As Milwaukee riots have followed a police shooting of a black man, many observers are again asking: Have U.S. police forces become too militarized?
But our research, and that of other scholars of international conflict, offers a different theory: They may not be militarized enough. The standards governing police use of force are weaker than the standards governing soldiers — and that could be a source of trouble.
U.S. police and U.S. military personnel have more in common than you might think
Police and military share important characteristics that make their comparison apt. Soldiers and police officers are the only U.S. citizens authorized to use deadly force to protect themselves and others on behalf of the state. Both regularly face stressful, dangerous situations. The soldier and the police officer share a responsibility to exercise that authority to use deadly force with discipline, guided always by respect for human life, even when their own lives are in danger.
Some Americans have objected to the “militarization” of the U.S. police force. Yet while police departments have armed officers with the trappings of a military force, they have neglected to impose military discipline.
Police training on the use of force is far less rigorous than military training
The military understands that if it wants to effectively govern its soldiers’ behavior, it must do two things. First, it must train them to manage their instincts so they can respond calmly in stressful, dangerous situations. Second, it must hold them legally accountable when they don’t. U.S. policing fails to do either.
Police training — though its content and length varies enormously across police departments — by and large does not prepare policemen to manage high-stress situations the way the military prepares its soldiers. Police training tends to be short and classroom-based, and rarely emphasizes deescalation.
Campaign Zero reports, for instance, that police spend 58 hours learning how to shoot firearms — but only eight hours learning how to use deescalation techniques. When police are trained in deescalation, they are usually trained in a classroom rather than a simulation environment. This does little to help officers become aware of their instincts when confronted with danger, much less manage them in the field when the stakes are high.
In contrast, soldiers continuously and over the course of their careers repeatedly train to employ techniques to deescalate stressful, unpredictable, and dangerous scenarios. They also know what steps they must take before resorting to lethal force. Most rules of engagement (ROEs) — the military’s term for rules that govern the circumstances when soldiers are justified using force — contain explicit instructions requiring soldiers to use verbal warnings, show their weapons, and exhaust all non-lethal physical options before resorting to deadly force.
ROEs are drilled into soldiers through classroom-based discussion sessions and high-intensity simulation trainings that test soldiers individually and as part of a team. In these trainings:
…soldiers…encounter realistic scenarios, such as operating a checkpoint or guarding a camp gate. Role-players (playing enemy, civilians, or persons of uncertain status) drive the scenarios… [which] require the soldier to apply the ROE to an evolving situation. (United States Army Center for Law and Military Operations, “Rules of Engagement (ROE) Handbook for Judge Advocates.” Charlottesville, VA (May 2000), p. 2-9).
To further emphasize the importance of these deescalation procedures, the military employs a “train-the-trainer” technique, in which experts on deescalation train commanders in the appropriate use of force. Commanders in turn train their subordinates, signaling the importance of ROEs down the chain of command.
Legal accountability is crucial too
Deescalation training can only reduce unnecessary loss of life if it is paired with laws that hold individuals accountable when they break the rules.
Even if a police code of conduct contains explicit deescalation instructions, which is uncommon, police are not legally bound to uphold these codes. At worst violators face termination of employment — rarely legal sanction or incarceration.
Police, in the few instances when their behavior draws legal scrutiny, are subject to the same legal standard as the rest of civilian society. But it seems strange to hold police — governmentally sanctioned users of violence — to the same “self-defense” standard as regular people. Self-defense is a safeguard meant to protect civilians who resort to killing when they perceive a threat of bodily harm to themselves or others. The burden is on the prosecution to prove that the police officer’s perception of fear was “objectively unreasonable.”
Unlike civilians, however, police officers have a job that necessarily puts them in tense and often violent situations that they should be trained to de-escalate. The legal system to which they answer does not reflect this. The legal standard should be higher for police than for civilians.
The legal standard is higher, for U.S. soldiers. ROEs (unlike police codes of conduct) are not guidelines or suggestions, they are the law. In order to legally use lethal force, soldiers must first establish (and if called upon defend their perception of) hostile action or, minimally, hostile intent on the part of the target. When soldiers cannot establish either and do not follow clearly delineated de-escalation steps, they can be (and have been) prosecuted and convicted in military courts.
Hostile intent may resemble the police’s lax burden of proof — except that the military is also held to a variety of other laws covering the use of force that explicitly differentiate them from civilians. Soldiers make split-second decisions under extreme stress, and the law must and does take that into account. But the bottom line is that the military holds its soldiers to a higher legal standard than civilians, recognizing that fear alone, reasonable or not, is no justification for killing.
We spoke with a reserve Marine who is a lawyer, and who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, who said:
In the heat of the moment, mistakes happen. But I think the reason they happen less in the military is that the military holds people accountable. When servicemen and -women mess up, we say ‘No, that’s not okay and we will not tolerate it.’ We [Americans] can support the police and still demand a higher standard.
Police officers are not soldiers. Nevertheless, debates about police reform could benefit from the decades of principled thinking within the military about rules of engagement and concrete steps taken to ensure those rules are respected.
Rachel Tecott is a PhD student in political science at MIT. Find her on Twitter @racheltecott.
Sara Plana is a PhD student in political science at MIT. Find her on Twitter @saracplana.