Is Paramilitary Structure Bad?

Is Paramilitary Structure Bad?

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

One of the terms thrown out by police critics is “paramilitary”, implying that law enforcement is an occupying force and, therefore, a bad way to operate. By definition, the term means “organized similarly to a military force” according to the dictionary. That is not inherently evil.

As we examine whether or not most law enforcement agencies are paramilitary organizations, we can look at similarities and differences.

Ranks and organization. Most uniformed agencies parallel Army-type ranks and insignia from the rank of corporal and above. The stripes, the clusters, the bars, the stars, the hash marks, and the award ribbons are familiar sights on police uniforms. From a functional standpoint, these markings are helpful to civilians. Even if a citizen has no military background, the ranks are widely known so that a police supervisor is easily identified.

The use of hash marks or stars on the sleeve to show years of service is also a confidence builder for the public and a morale builder for the officer. Pride in service and achievements of awards are recognized throughout all industries. Office walls and shelves universally display awards, trophies, letters, and symbols of achievement. Look for them at your doctor’s office, your insurance agent’s office, the McDonald’s manager, or your next oil change service counter. Law enforcement is no different.

Can we claim that this paramilitary ranking system comes with any disadvantages? Even the critics would be hard-pressed to cite an objection to this aspect.

Uniforms. Other than a star dangling from a shirt, the idea of a standard police uniform wasn’t very popular prior to the civil war. The specter of uniformed Redcoats running the streets of the colonies eventually faded. After every able male had donned a uniform in the War Between the States, along with vigilantism in the wake of the conflict, the idea of a police uniform was no longer distasteful and was deemed quite appropriate.

In 1970, the City of Lakewood, Colorado was carved out as an independent suburb of the Denver metropolitan area. With innovation in mind, the first person to head the city’s law enforcement was Ronald Lynch. The 70s were a time of tumult, continuing from the 1960s civil rights and anti-war disruptions, assassinations, and a great mistrust in government, including law enforcement. In order to avoid the cloud of a paramilitary label, Lynch eschewed common terms and accouterments of traditional law enforcement. The agency was called a Department of Public Safety, its head was a Director, not a Chief. Its personnel were agents, not officers. Supervisors were not sergeants but agents in charge, reflecting FBI structure rather than military ranking. The uniforms consisted of a blazer and gray pants, not the typical uniform of a gun belt and badge.

It didn’t work. Not only did the blazer concept lack functionality for the line agents, the public expected the police to be easily recognized with the enhancing authority of a uniform. Today’s Lakewood Police are still known as agents, and still known for excellence and innovation, but sport traditional uniforms.

There are those who claim that uniformed officers arriving at a scene are inherently disruptive. There are many who find so-called “riot gear” too aggressive and provocative. This has led to the unconscionable deployment of officers in highly dangerous situations without essential protective gear. To expose an officer to serious injury for the sake of some sense of good public relations is as foolish as sending a firefighter into a blaze in their pajamas.

Firearms. Yes, cops carry guns. They carry them constantly and visibly. As much as the idealists want to make US police like UK police, where fewer than 10% of the force carry firearms in specialized units. Those comparisons lack many values for accurate assessment. The American culture of acceptance of weapons for hunting, sporting, and self-defense along with the embedded arms rights in the Constitution has created nearly universal acceptance of police officers carrying weapons.

This doesn’t equate to police being militaristic. The tactics of military operations are vastly different than the demands on police officers. Military movements are team movements that include a variety of force options, based on clear objectives, actionable intelligence, and commenced from a position of strength. Apart from a few major law enforcement operations, there is little comparison.

As discussed below, police officers do not carry the array of weaponry available to the standard infantry soldier. They may have a stun or smoke device, but no fragmentation grenades. They are unlikely to have a “machine gun” although they may have an AR15 or other semi-automatic rifle that fires only one round per trigger pull.

Police officers generally work alone or with a limited number of team members. They operate in areas that are not labeled “enemy territory”, but from which an enemy may suddenly appear. A most striking difference is the acceptability of collateral damage. American civilian police are expected to operate with no unintentional casualties and are frequently prosecuted for their use of deadly force even when justified.

Military gear. Misconceptions also abound when critics accuse law enforcement of “militarization” and possession of “military-grade” weaponry and “weapons of war”. Rescue vehicles, frequently the affordable military surplus armored vehicles are not used for mowing down aggressors. The transport officers into areas where firearms are actively being used or threatened. The rumble toward school shootings and other areas that may be under assault. They offer protection for people who need to be evacuated from a dangerous area. The vehicles can operate in swift water and high winds, getting rescuers in and victims out of areas that a standard patrol vehicle could not navigate. There are zero mounted machine guns on any armored civilian police vehicles.

Camo-themed tactical uniforms are essential for a number of agencies whose environments pose a risk of exposure. Helmets with ballistics protection and other protective gear are designed to keep an officer in service and protected from disabling or deadly injuries in a threat environment.

Let’s concede that police agencies operate, in many ways, as paramilitary organizations. Let’s also agree that is not inherently a bad thing.