A Conceptualization of Militarization in Domestic Policing

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
A Conceptualization
2019, Vol. 22(4) 511–538
! The Author(s) 2019
of Militarization in
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119862070
Domestic Policing
Maayan Simckes1
, Anjum Hajat1,
Debra Revere2,3,
Ali Rowhani-Rahbar1,4, and
Dale Willits5
Researchers have investigated the underlying mechanisms and consequences of mil-
itarization in law enforcement agencies for decades, yet there is no agreed-upon
definition for this concept. Without consensus, discourse and research on the inter-
section of policing and community well-being are hampered. The aim of this study
was to develop a comprehensive framework for the concept of “militarization.”
Twelve key informant interviews focused on defining militarization were conducted
with subject matter experts representing expertise in fields such as policing, criminal
justice, and community activism. Interview transcripts underwent qualitative analysis
using grounded theory methodology. Five key domains emerged: Gear/Technology,
Protocols/Procedures for Community Interaction, Military Tactics, Officer Culture/
Mindset, and Training and Requirements. Militarization is a complex concept whose
subordinate dimensions warrant further investigation independently and in relation
to the larger context. This study provides a unifying framework, contextualizing
previous efforts to study militarization while highlighting areas for future study
around officer and community safety.
1Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
2Department of Health Services, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
3Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
4Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
5Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Maayan Simckes, 1959 NE Pacific Street, Health Sciences Building, F-262, Box 357236, Seattle, WA 98195,
Email: msimckes@uw.edu

Police Quarterly 22(4)
law enforcement, militarization, policing, qualitative methods
The 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO at the hands of police
officer Darren Wilson, and the resulting public outcry, fueled a national dia-
logue on policing practices (Filkins, 2016; Sack, 2017; Swaine, Laughland,
Lartey, & McCarthy, 2015). Paramilitary policing practices (e.g., special weap-
ons and tactics [SWAT] teams) and integration of military-based tactics have
also received increasing attention in the public arena, especially concerning
police response to public demonstrations in cities such as Ferguson and
Baltimore (Koslicki, 2017; Kraska, 1999a, 1999b; Kraska & Cubellis, 1997).
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13684, creating the
interdisciplinary President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing “to strengthen
community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the commu-
nities they serve” (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015, III).
The task force outlined several recommendations grouped into six primary pillars:
Building Trust and Legitimacy, Policy and Oversight, Technology and Social
Media, Community Policing and Crime Reduction, Officer Training and
Education, and Officer Safety and Wellness. The two overarching recommenda-
tions from the task force (i.e., creation of a National Crime and Justice Task
Force and expanded support for community-based initiatives addressing poverty,
education, and health and safety) have made little progress at the national level.
An increasing number of researchers and police chiefs across the country
are speaking out in favor of data-driven policing and evidence-based practice
(Darroch & Mazerolle, 2013; Sherman, 1998). However, with more than 17,900
police departments nationwide, reaching consensus with regard to policies and prac-
tices is a challenge; dramatic differences can be driven by state-level variation in
criminal law, local historical practice and traditions, availability of grants and finan-
cial resources, and unique characteristics of the population served. National guide-
lines and data-based reports produced by organizations such as the International
Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF)
are poised to improve agreement and consistency in policing throughout the United
States, but such reports are also adopted at the discretion of individual agencies
(National consensus policy and discussion paper on use of force, 2017).
As the nature of policing in the United States is complex and lacks uniformity,
so too have been efforts to study it systematically. One of the most important
issues facing police today is the extent to which the “guardian” or “warrior”
mentality should be promoted. Indeed, there is ongoing concern regarding the
lack of systematic data on police use of force and the efficacy of de-escalation

Simckes et al.
tactics (Sherman, 2018), with popular press books (Balko, 2014) and academics
(Delehanty, Mewhirter, Welch, & Wilks, 2017; Fox, Moule, & Parry, 2018) alike
suggesting that police militarization may play an important role in understanding
the tension between and outcomes of interactions between law enforcement and
the communities they serve. Yet, understanding the causes, consequences, and
state of police militarization is hampered by a lack of consistency in how research-
ers define, conceptualize, and operationalize it (Bieler, 2016; Fox et al., 2018).
Similarly, many of the approaches for measuring militarization in these studies
have yet to be validated (Koslicki & Willits, 2018). Most of this research also lacks
the engagement of all relevant stakeholders who could provide expertise in con-
structing a fully inclusive definition of militarization. This article begins by
exploring the historical roots of modern-day policing and various efforts to
study the subject of militarization, followed by a description of a new qualitative
study designed to develop a more precise conceptual framework for this concept.
Militarization—A National Conversation
Protests in the streets and on the field after events such as the death of Michael
Brown in 2014 and the nonindictment of the officer who shot him, after other
police-related deaths and related legal proceedings, and in response to broader
trends and growing tensions have contributed to a national conversation
around how police engage with the public (Balko, 2014; Campbell, 2017;
Canella, 2016; Fox et al., 2018; Garcıa & Sharif, 2015; Hutto & Green, 2016;
Jacobs & O’Brien, 1998; Jansen, 2017; Juzwiak & Chan, 2014; Lartey, 2017; Pew
Research Center, 2014; Rembert, Watson, & Hill, 2016; Somashekhar & Rich,
2016; Swaine et al., 2015). Yet, connecting these fatal encounters to systemic
underlying factors that may contribute to them is methodologically challenging,
particularly given the complex history of the nation’s policing institutions and
the variability in agency and jurisdictional rules. Even so, media outlets have
contributed to a rising national awareness of the concept of “militarization” in
American policing as a possible explanation for a documented rise in police-
related deaths. Headlines mention “police militarization,” particularly when
describing police response to demonstrations or protests (Apuzzo, 2014;
Chen, 2014; Stamper, 2011; Swaine, 2014). However, such headlines rarely
offer a definition for this term, generally referencing increased use of equipment
designed originally for the military or presenting images of police–civilian
encounters with officers heavily armed, accompanied by tanks, and wearing
riot gear (Apuzzo, 2014; Chen, 2014; Lockwood, 2011; Stamper, 2011;
Swaine, 2014). Without a shared understanding of what militarization really
is, people may in fact be talking about different phenomena, be it in casual
conversation, on national television, or academic research.
Militarization tends to be discussed with a much narrower focus among polic-
ing researchers and national policing organizations. In a 2014 blog post, the

Police Quarterly 22(4)
International Association of Chiefs of Police touched on the issue of militariza-
tion, focusing exclusively on the proliferation of SWAT teams and referencing
concerns raised by an American Civil Liberties Union (2014) report on the subject
(Beck, Downing, & Lopez, 2014). In its 2016 report “Guiding Principles on Use of
Force,” the PERF explicitly mentions the term militarization only once in the 136-
page document, in reference to a conversation around “perceptions of ‘militari-
zation’ of police in response to large-scale demonstrations,” though possible
components of militarization are discussed separately throughout the report
(PERF, 2016, 9). A 2015 report documenting a gathering of police chiefs as
part of the PERF “Critical Issues in Policies Series” offers more detail around
“militarization,” highlighting the difference between gear acquired via the mili-
tary versus gear that looks like it may have military origins (PERF, 2015).
Conversely, Fortenbery (2018) presents a broader contextual conversation
around the history of militarization trends in the United States in a 2018 piece
for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement Bulletin.
Militarization Research
Balko (2014) offers a layman’s history of militarization in his 2014 book
“Rise of the Warrior Cop,” which documents the evolution of police forces
from early Roman...

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