Demilitarization of the Police Requires Demilitarization of Civilians

by Benjamin Studebaker

The recent clashes between demonstrators and police forces in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police forces has many calling into question the slow, steady rate at which police forces in the United States have become militarized. If we want to stop and potentially reverse this trend, we need to understand its underlying cause–the simultaneous militarization of the civilian population.

For a police for to be effective, it needs a large advantage in military power over the population it is policing. When citizens contemplate committing crimes, they need to know that they are not going to be able to defeat the police in combat, and when police officers contemplate engaging with dangerous criminals, they need to believe that they are very likely to succeed and to survive.

In countries where the police do not have this military advantage, police officers themselves become afraid of criminals and refuse to engage with them. The Central American refugee crisis is a poignant example of this. In some Central American countries, gangs and paramilitary forces have weapons and training that make them capable of successfully defeat police forces in combat and regularly killing police officers. As a result, the police pull out of gang-dominated areas. The civilian populations living in these areas become subject to expropriation by the gangs. Organized crime is more successful than individual crime because organizations can pool individuals, finances, and weaponry, giving the criminals who comprise them a greater chance of successfully winning fights with police forces. This intimidates police officers into inaction or accepting bribes. True, sustainable victory for these organizations only comes once the police force has been corrupted and subdued.

In the United States, militarization of the police began with the formation of SWAT teams (Special Weapons and Tactics). These teams were created during the 1960’s to oppose paramilitary organizations like the Black Panthers or the Symbionese Liberation Army. By equipping SWAT teams with military-grade weapons and training, police forces were able to raise the confidence of officers when engaging with heavily armed threats.

This escalated after the September 11th attacks. Police forces feared a nightmare scenario in which heavily armed, organized terrorists staged assaults on major cities. And with the increased incidence of mass shootings in the United States, police forces have become increasingly fearful of extraordinarily heavily armed individual killers.

Unsurprisingly, once the police have special weapons and tactics, they are like the proverbial man with a hammer–everything starts to look like a nail. And so we have seen a tremendous rise in the incidence of police forces using military tactics in seemingly trivial situations, such as no-knock searches of suspects homes for drugs and other contraband, or containing peaceful demonstrators. Yet police defend these operations on the grounds that they cannot know if the suspects or demonstrators are heavily armed. They claim they are taking precautions for the safety of officers and for the surrounding community. As long as there is a substantive chance that criminals or demonstrators will be heavily armed, police forces will want to be armed yet more heavily so that they can sustain an intimidating power advantage over potential perpetrators and remain confident in their ability to defeat them in combat without sustaining losses.

So the question is, how do we make police officers feel more secure with less? If we reduce the threat citizens pose to police officers, we will correspondingly alleviate the police’s siege mentality. If criminals carried no weapons, police would merely need nightsticks. In Britain, it is against the law for civilians to manufacture, sell, lend, give, or import batons. It is even illegal to carry batons in public. In Britain, most police officers do not even carry firearms–only “authorized firearms officers” may have them. Only 5% of British police officers are authorized to carry firearms. In effect, Britain’s special units are like ordinary American cops. Not only do British officers not carry firearms, but most have no desire to do so–a full 82% of British police federation members are against arming the police more heavily.

How is it possible for police officers to not even carry firearms but nonetheless feel confident they will be able to handle perpetrators? Britain’s has way, way fewer guns per capita than the United States does:
Guns US UK

As a result, British police officers do not have to worry anywhere near as much about being attacked and killed with guns:

Guns by Country


Americans often despair of doing anything about the number of guns in the country, claiming that it would be impossible to successfully regulate them, but Britain’s history shows that this reasoning is wrong. After World War I, Britain was inundated with surplus weapons. Yet, over the past century, Britain has taken a series of effective steps to take these guns back from citizens and criminals alike:

  1. 1920 Firearms Act–Required certificates to purchase firearms, these lasted three years, and specified both the type of gun that could be purchased and the amount of ammunition. Allowed police constables discretion as to who could have the certificate. Made the right to bear arms, dated from 1689, conditional on permission from the police and the Home Secretary. Crime to own a firearm without a certificate, punishable by £50 fine (equivalent to at least £1,700 pounds today, and possibly as much as £13,000) and 3 months in prison. In dollars, that’s roughly $2,800 to $21,700 in today’s money.
  2. 1933 Firearms and Criminal Use Act–Cannot possess a firearm unless the bearer can prove to the officer that it is being used for a lawful purpose. Crime to use a firearm to resist arrest, punishable by 14 years in prison.
  3. 1937 Firearms Act–Raised minimum gun age from 14 to 17, total ban on automatic firearms, “self-defence” no longer considered an acceptable justification to apply for a certificate, more police liberty to fix conditions on certificates, extended certificates to more weapons left out of earlier laws.
  4. 1968 Firearms Act–Codified in a single document all extant firearm regulation.
  5. 1988 Firearms Amendment Act–Applicants must provide good reason for possessing a firearm (self-defence considered invalid), firearms must be locked up, ammunition must be locked up separately from the firearm, full ban on guns for people with criminal backgrounds, firearms amnesties were declared in which guns were handed in to the police.
  6. 1997 Firearms Amendment No.2 Act–Handguns banned with few exceptions.

We know from the British experience that this kind of serious legislation would be effective, but there is insufficient public support for it in the United States. So long as civilians insist on their right to bear extremely lethal weapons, police forces will continue to demand weapons still more lethal and equipment still more protective, and the militarization of our police forces will continue. In effect, American civilians and American police officers are engaged in an arms race that too often ends in tragedy for both sides.