The Police as Paramilitary Force: A Problematic Conception

It is rare to find a police force—anywhere in the world—that enjoys cordial relationships with the community it polices i.e., a police force that is viewed and treated inclusively as a member of the community, one not so much against the bad guys as for the good guys, and which conceives of itself as providing a friendly, courteous neighborly service to a non-adversarial entity. The familiar reality is strikingly different: in village, town and city, police forces are often viewed as lackeys of the state, engaged in active repression, handing out rough justice tinged with brutality, all the while protecting the powerful, the wealthy, the corrupt, and oppressing the poor, the disenfranchised, the politically weak. The widespread collusion of police with repressive political forces and regimes ensures that a police force—once again, almost anywhere in the world—is inevitably the speartip of most measures of political oppression, whether it be quelling demonstrations, assaulting detainees in custody, or sloppily enforcing unjust laws with careless disregard for judicial process.

A full analysis of why police forces’ relationships with their communities break down and degenerate into the current mix of fear and loathing on both sides of the divide is likely to involve the recounting of a very complex story involving intractable relations between groups of widely varying and differential power, theories of criminology, punishment, masculinity, and class-ridden socio-economic relationships; the efforts of many competent and literate political scientists and sociologists are devoted to precisely such a task. But a small hint at what goes wrong can be seen in the most basic, common and widely accepted descriptions of police and policing.

The police have traditionally been understood—in theory and practice—as a paramilitary force. They are designed as such and operate thereby, right down to their rank structures, uniforms, gallantry medals, training, command hierarchies and descriptive language; they wear stripes and badges on uniforms in military color schemes and use firearms, often indiscriminately. As a telling example, consider that in some urban police forces, traffic police often use cars or scooters or motorbikes that bear the legend ‘Interceptor’; these carry policemen from site to site as they enforce traffic control and ensure its smooth flow. But ‘interceptors’ in military parlance refers to vehicles used to disrupt and destroy enemy vehicles and forces making attacks on defended territory. It is most commonly used in military aviation to designate aircraft that attack bombers attacking high-value targets. These police vehicles are thus only “interceptors” in the mildest sense of the term. But when we designate a traffic police automobile with a term with far more offensive connotations than this ground reality, we reinforce an image of the police as engaged in warfare with ‘hostiles’; the police are now ‘defending us’ against hostiles armed to the teeth; they are operating in ‘hostile territory’, where the slightest wrong move could cost them their lives. But the police are supposed to be policing communities, not war zones; the people they police are supposed to be their fellow community members, not armed hostiles; the ‘bad guys’ are, more often than not, also members of those same local communities. Using this language transforms police work into a variant of military activity; it shades it with all the problematic hues of the battlefield.

Importing militarized language into our descriptions of policing reconfigures how police view their work and the community they service. Thinking of the police as a paramilitary organization quickly breeds an adversarial attitude on the part of the police, and toward the ‘criminal element’, which is only too conducive to the aggressive behavior sadly associated with policing. When viewed and acting as a paramilitary force, police resemble nothing so much as an occupying entity, perhaps a counter-insurgency unit dealing with a hostile population in a hostile territory. And we all know how beloved those forces are in the territories they seek to “control,” for almost invariably paramilitaries have a horrific human rights record when it comes to patrolling and ‘controlling’ domestic populations. Torture, deaths in custody, random, brutal, blunt violence directed against the weak; these are common enough occurrences in this domain. But that is only to be expected when the battlefield comes to the street, the lane, the village byway.

The problem with military and paramilitary language in the context of policing is not that this language has a simple, direct, causal relationship with police behavior; the problem is that this language is part of a packaging of police activity that causes police to reconceive themselves in a manner bound to create the civil rights problems we are sadly familiar with. The constant use of militarized language for the police devises a very particular operational culture, one bred in its academies and training and reinforced by daily operations and modes of interaction.

Words and descriptions find their applicability in networks of meanings that trigger particular associations. So, self-conception by the choice of language we use to describe ourselves and others makes a difference to our eventual activity and theirs. That is why we choose to tell particular stories about ourselves, to construct particular narratives, framed in highly specific ways; this is why we insist people describe us in certain ways and not others. Remember the old joke about the young man who worked at a gas station and told everyone he was a “petroleum transfer engineer”? A police “force” that thinks it is a basically a paramilitary organization is off to a bad start; conflict, often armed variants of it, is now part of its raison d’etre; as it continues to deploy the language associated with the military it is setting itself further down the road to an essentially adversarial, hostile relationship with its community. Buildings in which people live cease to be “homes;” they become “territory” to be controlled. In hostile territory: one kills or is killed; everyone is to be suspected; it is us-against-them. There is no community here, no fellow-citizens. Interrogations are now occasions for brutal testing of the ‘enemy’s’ resolve; any methods may be deployed to neuter his threat.

It is a sad commonplace observation that in any domain where the language of ‘war’ and ‘battle’ is thrown around freely, the standards of behavior decline. Consider sport, where the all-too frequent reliance on military tropes and metaphors results in the condoning of illegitimate play, questionable sportsmanship, pernicious, xenophobic nationalism, the ludicrous equation of sporting skill with national worth, and more generally and relevantly, the attitude that games, like wars, must be won by any means necessary. Or, as in policing, where the constant reference to war zones results in a ‘shoot or be shot’ or ‘strike first and hard’ mentalities that takes the lives of many innocents each year. The trigger-and-baton-happy policeman is already convinced he is a soldier on patrol, well behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles ready to take him out. The outcomes that result are grimly foretold.

Note: This post draws on–i.e., often directly plagiarizes–material from three earlier posts on this blog: ‘Traffic Interceptors and the Militarization of Police‘; ‘Police Militarization – Contd.‘ and ‘Academic Arguments, Sports, and Urban Policing as War‘ . I’d wanted to combine some of the points made therein into one note.

9 thoughts on “The Police as Paramilitary Force: A Problematic Conception

  1. Words matter, yes. But I would say that images of police actions matter more. The damage caused in PR terms from images like the ‘casual pepper spray cop’ was incalculable, or the images of lines of police defending criminal financial institutions on Wall St. In a global online community, images like that create a concept of the police that is far removed from any local context, the police become a monolithic, oppressive entity that unites every marginalised group in the world against them.

    1. Alex,

      True – what I had in mind was how police view themselves more than anything else. The images you speak of affect our perceptions of them for sure. Those pepper spray images from two years ago still hurt them.

  2. I agree broadly, but it’s necessary to split a few hairs in this matter. If you look at racially monolithic, small-town communities, you would find a much less militarized and adversarial model of policing: the Mayberry model. You could say, of course, that Mayberry is a myth. What is not a myth, however, is the pervasiveness of the image of the benign cop when it comes to middle-class white Americans. Middle-class white kids are socialized to admire cops, who visit schools, sign projects books, and so on. An awful lot of white Americans buy into it, because the policeman in his “interceptor,” bristling with antennae like a tank, is THEIR spearhead in a racially charged society. The working class is no exception, not only because they ARE the police, but also because police-worship affirms their whiteness.

    Also, if you looked at societies that are less racially divided and less militaristic than the US, you would probably find a more communitarian model of policing. Iceland, perhaps! Not the police, then, but the society that issues the paycheck.

  3. I think you may want to develop this into a philosophy/political theory project…your moral instincts are on target, and I could think of a number of practical applications (for example, comparing Boston’s community policing with NY’s more aggressive S&F approach).

    I’ve always wanted to respond to this paper:
    which develops a theoretical take on the relative menace of privatization in the policing and military concept.

    Finally, from an historical perspective, one really critical point is that at which fusion centers went from being counterterrorism centers to taking on “all threats and all hazards.” Citron and I point out some examples of that linguistic shift:
    But we don’t examine exactly where it came from, or when it occurred. I’d love to know.

  4. Frank,

    Great to see you here – thanks for the great pointers. I think folks that work on police ethics might have done something similar – I’ll have to look around. Alex Vitale at Brooklyn College in Sociology does very interesting work in this area and perhaps I should talk more to him about the angles in this post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: