Home Community policing Police Militarization: Reality, Hype, or Natural Evolution?

Police Militarization: Reality, Hype, or Natural Evolution?


By Dr. Allan Conkey, Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University

Tragic events such as the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. and the police-involved death of Eric Garner in New York City has spurred debate about whether or not police departments within the U.S. are becoming more militarized. The emphasis seems to be on the word “more,” implying that militarization is somehow a foregone conclusion and the question is how much more militarized they will become.

Militarized PoliceSuch police-involved incidents are not in themselves evidence that police are or are not becoming militarized. The term “militarization” is often confused with advances in equipment and techniques based on a changing world (versus true militarization). A police force benefitting from military equipment and training is not necessarily a bad thing.

Weighing the Evidence
Some coverage and commentary on the NYPD choking incident involving Eric Garner, seemed to imply that chokeholds are reserved for use in the armed forces and an officer applying one is somehow proof of growing militarization within law enforcement. Yet, at best, one might argue it is a shared tactic that is not new to law enforcement. Former NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly severely limited the use of chokeholds back in 1995 (some might say it was banned except for extreme circumstances such as when an officer’s safety is in jeopardy).

If such tactics are not in themselves proof of a growing police militarization epidemic then what about reports of police departments inheriting surplus equipment such as armored personnel carriers?

[Related Article: Does Your Agency Need SWAT? Considerations for Police Administrators]

Let us first answer a question with a question: Should U.S. law enforcement today still use single-shot weapons just as their earlier counterparts did? Of course not. This attempt at humor is an effort to highlight just how ridiculous such a notion would be.

Keeping Up in a Changing World
The reality is that times have changed and these changes include weaponry, tactics, body armor, and other equipment. Criminals today have benefitted from those changes, too.

To understand why police must enhance weaponry and tactics one only needs to consider recent incidents such as the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, or past events such as the 1997 North Hollywood Bank of America robbery where assailants were heavily armed with assault weapons and protected by bullet-proof armor. During the latter incident, two bank robbers were initially countered by first responders equipped with small arms.

What happens when a criminal armed with automatic assault weapons and full-body armor takes on first responders with 38s and other small arms? The answer can sadly be seen in the initial outcome of the 1997 bank event: 11 officers and seven innocent bystanders were shot and injured. Only after SWAT arrived with AR-15s and an armored vehicle (yes an armored vehicle…go figure) was that situation contained and the robbers killed.

Ultimately, this incident was a catalyst for a number of changes within the LAPD, such as better armor for officers and vehicles as well as greater accessibility to assault weapons. While some might argue to the contrary, such changes in themselves do not result in confirmation that police militarization has somehow occurred. Rather, such changes equate only to the very necessary natural evolution within law enforcement to counter the reality of the changing world and the criminal threat.

The Graying Line Between Police and Military
I am not saying that the line between civilian law enforcement and the military has not grayed to some degree in the past few decades. But such graying is based more on the reality of changing equipment, improved technology, and the post-9/11 world, which requires law enforcement and the military to build mutual working relationships and, where applicable, for civilian law enforcement to benefit from changes in technology and tactics from the military.

While no one should be advocating for civilian law enforcement to become the military (each has their specific and very important roles), the opposite also holds significant weight. That is, law enforcement has a sacred duty to be capable and prepared to protect the communities they serve.

For law enforcement not to benefit from military training and advanced technology would seem, at best, to be a mistake and, at worst, simply turning a blind eye to both history and the world we live in.

Allan Conkey headshot_newAbout the Author: Dr. Allan Conkey is a retired officer and a decorated veteran of both the first and second Gulf Wars. Dr. Conkey’s career includes being a criminal investigator, confinement officer, senior U.S. customs officer in Japan, and exchange officer with the Japanese National Police Forensics Laboratory in Northern Japan. As Commander of the Air Force’s Elite Guard, for two years he commanded plain-clothed security details in support of dozens of world leaders and heads of state to include President Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Kharzai. He is a three time Military Chief of Police and member of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. In all, Dr. Conkey has more than 25 years of active service in the law enforcement and security realm. Today, a published author and faculty member for American Public University System, Dr. Conkey teaches within the Criminal Justice Department, and holds the academic rank of Full Professor.



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  1. I just completed my doctoral comprehensive exams and one of my response questions was directly linked to the topic of the recent police incidents and police militarization. Even defining police militarization is not a simple task.

  2. I was a little disappointed in the use of the term “choke hold” in this article. First, because there is no such thing in law enforcement, the actual name of the technique is Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint or LVNR for short. The military uses the term “choke” for the rear naked “choke ” or the front “cross-collar” choke, but in reality they are also vascular restriction holds that do not “choke” the airway (which is how most people interpret the term) but constricts the flow of blood to the brain by controlling or restricting the carotid arteries. It fails when resistive suspect tries to fight his way out of the hold which sometimes causes the officers arm to rotate across the suspects trachea and may result in the restriction of air. Unfortunately, depending upon the amount of fight in your opponent, there may not be any option but to continue until you gain compliance.

    As with most politically driven, knee jerk reactions to a tragedy, police administrators seem to default to the least effective method of mitigation, which usually includes removing tools from the kit and limiting options. This kind of short sighted, politically expedient philosophy can arguably lead to more tragedies, not fewer.

    I won’t address the “militarization” issue but to say this; It’s not the size or amount of tools you have, but how you use them. Well written policies and SOPs usually resolve any issues before they occur and put in place sanctions for the occasional misuse of the tools, techniques, tactics and practices.

  3. I’m sorry, but as a Michigan Democrat politician said, “Police have become jackbooted thugs”. Sadly, police have never been so poorly seen. Terrible PR and behaviour of many of todays new recruits.

    Think “Puppycide”, the problem of officers wetting their uniform and shooting dogs, often for no valid reason. Pets in their owner’s back yards, not attacking, only barking at tresspassers are shot. Small dogs, old Golden Retrievers and other non-threat breeds…too often the police are at the wrong house or tresspassing. No excuse except for “us vs. them” attitudes.

    Police forces have been militarized horribly, SWAT units are way too common…and the hammer that is the SWAT response is used more and more for very minor things, and innocent people die. You have a SWAT, might as well keep using it.

    People see “Ninja’s” with a mask and a badge breaking into wrong houses, killing old ladies and men defending their homes from “no knock” raids..and no officer goes to jail. There is no excuse for a no knock raid, used to be the excuse of, “He’ll flush the drugs” was used as a justification. Nonsense. A no knock raid was just done where an officer was killed during an attack. The criminal supposedly had 6′ pot plants in his trailer…explain how he could flush 6′ plants down a toilet? No excuse and the citizen was not convicted (the DA is going psycho over this and is trying to escalate a minor charge into a felony).

    Police should not be an occupying force, they shouldn’t be wearing masks and attacking home with full auto weapons and throwing flash-bang grenades into a baby’s crib. Several very rare examples of well-armed criminals is not a justification to treat everyone like a terrorist. Amazingly bad attitudes and behaviours are losing officers support. Good people always are there to back up the police when they need help…past tense, the police are not seen as a the good guys in middle-class/white neighborhoods any more. When the Mayor of Berwyn Heights MD had his two elderly dogs shot by “SWAT” just who will want to support these occupiers?

    1. @Greg,
      You need to provide some source material for the police “ninjas” breaking into homes and killing old ladies and men. Have mistakes happened? Yes. But you through your statements are asserting they happen all the time. Just because something happened one time does not mean the police are militarized. No knock warrants have to be justified and signed off by a judge. The police do not get to decide, “Well we just aren’t going to knock.” Once again, please provide source material for your assertion.

      You won’t because it would take you too much work. But hey, that’s what this country is all about. Anyone gets to believe anything because that is their right. So you keep on exercising your rights. I am sure you know them really, really well. Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!


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