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An over-reliance on state-sanctioned violence is unhealthy for America

As a veteran I am particularly frustrated that we depend too much on police and military to solve our foreign and domestic crises.

Analysis | Washington Politics

As a Coast Guard officer, I lived a hybrid existence. I served in the military, but instead of deploying to war I enforced our country’s laws in the Gulf of Maine and the Caribbean Sea. This hybrid existence followed me to graduate school, where I’m drawn to both the national security and domestic criminal justice circles but don’t feel entirely at home in either.

These two policy cliques need not be so distinct. Indeed, were there more crossover, leaders from both fields could help each other solve a common problem: how to stop over-relying on the police and the military.

This dependence at the expense of other institutions partially explains domestic failures like rising homicide rates and unjustified police killings as well as international failures like the Afghanistan defeat. And while these failures have sparked a reckoning within their respective policy circles — with calls to defund the police or fire the flag officers who oversaw the War on Terror — these conversations are largely being had in isolation from one another.

While there’s crossover within the rank-and-file — with military veterans and reservists comprising upwards of 20 percent of the country’s police departments (as of 2017) and both institutions recruiting heavily from the same socioeconomic groups — the overlap diminishes at the civilian policy level.

At their core, the police and the military are the same. Both institutions are authorized to use force on behalf of the state, and presumably its people, to achieve limited objectives. Under appropriate conditions, state-sanctioned violence is justified as protection from disturbers of the domestic and international peace.

Neither the police nor the military, however, are designed to unilaterally achieve broad domestic or foreign policy strategy. Too often though, policymakers expect exactly this. Police officers find themselves acting as mental health responders, social workers, and revenue collectors, and soldiers and marines are informally deputized as municipal bureaucrats and aid workers.

Domestic leaders task the police with solving crime problems caused by unemployment, addiction, gang violence, accessible guns, weak schools, and absent fathers. Foreign policy experts charge the military with bringing democracy to internally divided populations that are unfamiliar with the concept.

These objectives are impossible to achieve this way. But not only are national security and domestic policymakers making the same mistake, they’re making it for the same reasons.

The government and the electorate lack patience.

Self-interested parties profit from the status quo.

Police and military culture stifle debate.

It’s the path of least political resistance.

We’re an impatient society, and our leaders know this. Instead of investing the time, personnel, and money necessary to address the root causes of addiction, gang violence, terrorism, or mass migration, our elected officials gravitate towards unsustainable quick fixes like the myriad named law enforcement operations underway in nearly every American city and the 2009 surge of forces to Afghanistan. While metrics temporarily trend in the right direction, the untreated disease eventually manifests itself somewhere else or in a new way.

Self-interested parties benefit from the status quo. The prison-industrial complex needs a steady supply of incarcerated persons in order to secure more contracts, and defense contractors need armed conflict to drive up the demand for weapons systems, vehicles, and war technology.

Police and military culture — with its necessary hierarchies and admirable emphasis on duty — doesn’t help in this context. By discouraging dissenting views, communication up the chain of command is stifled. In turn, policymakers act on bad information as seen in instances of police departments fudging numbers, or in the sprawling scandal uncovered by the Afghanistan Papers.

Finally, it’s politically easier to do things the way they’ve always been done than to struggle against bureaucratic inertia and policy groupthink by arguing for a novel approach. Not to mention, voters are unlikely to give failed mavericks a second chance. 

Some might argue that I’ve gone too easy on the police and the military in this analysis. After all, both institutions bear some responsibility for increased crime and failed foreign policy interventions thanks to brutality — see Derek Chauvin and Eddie Gallagher — and corruption that alienate the people most affected by their presence.

Blame isn’t zero-sum though, and there’s more than enough of it to go around. While it’s ethically imperative that many in the police and military better respect the dignity of those with whom they interact, the institutions themselves need not be radically reconfigured. Instead, policymakers need to figure out how to use the police and the military the way they were meant to be used.

And the best way to figure it out is to figure it out together. After all, what national security or criminal justice policymaker doesn’t like a good force multiplier?

Adam Ziaja/Shutterstock and Zoran Karapancev/shutterstock
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