Much has been said recently regarding the topic of American police forces arming themselves with non-traditional weaponry, using armored tactical vehicles, and training in field-force tactics as well as active-shooter training.
A lot of the rhetoric has come from politicians and some (not all) media types pandering for votes and/or ratings. Essentially, there’s been a lot of checking which way the political wind blows before climbing onto the old soap box.
Informed policy makers and law enforcement professionals however, have the inconvenient burden of dealing in the realities of society up-close…on the front lines of our nation. Be it a rural community of a few hundred, the sprawling suburbs of several hundred thousand, or densely populated urban centers, there are actual men and women who have to act, rather than bloviate.
The tragic incidents which unfolded on December 2nd in San Bernardino, California are a stark reminder of “how we got here” with regards towards a tactical shift in modern policing in America. The incident is but a few hours old at the time of this essay, so I will refrain from getting into specifics of the mass shooting in San Bernardino as much is still unknown. I will choose to focus on the origin of what some refer to as the “militarization” of American police agencies.
As is often the case, after a major incident, changes are made to things like policy and procedure, training, equipment, and tactics. This is good. We learn from our experiences and evolve. But equally as often, people forget the reason for the changes over time and eventually question why things are the way they are. Case in point is 9/11. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in our country in 2001, patriotism was at an all-time high and the country was united to “do whatever it took” to defeat the terrorists. Fourteen years later, attitudes have shifted. Now many of these measures implemented to protect us, based on what we learned in the experiences of those tragic incidents in New York, DC, and Pennsylvania, have become inconvenient and pushback has ensued. The same has happened with arming our police.
Two incidents in the late 1990s redefined how the modern American police officer was trained, equipped and expected to perform his/her job out on the streets.
The first was the North Hollywood Shootout in Los Angeles California in 1997 and the second was the active shooter incident at Columbine High School in Columbine Colorado.
In the North Hollywood Shootout, two bank robbers got into a shootout with LAPD. The robbers were armed with AR-15 and AK-47 style rifles which were modified to fire fully automatic. They also were donned in body armor. At that point in history, the typical LAPD (and most American) police officers assigned to street patrol was armed with a pistol and some had shotguns. Needless to say, the responding officers were totally outgunned. SWAT officers were able to match the firepower, but like most departments, SWAT is not readily available. SWAT teams need to be called out, so the lion’s share of response to armed suspects and active shooter incidents are patrol officers- those who respond to shoplifters, domestic disputes, answer 9-1-1 calls, investigate traffic crashes, etc.
The LAPD officers who were on the scene of the North Hollywood incident had to commandeer high-powered weapons from a local gun shop to match the suspects in that case. Shortly after this incident, police agencies began to issue long guns (urban patrol rifles) to street officers to be able to match the threats facing them and in turn, keep the public safe.
Before Columbine in 1999, active shooter training was virtually non-existent to the average patrol officer. Standard protocol and widely accepted industry standard for what is now commonly referred to an active shooter incident was to contain the subject and call for a SWAT team to respond. Most incidents were barricaded/hostage incidents where there was not shooting occurring. The threat of shooting someone was the leverage used by the hostage-taker or barricaded gunman.
Post-Columbine, police departments began to train on active shooter scenarios. From schools to shopping malls to office buildings, even single family homes can be the setting for an active shooter incident. The new thinking is to quickly move towards the shooter and neutralize the threat. There is no time to wait for SWAT in these instances. The public needs the police to act. Patrol officers are now armed with ballistic shields, a necessary tool for the new expectation of the modern police officer.
Fast forward 16+ years later and many wonder out loud why the police have become militarized and some politicians are calling for the removal of these tools of the trade, forgetting, or ignoring the historical perspective as to why we have them.
I will readily admit that police agencies need to govern themselves with these weapons and tactics. We can be our own worst enemies with misuse of this kind of equipment, such as using them for minor incidents. However, the threat to the American public is real and the police need this equipment to provide the best protection to our friends, neighbors and fellow officers.
The shame is that like many things in life, it takes a tragedy to remind us all of “why things are the way they are.”
Here at the Cape Coral Police Department, we train diligently for active shooter incidents. We responsibly use tactical vehicles and nontraditional weapons and equipment to keep our community one of the safest in Florida. We take this responsibility as well as the public trust we've earned, very seriously.
-Captain Anthony Sizemore
About the author:
Captain Anthony Sizemore has nearly 20 years law enforcement experience in numerous disciplines. He has been assigned to the Patrol Bureau as a Watch Commander, Public Affairs Office and the Investigative Services Bureau throughout his career with the Cape Coral Police Department. He is currently the North and Central District Patrol Bureau Commander. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Business Management from Hodges University. Captain Sizemore is a graduate of the International Association of Chief's of Police (IACP), Leadership in Police Organizations program. He is a member of the Southwest Florida Police Chief's Association, the Florida Internal Affairs Investigators Association and the IACP.