Did you know that the United States has not always had police officers swarming the streets and a strong police force at the federal, state and local level? It’s just something we expect today, but the reality is that this is only a phenomenon of the last 100-150 years or so. Before that, you just had volunteers and other minor officials. The federal government had only the United States Marshals Service before the Civil War. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not even exist until Reconstruction.

In any case, the police have gradually become more and more like the military in the time since then. This process, called militarization, is when the police force takes on the military’s:

  • Equipment
  • Mindset
  • Operational tactics
  • Culture

To see it in action, just look at SWAT teams with their black military-style vehicles, body armor, helmets and semi-automatic rifles. If not for the words on their uniforms, it would be difficult to tell them apart from a military unit operating in an American neighborhood.

But is that wise? The military culture, out of necessity, is one that embraces violence. That is what is needed in war. Does adopting that mindset make police officers too violent? Do they see themselves as the enemy of the alleged criminals rather than keepers of the peace? Most importantly, if they do, does that mean they’re prone to escalating situations and using excessive violence, even for minor crimes?

It’s an important question to ask in the United States, where people get killed or seriously injured in encounters with the police all the time. Those who feel the police crossed the line need to know what legal options they have.