Small Wars Journal

Reflections on the Militarization of American Law Enforcement: An Adaptive Consequence to an Irregular Criminal Threat

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 4:00am

Reflections on the Militarization of American Law Enforcement: An Adaptive Consequence to an Irregular Criminal Threat

John Zambri and Usha Sutliff

The officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the civil unrest that followed has brought the issue of the increased “militarization” of American law enforcement to the fore once again. In the wake of these events, President Obama has asked the Department of Defense to review the “appropriateness” of its excess property program – known as DoD 1033 –which is designed to provide “surplus DoD military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies for use in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations, and to enhance officer safety.”[i] A Senate committee has held hearings regarding oversight of this and similar Federal programs and members of Congress have proposed legislation that would place restrictions on such programs. All of this attention was prompted by what happened in Ferguson, where news cameras filmed police officers outfitted in military-style utility uniforms, armed with M-4 semi-automatic tactical rifles and mounted on armored military type vehicles. This small “army,” facing off against mainly unarmed protesters, presented a dramatic scene and gave the U.S. public the false impression that the deployment of such tactics and equipment are an everyday occurrence throughout the law enforcement community and that decisions to deploy such equipment was arbitrarily done.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. have, to varying degrees, aligned some of their tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment with that of their military cousins.[ii]  While the public discourse focuses on the how – the Federal programs that provided law enforcement agencies with these tools – the why has gotten far less attention. The truth of the matter is that the world has changed and so has the operational environment of the modern-day police officer. While there is still a place and a need for the iconic Officer Friendly[iii] – the approachable officer who made his debut as part of 1960s community policing program – the criminal landscape in America has changed and, these days, Officer Friendly may just as easily find himself responding to a mass shooting at a hotel or elementary school. Such is the range of skills required by police officers in today’s world – from a community outreach event one day to an encounter with well-trained, well-armed criminals who are willing to bring about extreme violence, kill as many people as possible, and die in furtherance of their objectives. While this latter situation is obviously not what happened in Missouri, it gets to the heart of why these weapons – supported by the proper training, tactics and guidelines – are a necessity in American policing in the 21st Century.

Today’s police officer, indeed the post-911 police officer, has not only to be the Norman Rockwell notion of police officer, but a police officer who can adapt to irregular, well trained, very well armed, unconventional threats who are willing to bring about extreme violence, killing as many people as possible, and die in furtherance of their objective. The criminals that necessitate the use of military-style weapons and tactics by police are not your every day, run-of-the-mill, criminal offenders. They are trained in military-style tactics and armed accordingly, dedicated, ruthless and potentially fanatical. They are the drug cartels, the violent extremists and the transnational adversaries such as the hyper-violent ISIL and al- Qaeda – both of which have vowed to conduct future attacks on American soil.[iv]

The militarization of police is a necessary, adaptive response to increasingly violent and complex operational environments and events that are irregular[v] in form and function. These are environments and incidents that are shaped by tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) employed by violent criminals equipped with sophisticated weaponry. When encountered by police officers, these situations pose unimagined and unexpected problems that defy traditional police response practices and paradigms.[vi] These irregular environments and events take a wide variety of forms that are increasingly limited only by one’s imagination. By definition, these are “black swans” – events that fall outside of the experience range of the typical patrol officer and are characterized as low frequency, high consequence events.[vii]

The philosophy, theory, and practice of police response, in the traditional sense – crime prevention, traffic enforcement, responding to robbery, burglary and domestic violence calls, to name a few, and community-oriented policing – is well established and conducted with a high degree of expertise and professionalism by and large. But in the post-9/11 era, with the very real threat of militarized criminal elements, conventional responses are inadequate and inappropriate.[viii] Militarized tactics and weapons employed by criminals must be responded to in kind by law enforcement. That said, the response must be informed and controlled by the proper training, guidelines and leadership. In this paradigm, law enforcement’s greatest strength and greatest weakness co-exists: Done well, law enforcement agencies properly equipped and trained have the discipline, the training, the resources and the numbers to successfully combat militarized foes; done poorly, law enforcement agencies unsupported by the proper training and leadership can misuse these tools or be hampered by outdated response protocols. Criminals, on other hand, need much fewer resources – and no guidelines other than “kill as many as possible” – in order to inflict an incredible amount of damage.

Militarization as adaptation is more consequence than it is response. It is the consequence of the unrestricted latitude freely employed by the criminal and transnational threat elements.  What makes the current environment so dangerous for police and for civil order is that criminality, criminal organizations, and terrorists exploit, and, in some instances, perhaps use as a weapon, the rules that police and civil society are bound by – the Constitution, federal and state laws, regulations, procedures and policy. The criminals typically have no rule book, which means anything goes. Using military type weapons, equipment, and tactics against civilians and police is acceptable. Militarized police, with militarized capabilities, are required to address these complex, irregular situations that, though infrequent, exceed the range and skill of the typical uniformed police officer on patrol.[ix]

A Mumbai-type of attack is not just possible it is probable. “Lone wolf” active shooters, like Christopher Dorner, equipped themselves with the latest in military weaponry and body armor and, in recent times, have gone up against police officers who, but for their so-called militarization, would have been no match. What was clearly absent in the media reporting and critique was that in the Dorner case, police officers with conventional tactics, techniques, procedures, weapons, and equipment were ill prepared and ill equipped to prevent or stop his killing spree without the intervention of police officers who were “militarized.”[x]

The modern manifestations of militarization of police arguably has its origins in the concept and development of the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams that were born out of the turbulent 1960s. Although it is widely believed that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) developed and trained the first SWAT team in the nation, that honor goes to the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD).[xi] In 1964, innovators at the PPD recognized the need to adapt to the changing criminal environment where confrontations with suspects were evolving in intensity, violence, and in nature.[xii] It was quickly recognized that the TTP, and to a great extent equipment, that police officers routinely deployed with, was profoundly deficient to deal with these threats.

Since its inception there have been numerous incidents that have tested and taxed the capabilities of SWAT teams throughout the nation. In 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) shootout with Los Angeles Police, put SWAT TTP and its specialized equipment on the map. This was, arguably, the seminal incident that demonstrated the need and employment of military tactics and equipment. It was militarily armed officers with specialized military type training and equipment that brought that incident to a successful resolution – no civilians or police officers were injured or killed.[xiii]

In 1997 the need to expand the so-called militarization of police beyond SWAT teams was starkly exemplified during the infamous North Hollywood shootout. Robbery calls at banks, like most calls uniformed patrol officers respond to, are inherently dangerous. But bank robberies are particularly dangerous since bank robbers are typically armed. Officers rarely respond to this type of call with less than two or three units (three to six officers depending upon the jurisdiction). But the number of officers on scene, a perceived force differential in favor of the officers, can be quickly negated by a combination of the level of firepower suspects employ, the tactics they use, and their willingness to stand and fight. This was the case when uniformed officers responded to a bank robbery in progress in North Hollywood arrived to find themselves outmatched and outgunned.

Initial responding officers were outmatched by gunmen Larry Eugene Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu, both of whom wore full body armor, were armed with fully automatic assault rifles, and were aggressing toward officers using fire and maneuver techniques.[xiv]  However crude their maneuvers were, they posed an irregular threat that fell outside the officers’ experience. Though Phillips and Matasareanu were trying to get away, they had no qualms about standing their ground and going “toe to toe” with police. The officers were immediately outgunned – officers had 9mm pistols; the suspects had AK-47 assault rifles.  Additional responding officers had to go to the nearest gun store to commandeer assault rifles and ammunition in order to give the suspects pause until SWAT officers – the militarized officers - could arrive on scene.[xv] The salient point here is that SWAT officers are rarely the first on scene; it was uniformed patrol officers who initially responded and had to deal with this kinetic, irregular, problem until SWAT officers, with military-type weapons and TTP, finally arrived.

Active shooter events like school shootings do not occur when conditions are optimal – whereas SWAT teams have foreknowledge, are prepositioned, and appropriately equipped and trained.  Uniformed officers will always be first on the scene and in cases like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook to name a few, there is no time to “get militarized” or wait for SWAT. Initial responding officers have to “go in” and stop the threat as soon as possible. To that end, police departments have adopted active shooter training programs and, in the potential case of a Mumbai type of incident, Multi-Assault Counter Action Capability (MACTAC).   

Uniformed patrol officers need to be continually trained and equipped to mitigate irregular threats. This requires a shift not only in how police officers think and respond, but how command staff think about the nature of police response and training. This is not happening. When the killing starts the police have already lost the initiative. Wresting the initiative from dedicated, militarily equipped and trained criminals and terrorist will require not a standard, traditional response by police but an appropriate one – a militarized one. In the current threat environment, a police department without some degree of militarization is in jeopardy of being outgunned and outmatched .

The public, by and large, accept that their law enforcement agencies are in the business of saving lives, keeping the peace, preserving order and, to that end, must adopt some degree of militarization.[xvi] The real question is not, “Is militarization justified?” It is, “What are the thresholds governing the application of military TTP by police.” The confusion seems to stem from the assumption by the media and segments of the public that militarization of police is uniformly occurring – that the policies, procedures, measures of application/deployment are uniformly applied throughout the law enforcement community – with similar protocols, thresholds, and training. The salient conversation is the one about how and when different police departments employ these capabilities.

Standards and triggers differ throughout every jurisdiction. In many cities and states the deployment of military equipment and tactics is generally reserved for SWAT teams. In other words, in smaller jurisdictions that do not have an independent SWAT capability, uniformed officers are collaterally tasked with responding to SWAT-type incidents (barricaded suspects, hostage rescue, high risk search warrants to name a few) that require them to deploy military TTP and equipment. The triggers and thresholds, by virtue of the disparities between jurisdiction and types of incidents, defy strict conformity to uniform policy, procedures, and regulations governing the application of military TTP and equipment.  

The facts are that in the overwhelming number of instances, when police initially respond to critical incidents, particularly of an irregular nature, they rarely, if ever, deploy with military- type equipment.[xvii] The only time people see police with military equipment is generally when the incident requires it; such as barricaded suspects, high-risk search warrants, active shooters, and riots.  Even in the case of Ferguson Missouri, the ostensibly military-style display of force was only in response to the increasing violence and threat to civil order. This is not a critique of the Ferguson Police department nor an in depth review of their response policies relative to deployment of military TTP and equipment. However, it is important to note that there were two distinct and separate incidents in Ferguson; the civil unrest (rioting) stemming from the officer-involved shooting and the police militarized response. The former was the catalyst for the latter. 

The Ferguson example, though not being held up as the best example by media pundits and the like, does serve as a “one-off” laboratory that highlights the question regarding the appropriateness of using military TTP and equipment. How and when to use these – and to what degree – are important questions. But, like Black Swans – those unexpected and unpredictable events – irregular events do not conform to the rigid dictates of protocol, policy, doctrine or accurate foreknowledge. The application of military-type TTP and equipment, though generally not conforming to an established minimum set of rules throughout the law enforcement community, need to remain fluid and at the discretion of the individual agencies. However, a potential concept, barrowed from the military, can be adopted to provide a framework from which law enforcement can develop a base or minimum set of standards that will maximize discretion and govern a militarized police response.

The potential framework to guide the development of thresholds may be found in the concept of the “Four Block War,” theorized by General James N. Mattis (USMC, Ret.) as a reconsidered and expanded adaptation of General Charles Krulak’s (USMC, Ret.) “Three Block War” concept.[xviii]  In the Three Block War concept, Marines must be prepared (which means trained) to engage in full combat operations, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid operations in the span of three city blocks. General Mattis adds an additional block and an additional mission requirement - the psychological. Although the particulars of the mission requirements in the Four Block War, as employed by military personnel, is not intended to be adopted in total, the concept is easily transferable.

Shifting the concept of the Four Block War and adopting its framework to the 21st Century, post-9/11irregular environment, law enforcement can adapt to a Four Block Police Patrol concept in its preparedness, capability, and deployment of its militarized TTP.

In the first block, police must be prepared to patrol and respond to routine calls – events within the expectation and experience range of day-to-day patrol functions. In this model, police officers have access to military-type equipment but there are no triggers requiring their employment.

In the second block, police must be prepared to patrol and respond to significant events that have the potential to spiral out of control and become much larger. For instance, this could be a demonstration that has the potential to devolve from peaceful to violent. In this block, there is a presumption on the part of law enforcement that something beyond the routine may happen and therefore police with a militarized capability are prepositioned but have not assumed a militarized posture.

In the third block, police must be prepared to respond to an event that will likely spiral out of control and therefore require a higher-order militarized capability. These events could be credible threats of terrorist attacks, credible threats of civil unrest (rioting) that are likely to result from an unpopular jury verdict or, as in the Dorner case, demonstrated threats to police and their families.

In the fourth block, police must be prepared to be deployed with military equipment and employ military TTP.  The scenarios that trigger this response can be characterized as the multi-attack events like Mumbai that span time and space, active shooter events by one or more individuals at schools or malls, or riots to name a few. In the Four Block Police Patrol concept, police officers are able to address the spectrum of events from the routine to the irregular.

The Four Block Police Patrol framework, like a slide rule, allows officers to shift response posture and capability as the event necessitates. The flexibility that this framework provides allows police officers to respond to violent, irregular events with the appropriate level of tactics and equipment. Consequently, responding police officers with a militarized capability, by virtue of their sheer proximity, will be able to truncate time and space and effect the momentum and decision cycle of violent criminals and terrorist actively engaged in killing. In other words, it will give them pause. The need to get inside of the threat’s decision-making cycle – Colonel John Boyd’s famed Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop – is a topic for another article, but the important take-away is that a police response with a militarized capability allows for a quicker response relative to the type of event rather than a delayed one. Until and unless police officers develop an extra sensory perception ability and are able to read minds and stop criminal or terrorist events before they happen – a la Minority Report – police will never be able to get “in front” of irregular events. What the Four Block Police Patrol framework essentially does is allow them to compress time and space as close as possible to the start of the event, thereby minimizing the expansion and damage that would be done otherwise.

The vision of armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and heavily armed police that are reminiscent of light infantry units patrolling American streets is unsettling to say the least. But it is far from commonplace. Police agencies since the early days of the British constables have always had to adapt to evolving criminality.[xix]  The post 9/11 environment that police officers find themselves in has required further adaptation in the form of militarization.  Though the impetus for militarization of police did not start with 9/11, its necessity has become more acute. 

Irregular, hyper-violent incidents, when they occur, are unforgiving. The time for acquiring and deploying the requisite TTP and equipment to counter irregular violent incidents will not be while in the midst of the incident as in the North Hollywood shooting, but long before. Building and sustaining a “militarized” capability to respond to and stop highly trained, heavily armed criminals and terrorists is an integral part of a 21st Century police agency’s incident response capability and, by extension, their homeland security function. This is not a capability that can be taken away. Instead, we must “lean in” and ensure that it not only remains but is bolstered by training and the proper identification of the thresholds that must be met for its employment.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not reflect the views, opinions, policy, regulations, of the LAPD or any agency of the U.S. Government.

End Notes

[i] “1033 Program FAQs,” Defense Logistics Agency, accessed October 21, 2014,

[ii] Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, First edition (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), xii.

[iii] Ibid., 219. It should be noted that the term “officer friendly” later became slang for an abusive officer and was used in the pejorative.

[iv] David Martosko, “FBI Warns Police to Be on Lookout for ISIS Threats in US | Mail Online,”, August 23, 2014,

[v] “Irregular as in not normal or usual : not following the usual rules about what should be done :not even or smooth : not regular in form or shape :happening or done at different times that change often - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary,” accessed September 4, 2014,

[vi] John P. Sullivan, “The Missing Mission: Expeditionary Police for Peacekeeping and Transnational Stability | Small Wars Journal,” Small Wars Journal, May 9, 2007,

[vii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ - New York Times,” New York Times, April 22, 2007,

[viii] John Zambri, “A Case for a Joint Police-Military Special Operations Capable Task Force in Response to Mexican Drug Cartel Spill-Over Violence | Small Wars Journal,” Small Wars Journal, August 7, 2013,

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Rebecca Kimitch, “Christopher Dorner Rampage One Year Later: ‘Reign of Terror’ or Overblown?,” Daily News, February 1, 2014,

[xi] Mitchel P. Roth, Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), p. 333.

[xii] John S. Dempsey, An Introduction to Policing, Seventh edition (Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning, 2014), p. 276.

[xiii] Ross Douthat, “Playing Soldier in the Suburbs -,” New York Times, August 16, 2014,; “Photos and Video: Symbionese Liberation Army Shootout with the LAPD -- 40 Years Later,” Blog,, (May 15, 2014),

[xiv] Bob Parker, “How the North Hollywood Shootout Changed Patrol Arsenals - Article - POLICE Magazine,” Police Magazine, February 28, 2012,

[xv] Rick Orlov, “North Hollywood Shootout, 15 Years Later,” Daily News, February 26, 2012,

[xvi] Based on the authors personal experience and on anecdotal evidence observed.

[xvii] After extensive research on this particular point the author was unable to locate any studies or research conducted that specifically addressed statistical data that captured the number of times and types of incidence police in military TTP and Equipment had to respond to.

[xviii] James N. Mattis and Frank Hoffman, “Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Wars,” Proceedings Magazine 132, no. November 2005 (November 2005),

[xix] John Zambri, “Counterinsurgency and Community Policing: More Alike than Meets the Eye | Small Wars Journal,” Small Wars Journal, July 8, 2014,


About the Author(s)

Usha Sutliff is a Specialist in the LAPD Reserve Corp and has worked in a number of capacities with the LAPD Counter-Terrorism & Special Operations Bureau since 2006. Most recently she developed and led a national LAPD training program, "Policing Convergent Threats in the 21st Century," which focused on developing state and local criminal intelligence and investigative strategies to counter transnational, criminal threats. Usha also works as a consultant in the law enforcement and homeland security fields. The opinions expressed in this article, which was prepared in her personal capacity, are her own and do not reflect the views of her clients or affiliated organizations.

John Zambri is a Detective III with the Los Angeles Police Department assigned to the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau.  He has been with the LAPD for 25 years and is also a Naval Reserve Intelligence officer with 20 years of service.  He was mobilized and deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


This is an excellent article and perhaps even more timely today than when initially written. If the militarization of police is inevitable, then higher standards and more direct leadership and oversight are needed. Think of how an Army/Marine Corps infantry unit is task organized. We don’t have lone fire teams or squads responding to irregular threats in the military. I am not advocating for LE to patrol in platoons, but certainly, more direct leadership is needed with LE unit tasks with irregular threats or response.

The militarization of police is nothing new. It only seems new to people who grew up in an post WWII white picket fence world that has never really been the societal norm for any length of time. In reality, paramilitary police forces have ebbed and flowed over the years according threats and demand.

For example: In post Civil War Texas, the Texas Rangers (a sure-enough paramilitary police force at that time) employed lever action repeating rifles, revolvers, and scoped heavy barrel buffalo rifles. These weapons were the assault weapons and sniper rifles of the time. They were used because outlaws, not the average citizen, used the same weapons. Decades later, some police in the gangster era of the '20s employed the 1911 pistol and the Thompson submachine gun for the same reasons.

BTW, the first modern SWAT unit started decades before 1964. And it did not start in Philly. It was started in Shanghai, China by W.E. Fairbairn.


Thu, 11/20/2014 - 11:23am

A well-written article.

I do have an issue with paragraph 3: "The criminals that necessitate the use of military-style weapons and tactics by police are not your every day, run-of-the-mill, criminal offenders. They are trained in military-style tactics and armed accordingly, dedicated, ruthless and potentially fanatical. They are the drug cartels, the violent extremists and the transnational adversaries such as the hyper-violent ISIL and al- Qaeda – both of which have vowed to conduct future attacks on American soil." Had it said that the "potential" of these traits has greatly increased, I would have agreed with it. But can it really be said that here in the U.S. law enforcement is encountering these criminals like you described? Are they out there? Probably. Is their potential to strike real? Yes. Have any of the mass shooters that have struck in recent years (which is really the only extreme violence this country is encountering presently) fit the criteria? No.


Wed, 11/19/2014 - 9:38am

Why do we reference the 'post-9/11 world' when discussing the militarization of law enforcement like 9/11 was some watershed moment in the history of violence targeted at police officers? Same goes for the reference to a Mumbai-style attack; there hasn't been anything remotely akin to the assault on Mumbai in the States, at least not in modern history. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook? Remind me again how many police officers were shot at by, or took shots at for that matter, the individuals who committed these crimes? Police officers in those cases could have been armed with stones and it would have mattered little in the end. North Hollywood is the singular example cited in this piece that actually supports the case for militarized police force, and that black swan, if you will, event occurred almost two decades ago.

Just seems like a whole lot of hand-waving to remind everyone how dangerous the world could be and distract from the heart of this argument. Reasonable people understand why select police agencies require military-grade weapons and gear. What reasonable people don't understand though is the heavy-handed employment of these lethal means and the seeming lack of accountability when these methods are employed without justifiable cause. We could have a discussion all day on how funding-, training- and manpower-shortfalls all contribute to increased danger for LE officers but, at the end of the day, if officers are going to be 'militarized' and entrusted with the authority to use lethal force against a perceived threat, there has to be greater accountability and transparency.