Operator Disconnect

My latest op-ed, now available at Politico, highlights the continued militarization of American police forces. I focus on the statements of officers involved in the fatal shooting of Marine combat veteran Jose Guerena.

After the SWAT team entered Guerena’s home, the supervisor left one or two “operators” with the body while the rest searched the house.

What did he mean by operator? Well, a police officer. But the term connotes something entirely different.

“Operator” is a term of art in the special operations community. Green Berets, SEALs and other special operations personnel often refer to themselves as operators. It’s a recognition of both the elite standards of their units and the hybrid nature of their duties — part soldier, part spy, part diplomat. But importing operator terminology into domestic law enforcement is not a benign turn of the phrase.

Perceiving yourself as an operator plasters over the difference between a law enforcement officer serving a warrant and a commando in a war zone. The former Mirandizes, the latter vaporizes, as the saying goes — and as the recent Osama bin Laden raid vividly illustrated.

Language matters, and importing military terminology into peace officer lingo contributes to police militarization. There are plenty of alternative terms for SWAT officers that would carry elite connotations, such as “tactical officer,” as in the National Tactical Officers Association. Unfortunately, the NTOA website could use a good operator scrubbing (start here, here, and here).

Video of the Guerena raid:

The Guerena raid is posted over at the Raidmap, and Radley Balko provided an excellent write-up. Balko’s Overkill is essential reading on this topic.