Commentary: Setting the Record Straight on the “militarization” of the County Sheriff's Office
Militarized American police? Because some law enforcement officers (SWAT) have .50 caliber rifles? Let’s take a look at history before we go off the deep end. In 1876, the standard issue rifle for most of the U.S. Army was the 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield, a single-shot rifle. This was long after the Henry repeating rifle had been developed, then succeeded by Winchester repeating rifles. Many town marshals, county sheriffs and other law enforcement officers had the Henry and Winchester rifles which had firepower far superior to that of the Springfield.
Move ahead in time to 1929. The standard issue rifle for the U.S. military was the ’03 Springfield, a bolt-action rifle that carried five rounds in an internal magazine. At the same time, the Browning Automatic Rifle and the Thompson submachine gun were available to law enforcement officers (and yes, criminals). Both of these were superior to the ’03 Springfield at close range (say, 25 yards or less). Both were being carried by some of the law enforcement officers who finally got Bonnie and Clyde. One of the officers who had a BAR pointed out that he was concerned about the car that the gang used, because it was believed by some that in addition to its already sturdy steel body, that Clyde had built-in additional armor.
The Thompson, the BAR and the Henry/Winchester designs were all originally designed for military use that got adopted by civilians and law enforcement immediately. The Henry rifle was never officially purchased by the regular U.S. Army, getting into service only because of private purchases by individual regiments.
And let’s talk about uniforms and tactics. Does anyone remember that the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department pioneered the SWAT concept among police agencies, and developed tactics for entry, clearing and hostage rescue? Does anybody remember that the Army and the Marine Corps began sending their special operations personnel to train with those two agencies’ SWAT teams because LAPD and LASD were on the cutting edge of that type of operation? As for uniforms, El Dorado County is mostly forest, and with that comes the problem of illegal drug operations in the forest. So doesn’t it make sense that El Dorado County deputies have camouflage uniforms as an option? Duh. And speaking of drugs, the thugs who run the cartels have the same access to the builders of armored sedans that the government has. They also have access to the same armaments because in Mexico they steal military hardware (like rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns) from the military. If I’m a deputy on an operation involving these gangs I’d like to know that I have a couple of snipers who have the punch and range of a .50 cal rifle to counter the stuff the bad guys might be sneaking across the border.
So where did this fear of the militarization of police forces come from? I think most of it comes from political correctness, image and what people have gotten accustomed to as the law enforcement image, much of that based on movies and TV cop shows. I can recall some truly stupid comments coming from working law enforcement officers, like the New York police lieutenant who objected to changing from revolvers to the 9mm Parabellum pistol because he objected to the word “parabellum.” His solution to the possible need for more than six rounds was to have officers carry two revolvers. He, like many, seems to have never known the history of law enforcement’s use of firearms and equipment that might have had military origins. Twenty years ago there were those who were crying tears of the “militarization” of the police when some agencies began authorizing the carry of rifles in patrol cars in addition to shotguns. They also seem to have forgotten a time when rifles were the norm for police inventories.
Can we agree that our deputies should have the best and most appropriate tools available to do their jobs? You really don’t need to worry about militarization of the police until shadowy figures in trench coats begin asking deputies to join secret government societies.