Putting Troops on the Beat

By Charles J. Dunlap Jr., deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force. The views expressed here are his own (THE WASHINGTON POST, 30/09/06):

It’s hurricane season again, which, along with recent reflections on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, causes us to think about the complexities of dealing with disaster on a major scale. One stark lesson taught by last year’s tragedy in New Orleans concerned the fragility of civilized societies. Scenes of chaos at the city’s convention center and elsewhere illustrated how quickly the strong could exploit the weak.

Unfortunately, a chunk of the New Orleans police force was nowhere to be found. Scores of officers left the city, and a few were alleged to have joined in the looting. Distraught victims begged for help on national television.

The appearance of a no-nonsense professional soldier in Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, along with battle-tested units, including elements of the fabled 82nd Airborne Division, quickly improved the security and relief situation. With military leadership and resources in place, more than the weather brightened. The cool efficiency of full-time military professionals on the hot New Orleans streets was exactly what the people wanted to see.

And apparently they want to see more of it when the need arises — and sooner. Indeed, few would debate the utility of a faster deployment of the active-duty military’s rescue, logistics and engineering resources.

But security is another matter. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act bars most direct military involvement in law enforcement, with several exceptions, including civil disturbances. Since Sept. 11, 2001, such threats as terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction have given the armed forces new legal authority. Should there be more?

Americans don’t seem especially worried about increasing the full-time military’s role. Despite troubles in Iraq and detainee abuse scandals, polls show that the armed forces are the most trusted institution in American society. Nevertheless, few models exist around the world in which the recurring use of militaries in law enforcement furthers democratic values.

Yes, it’s true that military troops, unlike civilian police, can’t quit their posts. But it’s dangerous to think veterans of the mean streets of Fallujah would necessarily approach a task the way Big Easy cops on the beat would. In this respect, the military’s versatility can be misunderstood.

Most conventionally trained soldiers advance on potential threats with a view toward destroying them, not arresting them. They don’t expect to reason with «the enemy.» A soldier’s authority is his weapon and his willingness to use it.

Typically, police rely on public respect for the rule of law, expressed in the authority of the badge. They exercise the studied restraint the judicial process requires. Suspects are not «enemies» but citizens, innocent until proven guilty. The elimination of «threats» is the job of the courts. Weapons are defensive last resorts.

Converting the war-fighting mind-set of the professional military to one that readily accepts the risks — and delays — inherent in policing under our Constitution can be extremely challenging and confusing to those wielding the guns and attempting to establish order.

Nonetheless, some military officers welcome domestic law enforcement roles. In a world where hijacked airliners, anthrax-infested envelopes and other serious threats arise close to home, there is a certain appeal to their thinking. And praise for the better-late-than-never Katrina effort has created an attitude friendly to domestic security duties among many in uniform.

What are they missing? Appreciation for the erosion that law enforcement duties could cause in the public affection and admiration the military wants — and needs — to sustain itself as an all-volunteer force. Americans in the end do not like heavy-handed security efforts, regardless of how well-intended they are, and typically react quite negatively to them. Think Kent State, Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Midnight searches by well-armed troops might fly in Baghdad (though perhaps not even there anymore), but certainly not in Baltimore. Once the military loses the respect of ordinary Americans, what kind of person will want to enlist?

Is there another way? Yes. Getting together to organize the country’s nearly 800,000 civilian police could provide governors nationwide with experienced law enforcement resources in times of crisis. Preparing the 400,000 citizen-soldiers of the National Guard for police duties is another option. Meanwhile, the uniformed regulars have plenty to do facing down threats beyond our borders.

America’s full-time military will do whatever is asked of it, but America must carefully consider what it asks. Otherwise, Katrina’s legacy could take yet another tragic twist.