The Unintended Consequences of Police Militarization

The following is an interview with retired Detective Sergeant J. Gary Nelson, who spent his law enforcement career with the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona. He’s a licensed mental health counselor and an expert on the ways in which police militarization has impacted the relationships police have with communities.

Roshun Shah: When did you start to notice police militarization in Scottsdale? What did that look like then, and what does it look like now?

Det. Sgt. J. Gary Nelson (Ret.): I can’t pinpoint a time when I started noticing it — probably the late 80s to early 90s, but I wasn’t really thinking much about it. Militarization as a global issue was simply the SWAT-type operation with long-guns, military weapons, and tactical teams. It was beginning to replace normal or traditional policing, always with the justification that it was for safety. For example, in search warrants, the vast majority of which involved narcotics — it became more standard procedure to use SWAT, as opposed to in the old days when there would just be the narcotics officers who executed the warrants.

I was a burglary and theft detective during most of that time, and we still would serve some warrants on our own if we didn’t have to be really dynamic. But more and more we had to take the service of a search warrant to a supervisor, and that supervisor would often tell us to at least notify the SWAT guys and see if they wanted to help. What was annoying to me, in my own little world, was that it could have been fairly simple — get four guys together, surround the place, and if they’re refusing entry, you kick the door down. But instead of that, we had to get blueprints of the building and sometimes get aerial photographs from the city archives. It just took away the simplicity of what we did and made it overly complicated.

When I got promoted to sergeant and returned to patrol duty, there was a whole host of situations, anything that looked remotely like a barricaded person refusing to come out of a building, a house, a hotel room, or whatever, was supposed to be referred to SWAT. Everybody was supposed to just hold the perimeter and wait for what we used to call the “magic ninjas” to arrive.Once a friend of mine, another uniformed sergeant, went to a situation at a small motel where a distraught woman was making suicidal threats. She stepped outside the door holding a nail file as though it was dangerous. My friend ended up just walking up to her, restraining her, taking the file away, and taking her into custody. He got criticized because he should have called the technical team because it was “too dangerous.” We all laughed about that.

We never had a tragedy, that I’m aware of, in Scottsdale. There certainly was the potential, and that’s one of the things that bothered us because instead of allowing us to use our judgment, conclude these situations, and solve problems, they would want to make a military operation out of it.

What are the consequences of police militarization in the eyes of the community and how they view law enforcement when these tactics are used?

The most obvious consequence is alienation of the community from the officers. A lot of times we hear about this only in terms of lower-income or minority communities. But in Scottsdale, we don’t have any of that. We have middle class and we have upper, upper class. But I saw the same thing happen in our communities as elsewhere. If the SWAT team did some type of operation the neighbors and onlookers who weren’t directly involved wanted to know why all that was necessary. Their kids were scared.

My observation, as a non-SWAT operator, was that most of the dynamic entries that they do involve what is known as a “flash bang grenade” — or a “light-sound diversionary device,” which is a nice name for a grenade that is designed not to fragment and not to hurt anyone, but it’s still an explosive device. When they enter homes, they will throw those in somewhat indiscriminately to dazzle and stun anybody who might be inclined to resist. But, somebody could think they’re being shot at and respond accordingly. I do know of an incident or two where they would also send in one of the SWAT guys with a fire extinguisher in his hands, because those things are fire hazards. They managed to put out the fire in the carpet before it burned the house down. Of course, neighbors can hear those things, too. They hear the grenades. They hear yelling. They hear the forced entries, sometimes accomplished with an explosive device on the door, as opposed to a traditional kick, depending on how strong the door looks. So, there’s a lot of noise and a lot of commotion. Any neighborhood is going to be upset by that. Depending on the people, their response is often going to be, “Why did the police create that crazy situation, that dangerous situation. Was all that necessary?”

We have things we can say to justify it, but people don’t always buy it. And if a neighborhood is already predisposed to hostility — police, they, pretty much put it over the top. So, alienation, a breakdown in communication and breakdown in police-community relations are probably the most obvious effects. But again, from an insider perspective, a loss of efficiency and a waste of money and personnel is often the case. You have a highly militarized, highly trained team (probably being paid time-and-a-half) doing something maybe four or five, or even fewer, regular police officers can do.

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What are some strategies you’d like to see for rewinding and reducing our reliance on militarization? And how can we make sure officers feel safe in doing so?

Probably from the top level of city, county, or state government who is in charge of the policing operation. They can come to an understanding that our philosophy is to use military equipment and tactics as little as possible, not to overuse them. The problem is, in my world, there was some overuse of the SWAT team. That’s our main militarization measure that we dealt with in Scottsdale. They did eventually buy what they call a “peacekeeper,” which is a type of armored vehicle. One problem with that is there will be kind of an implied statement that since we paid a lot for it, now we need to use it to justify it. If we don’t justify it, they’ll pull funding from us the next budget cycle. So, I think it’s really important for top staff or administrative people to communicate and say, “That’s not the way it works.” Otherwise you get mid-level police managers pressing to use these things in order to prove that they’re needed, and that can be very counterproductive.

The next thing police management could do is just set up a series of criteria for when certain things are done. When SWAT is used for a search warrant entry, when they’ll use the tank, etc.

They don’t currently have criteria in place?

They do. Maybe the better way for me to put it would be that they need to set up a criteria to restrict the use to when it’s absolutely necessary and when there really is a true officer or civilian safety hazard.

We hear about the terrible times when people are needlessly killed by SWAT teams. Those are tragic. But when properly executed, some of those tactics are actually less likely to kill or hurt civilians. A SWAT team has all kinds of equipment — less lethal weaponry, for instance — that the officer on the street usually doesn’t have. SWAT can sometimes resolve a situation in a non-lethal way easier than the average cops on the street and their limited equipment.

Would you say this is largely an issue of training?

In some cases. It’s hard to generalize across the board, but it does seem to me like their emphasis in training is to use lethal weaponry, to effectively dominate a space, and neutralize any threats. Our SWAT team used to train with the Marine Corps in what they call close quarters combat. If the Marines are involved, it’s a different deal. They go in to kill people and break things. So, when you have police exposed and cross trained with military people who have a different mission, regardless of what you think of that mission, it can be a problem.

I think concern is increasing in my area of Arizona about training police to effectively deal with mentally ill people. A mother might call in that her schizophrenic son wants to kill himself. The police come, and they end up doing it — they kill him. As a counselor, I have told people they don’t always want to call the police. Oftentimes, you absolutely don’t want to call the police if you have a loved one who is suicidal. The police have a way of making that extremely easy. They might point guns and say, “Don’t do this or we’ll shoot.” A truly suicidal person does exactly what they’re told not to do in order to be shot. What I would like to see are SWAT operators also being taught, extensively, tactics for taking desperate, suicidal people into custody without killing them — how to de-escalate situations involving a psychotic person. That’s the training issue part of it, but I think most of [the militarization problem] is a political philosophy issue.

When did you see SWAT being deployed? What kind of cases were they?

The most common would be a search warrant of a residence and those types of cases would be narcotics. Even as a fairly senior police officer, working back then, I think a lot of us believed the myth that anybody who might be selling any illegal drug is probably like Al Pacino’s character in Scarface and armed to the teeth — crazy, dangerous. I’ve since come to see and believe that’s just not the case. But when we have that attitude, if we were going to serve a warrant involving narcotics, we want the SWAT team to go in first and secure everything. So that was the most common. From there, I would say it was cases involving stolen property. I got involved in quite a few of those as a burglary detective. Sometimes it would involve fugitives.

I had an interesting case like that one time in Phoenix. We were trying to arrest a young man for an arson. He tried to burn a house down on his old roommate because he was angry. We got the Phoenix [Police Department] SWAT guys to go in there because this guy was rumored to be armed. They looked around, came out, and said he wasn’t there. A couple other detectives and I walked in and began to execute the search warrant in the house. We looked around and were very relaxed and casual because the SWAT team said he wasn’t there. Well, my partner, who was an old detective like me, spotted him. He was hiding in the backyard, and the SWAT team had missed him. You definitely saw some red faces that day on the part of the SWAT guys who were supposed to be so sharp, and the person surrendered. He was just hoping to hide until we left.

So, I would say narcotics was number one. There’s no doubt in my mind that nationwide, you’d have an exponential drop in the use of military equipment tactics if the War on Drugs were called off tomorrow.

How does police militarization affect officer mental health?

I might be defining mental health a little broadly, but I do have that ability because I am a licensed mental health counselor. A lot of the mental health of police officers is based on the belief and the experience that they are providing service to the community. They’re an important, productive part of their community in doing what they do. The more positive interactions we have with people in which we can just be with the rest of the folks, and the more interactions we have in which we are called and we respond and solved a problem — and people who called us are thankful and glad they called us — the more that happens, the more emotionally stable and harmonious the relationship is going to be with the officers and the community. The officers are at a lower stress level. They feel better about what they do. It’s a self-rewarding kind of situation. When you take that same officer and put them behind a military helmet, a gas mask, and an AR-15 with a team of similarly clad people, it separates the officer from the community. It creates hostility and suspicion. I think then you have a much higher stress situation for the officers. They’re not going to be as nice. They’re not going to be as calm or as tactful.

And I’ve seen that — I was teaching a class on the administration of justice in community college for a number of years. I would show a lot of videos of encounters to the students to help them understand what officers go through and to understand shoot/don’t shoot situations out on the street. It’s amazing to me how we used to be more polite and tactful — even in telling people what to do. It amazes me how nowadays, more and more, you’re seeing not militarized equipment necessarily but a militarized attitude in which officers are immediately pointing guns at people and yelling, telling them to do all these unnatural things. We used to joke, half the time people don’t even understand what they’re being told or why. And if the officers are amped up, it’s going to amp them up even more, and they’re not always going to do the smart thing. Unfortunately, shootings result. That’s a mentally unhealthy way to relate to people — telling them to do stuff at gunpoint. The militarization attitude encourages that. You give orders. Everybody’s out there to kill you. Paranoia. I was taught so much paranoia as a police officer, I’m amazed I’m not diagnosable myself. Every time an officer would be killed somewhere in the US, or even wounded, or had a close call, it would result in all this training. We had to be even more paranoid and realize that everybody out there can kill us and are waiting for the chance to do so. It’s all about control. It’s all about superior force. The truth is that isn’t what most police functions need to be about.

If someone on the SWAT team were to have a traumatic experience while carrying out an assignment, what kind of mental health services are available to them after that assignment concludes?

It’s the kind of thing that, in my opinion, looked good on paper. But I don’t know if it was really effective. We had psychologists on contract with the city who were always at the doctorate level (they would never use anyone below that) and people who had some type of certification in doing what we call “fitness for duty” clearances. It seemed like the goal of the program for an officer who was involved in something traumatic, or resulted in PTSD was, let’s “prove,” (you really can’t prove) but let’s “prove” as quickly as possible that he’s ready to go back to work so we don’t have to keep paying him to stay home.

They will always put officers on administrative leave, which I think is totally appropriate. But then they’ll mandate them to go to these therapists. The problem is the therapist works for the city, and their goal is usually to determine “fitness for duty.” A lot of the officers don’t even see it as supportive as much as they see it as the city covering its ass.

What can we do to improve that situation?

It starts at the top with the philosophy that we want to take care of our people and not just cover our liability issues. Communicate that clearly. Then perhaps a rotation list of therapists would be a good idea. And it wouldn’t just be for the purpose of determining fitness for duty. It would be for the officer to regain mental health completely and remain a happy functioning human being as he or she continued their career. It is a different philosophy.

Most departments of any size these days seem to have something called a peer support network, where you have other people in the agency who have received a little bit of training in how to support one another through these situations. I think those are a great idea, but again, the police chief or the sheriff has to be courageous and give those peer support people a pass on the requirement that they report every little issue to administration. In other words, give them confidentiality. Without confidentiality, the whole thing is pretty useless.

I used to do addictions counseling, and I would do it usually as an employee of an inpatient or residential treatment center. One of the things I would do with my clients is tell them I wouldn’t tell anybody else every time they had a little relapse. I’d say, “Our relationship can remain confidential because I want to help you get sober.” I think agencies need to give their peer support people and contract professionals the freedom to have a confidential relationship with the officer or employee they’re dealing with. That’s a big, big gap that I see.

Based on your experiences, what are the best ways to improve officer wellness overall?

Any opportunity agencies can give officers and employees to interact in a positive way with the community is going to help. It can be volunteer opportunities, community policing, opportunities to help with issues that involve poverty, homelessness, or whatever. We used to have quite an active group that volunteered to help with Special Olympics back in Scottsdale, and when you give like that, you get back automatically. What I mean by that is positive emotions, peace of mind, and a sense of doing something good.

The vast majority of people who get into law enforcement, that I’m familiar with, do it for that reason. They want to be in a job where they have a sense they’re doing something good. It’s not just producing a product for money. It’s certainly not doing bad things. It’s helping people. And that’s why they become police officers. I know that was my motivation as a young, idealistic person. Most of the officers I’ve talked to had that goal even if they didn’t admit it.

So, I would say, any opportunity to interact in the community in a positive way is going to be good for officer mental health. Also training. I have to say, Scottsdale started to do this very well. Two years before I retired, in training they would encourage police officers to invest in roles outside of the job. There’s a real problem with police work in terms of it becoming our identity. Most people who go to work for, say State Farm Insurance, don’t carry a little identification shield with them that says insurance agent and think of that as their identity. They don’t hang around only with other State Farm agents. They have normal lives. They cross pollinate with other career fields. They have community.

Law enforcement is insular in comparison. There’s a strong tendency to be that way. There are a number of things that cause that, and it can’t go away. One of them is shift work. Another is the nature of the job. Other people don’t understand. If you tell people what you do in a social setting, it’s very predictable. What you’re going to hear are either complaints about the latest interaction with police or requests to help them with a police or legal problem. So, the training that I received hit home with me.

We actually had Kevin Gilmartin come out here. He’s a major police trainer who was a career officer with one of the departments in Arizona and then became a psychologist. He would tell us stories about these people who had invested all of their identity, their whole life into being a canine officer, for example, then something happened where the officer pissed somebody off and was transferred. He had to give up his dog and become just a regular cop again. He told us about the depression this person would go through, the cynicism, maybe eventually quitting the job. Though I didn’t hear of any suicides, I could see that happening. In that context, and using those examples, we were exhorted to figure out all those things we are besides a cop, and then make them as important as being a cop. You know, you’re a spouse, you’re a parent, you’re Presbyterian. You invest in every role.

Did it make a discernible positive impact after the implementation of this type of training?

Yes, they used to call it emotional survival for law enforcement. Kevin Gilmartin trademarked the phrase. And I think it did. I think people kind of like it. It sets people free. It gave them permission. They gave employees permission to invest in other roles and to emotionally loosen that white-knuckled grip on the badge and realize there are other things in life that are equally valid and every bit as much worth being as a cop. Doing that is going to keep you healthy. I think it did have a positive impact. It did on me.

An awful lot of the problem is not the hardware; It’s the attitude. The military attitude that’s communicated. It contributes to the “us” versus “them” idea, and “them” wanting to kill “us.” Then of course, we the police end up doing things that make it more true — trampling on people and shedding blood in the community when it’s not necessary.

One of the things that has always bothered me is that a lot of times, SWAT officers, or officers that are doing certain kinds of operations, will wear a mask over their face. I know the rationale for this, but I guess you can throw it in the bag of policy recommendations — to make sure officers’ faces aren’t covered. The rationale is, an officer’s on an undercover assignment, so once he’s got his little police jacket on and is arresting people, we’ve got to have him cover his face. He looks like a terrorist… just like the ISIS soldiers you see on TV. You gotta’ wonder, how good is this for police-community relations? You’re masking this guy, giving him weapons, and having him do police-work. If he’s that undercover that he needs a mask, he shouldn’t be out there doing that operation. A police officer’s face should be visible at all times unless there’s a good tactical reason, like tear gas. Other than that, it ought to be a requirement for the nameplate and face to be visible at all times.

Ever since I retired, I started looking at issues like this. I became a “them,” and I started looking at things as a “them,” and realized I wasn’t an “us” anymore. I thought, “What would it be like to be on the receiving end?” I realized that in the United States of America, we have masked armed agents who do the bidding of the state. That’s just wrong. It might be tolerated in somewhere like Nicaragua or North Korea, but it shouldn’t be so here!

Det. Sgt. J. Gary Nelson (Ret.) is a veteran of the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona. In addition to speaking out against the increased militarization of police, his advocacy focuses on ending the use of civil forfeiture without conviction, building police-community trust, ending excessive justice system fines and fees, and addressing PTSD in law enforcement.

Roshun Shah is the speakers bureau associate at the LEAP.

Originally published at on May 23, 2019.

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