that Kevlar helmets, vests, and vehicles are safety equipment for especially dangerous situations.

Law enforcement should utilize the approach of fire departments. For years they have educated the public on the function, cost, and design of their equipment. 

The public should be told that special equipment serves the same function as a hard hat at a construction site. Emphasis should be placed on the fact that it would be foolish to have available safety equipment such as this and not use it when facing known threats such as:

•    A barricaded gunman
•    Known dangerous felons
•    Hostage situations
•    Armed drug dealers
•    Armed gang members
•    Known armed terrorists

A Difficult Path
One might notice that in the photo I have chosen for my “Blue Knights” column here on Police1, I am wearing a Kevlar helmet, armed with a Heckler and Koch MP-5. I chose this photo because to me, it represents the dual role of the modern blue knight. 

An officer must be just as capable with a reassuring smile as he/she is with his/her weapons. The fact is that any time an officer is displaying one when he/she should be displaying the other, that officer is going to suffer consequences.

Officers walk a difficult path. Some citizens are deserving of a handshake, others have earned handcuffs, and still others need to be covered with a handgun. Most of the time officers have no idea which one of these citizens they are facing on a call for service. 

What Is Militarization?
There are times, however, when officers know well that the person they have to arrest in a given location is armed and extremely dangerous. If you are assigned to make the arrest of this very dangerous individual and these three options are available, which would you choose? 

1.) Park your marked squad in front and approach with your partner wearing the uniform of the day. Knock and announce yourself off to the side of the front door, while your partner covers the back.

2.) Put on your Kevlar helmet and tactical vest. Arm yourself with your M-4 and grab a ballistic shield and the chemical munitions with which you’ve trained. Approach in an armored vehicle, and have on hand a trained team of negotiators as well as tactical operators carrying a no-knock warrant.

3.) A targeted drone strike.

Option number one might seem the most appealing for the ordinary (and uninformed) citizen, but is tactically unsafe for the situation. This tactic would have been used by agencies in the 1960s and ‘70s, when officers were being killed in the line of duty at a truly alarming rate. Today, we know better.

Option number two has been made available to our modern blue knights in recent years to keep them safer in an unsafe profession. Using sound tactics, wearing appropriate protective equipment, and carrying firearms that can be shoulder-fired as well as a legally obtained no-knock search warrant is not militarization.

Option number three is militarization.

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