As we argue about the murder of George Floyd, I’ve heard calls for police reform, ranging from retraining to abolishing the police. (I’m definitely not in favor of the later.) I think most people can agree that our police on whole are too militarized. It would be helpful to understand why, and to understand that one needs to go back to 1876. This will be a long read – please refresh your beverages now.
In 1876, the former Confederates were in the process of retaking the South in the form of the insurgency called “Reconstruction.” Three states sent two sets of Electoral votes to Congress – a set for each of the Republican and Democratic candidates. To avoid the election going to Congress, a deal was struck – the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, got to be President, and the South got the Federal government, in the form of the US Army, to stop enforcing laws in the South.
The actual law that prevented the US military from enforcing laws in the South was called the Posse Comitatus Act
, and it meant that the US military could not enforce civilian laws except under certain limited circumstances. This law is unique to the US and was not designed by the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington used the Army to enforce tax law during his term in office.
Fast forward to the 1960s. Various events, including the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting
, where a man barricaded himself in a tower and killed 14 with a sniper rifle, convinced local law enforcement that they were in need of more firepower. Since, unlike anywhere else in the world, they couldn’t just call the Army in, the US solution was SWAT.
“SWAT” is “Special Weapons and Tactics” and it’s a militarized unit in the police. Originally, SWAT was just supposed to respond to the types of problems faced in the Texas tower shooting. The problem is several-fold.
- SWAT units are expensive, even part-time units. They need special training and special gear. There is a lot of pressure on police chiefs to “get our money out of SWAT” by sending them to do things that are at best SWAT-adjacent. That means you see SWAT rolling out to do drug raids and other stuff that you really don’t need SWAT to do.
- SWAT units are seen as the elite group in the police. Ambitious officers want to be on SWAT, and so they try to be like SWAT.
- SWAT units are elite, and one of the things you do with elite units is you have them train less-elite units. So SWAT training percolates down into the regular force. Since SWAT is designed to deal with desperate characters who are willing to shoot it out with the cops, this training tends to be focused on how to aggressively deal with threats as opposed to de-escalate.
There’s a related problem, which is that because the US military is not involved in local law enforcement, as a practical matter should some kind of terrorist attack actually materialize in the US, the Army would take days to respond. It’s common to make fun of the Podunk Iowa PD having an ex-Army armored vehicle, but there are no US Army units in Iowa who could provide armor in the event it was needed.
The solution, or at least a solution, is two-fold, and not cheap.
- Get rid of most if not all local SWAT units. (Maybe Chicago or New York actually needs a local SWAT. Podunk Iowa? Not so much.)
- Create, staff, train, and deploy full-time military units that are available on request to local PD for when they actually need SWAT. (Hostage situations, active shooters, etc.) Given our love of federalism, these units would probably be full-time National Guard units. But they would need to be full-time and distributed such that if the Podunk Iowa PD gets in a bind, a unit could be there before next Tuesday.
Given the current political climate, I expect this idea has less-than-zero chance of happening.
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