Cops, MRAPs and the Heartbreak of Police Operator Syndrome

By Chris Hernandez

Let me make something clear: you’re right to feel uncomfortable that cops have MRAPs and look like soldiers. I’m a twenty-year cop and even though I’ve received fairly extensive tactical training, even though I carried a carbine and plate carrier in my trunk when I was on the street, even though I believe there are times we need to be warriors, I agree that too many officers think of themselves as “operators” instead of cops. And one symptom of the dreaded Police Operator Syndrome is the desire to rush to every “my neighbor’s dog is pooping in my yard” call in an MRAP . . .

Police Operator Syndrome is not new. I first heard the word “operator” used by cops when I was a UN police officer in Kosovo, fourteen years ago. Officers in a tactical unit passed around a copy of Black Hawk Down, and within weeks they were all calling themselves operators. And with that title came a different, hardened attitude. They weren’t there to fight crime; they were operators, ready for war.

Unfortunately, Police Operator Syndrome is probably here to stay (we can thank the War on Drugs and panic over terrorism for that). Within police departments it is often the subject of ridicule. Cops have always made fun of the guy who carries six magazines on his belt, two backup guns and a combat knife on patrol. They really make fun of “operators” who show up on scenes with more gear than I carried in Afghanistan, and who couldn’t chase a suspect fifty feet with all that crap on.

Among actual Special Forces units, only a small number of men have earned the title Operator. From what I hear, just about all SF guys laugh at police officers who call themselves operators. I shake my head every time I see a cop dressed in modern Army camouflage; we soldiers hate that camouflage because it doesn’t work anywhere, so why are cops wearing it? And I cringe whenever I see a cop in public with a shamagh, an Arab scarf, around their neck. There is almost no better way for a cop to scream “I really want to look like a soldier!” than by wearing a shamagh.

I imagine many street cops aren’t too excited about MRAPs either. They’re bulky, slow, impractical and not likely to ever be needed. And based on what we see online and on TV, way too many cops seem to fall under a magical spell and think they have to dress and act like operators when their police department gets an MRAP. So maybe MRAPs are not only unnecessary, they also exert a sort of Vulcan Mind Meld on some cops.

However…an MRAP is just like a gun, in that it has no inherent goodness or evil. If it’s used for evil, it creates evil. But if it’s used correctly, it’s a great tool.

An MRAP is not a tank. Not even a little tiny one. As a former M1A1 Abrams crewman, and as an Iraq and Afghanistan combat vet who spent a lot of time in MRAPs, I assure you an MRAP is as much a tank as a motorized skateboard is a Harley. I cordially invite those who believe MRAPs are tanks to take one head to head against the nearest T-80. If you mock those who make ridiculous, emotional, politically loaded statements like “AR-15s are ghost guns that fire thirty magazine clips per half second!”, then don’t make ridiculous, emotional, politically loaded statements like “Police don’t need tanks!” when you’re talking about MRAPs.

And an MRAP can be a hell of a useful tool in the right situation. Who hasn’t heard of the North Hollywood shootout, where LAPD had to borrow AR-15s and use civilian armored cars to evacuate casualties? Had I been wounded, trapped and bleeding out that day, I’d have been damn happy to have an MRAP get me the hell out of there.

Or what about the Webster, New York firefighter ambush? That incident lasted hours and officers used an armored truck for evacuations. When a homicidal arsonist with an AR-15 is sniping firefighters and cops, it’s nice to have an MRAP handy. Because I don’t like getting shot while trying to protect innocent people’s lives and property. Firefighters are strange guys who nobody understands, but they probably don’t like getting shot either.

Police forces have owned and used armored vehicles for years. Back in the 50’s my agency had a WWII armored vehicle. Google “police armored vehicles”; you’ll see plenty of MRAPs, but you’ll also see old surplus military vehicles used by police departments long ago. Just as military rifles have been in civilian hands for centuries, military vehicles have been in police hands for decades. Military rifles don’t jump up and commit massacres, and MRAPs don’t spread tyranny on their own.

Yes, MRAPs can be used for the wrong purpose. But so can our pistols, batons or radios. The solution isn’t to get rid of the equipment, it’s to make sure the equipment is used properly.

Make no mistake, I don’t want to see operators in MRAPs smashing through a front door to serve a No Garage Sale Permit warrant. But I also don’t want an innocent victim to bleed out in front of a house where a lunatic is firing an AK. If an MRAP can be used to rescue that victim, I’m all for it.

So here’s my idea for making sure we policemen don’t get MRAP on the brain and convince ourselves we’re operators instead of cops. This idea won’t fix everything, but it’s a start.

I’d like every street cop in America to put their hand on their badge, and say these words:

“I’m not an ‘operator’. If I ever work for a phone company, I’ll be an operator. Until then, I’m a cop. When a bad guy is hurting good guys, it’s my job to stop the bad guy as quickly as possible. If my plan is to rush back to the station, strap on every piece of gear I bought at Army Surplus, climb into an MRAP and show up at the crime scene an hour later, my plan sucks. I fight crime with the tools on my belt, and with whatever I can grab from my trunk and put into action within thirty seconds. If I need an MRAP and Delta Force uniform to handle every problem, I’m the wrong guy for this job. When a situation is so dangerous my fellow officers and I can’t handle it, we call those MRAPs and guys with cool gear. But that’s the only time I want to see MRAPs and cool gear. The rest of the time I want it to stay at the station, available but not in everyone’s face.”

To any cops reading this, I’d ask you to spread the word. Our tactical guys are great to have around when crap hits the fan. MRAPs are great when bullets are flying and lives are in danger. But we don’t need to call ourselves operators, we don’t need to gear up for combat at the drop of a hat, and we don’t need to show off our shiny new MRAPs just because we have them. Let’s put all that crap away. We can train with it and keep it ready, but only bring it out when it’s really needed.

Until then let’s just be regular cops, wearing regular uniforms, driving regular cars, protecting regular people from regular old bad guys. Because that’s something to be proud of.

Chris Hernandez is an author, blogger and a police officer in Texas.