Foreign Policy, Ep. 2: Militarization of Police in America

Abigail Hall Blanco,

Release Date
July 21, 2016


Civil Liberties

Watching footage of recent domestic protests, police are so armed to the teeth you’d think you were looking at a war zone.
The sight of police officers riding in tanks, wearing combat gear, and using military-grade weapons to respond to civil unrest, has become increasingly common on American streets. Professor Abby Blanco of Tampa University explains how that came to be.

The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing (The Independent Review article): Academic work investigating the militarization of police, and the role of “constrained government” by professors Abby Hall Blanco and Chris Coyne. 
How U.S. Police Came to Look Like Soldiers (article): Professors Chris Coyne and Abby Hall Blanco write on the origins of police militarization. 
History of Police Militarization (Learn Liberty video): This video looks into what brought us to where we are today with regard to the war-like nature of policing in the U.S. 
Police Brutality in the Baltimore Riots & the Rise of Police Militarization (Learn Liberty Video): This video looks at the police response to protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. 

>> The sight of police officers riding in tanks, wearing combat gear, and using military-grade weapons to respond to civil unrest, has become increasingly common on American streets. Watching some of the news footage from Ferguson or Baltimore, you’d think you were looking at soldiers in a war zone, rather than police protecting a community.

This outcome is years in the making. Police forces with highly specialized military equipment and training, such as SWAT teams and police paramilitary units, were first used in the 1960s. And their use has been expanding ever since. SWAT teams are now deployed an estimated 80,000 times a year in the U.S., up from just 3,000 deployments in 1980.

How did this happen? Afterall, the police and military are meant to serve very different purposes. The police are meant to be peacekeepers, serving and protecting civilians where they live, while the military is for waging war and destroying external threats to national security. Yet some police units are behaving as if their mission is to fight enemy combatants, rather than stop civilian crime.

One major reason for this shift is the boomerang effect. When the Government develops personnel, tactics, and weapons to deploy in foreign wars, it’s likely those same assets will reappear in some form back home. And that’s what we’ve seen happen when it comes to the neutralization of the police.

The first SWAT team was founded by a marine named John Nelson, a Vietnam War veteran who became an officer with the Los Angeles police department when he returned home in the 1960s. In Vietnam, Nelson had been a part of an elite force re-con unit. Renowned for their advanced training, high kill rates and operations behind enemy lines.

When the LAPD was looking for a new way to control large crowds after the Watts Riots of 1965, Nelson saw an opportunity to use his military training. He suggested developing a squad within the police department of highly trained police officers with special weapons to respond to such events.

This idea was supported by a senior police official, Daryl Gates, himself a veteran of World War II. They formed the first SWAT unit with sixty of the LAPD’s top marksman, who all had prior military experience, and gave them further training in Guerilla warfare tactics that Nelson had learned in Vietnam.

Personnel who have been trained in these instruments of war were now prepared to use those same tactics and mindset against American civilians. By 1971, the SWAT team was made a permanent fixture of the LAPD, and soon the concept was being copied by police agencies throughout the country. So the boomerang effect helps explain the invention of militarized police units in the first place, but it doesn’t stop there.

Military thinking crept into other major domestic policy arenas through the war on drugs and the war on terror. Though both of these conflicts involved foreign enemies, such as international drug cartels, and terrorist organizations, these wars are also being waged on civilian drug dealers and homegrown terror threats. This means huge amounts of federal dollars have gone to local police departments to wage these wars in their own communities.

For example, SWAT teams are routinely for no-knock drug raids, where heavily armed officers wearing body armor burst into civilian homes to try to catch suspects before they can destroy evidence. Unfortunately, these violent confrontations often have tragic unintended results. The death of innocent suspects, bystanders, and in some cases, police officers.

The use of overwhelming force to apprehend non-violent criminals is a far cry from traditional community policing. The boomerang effect has also enabled the spread of militarized police unites through hardware. Congress has passed laws which allow police departments to receive surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense. Under one program, Program 1033, some 500 million was transferred to state and local law enforcement in 2011 alone.

Other programs from the DOD and Department of Homeland Security provide additional avenues for police departments to obtain weapons. Under these laws, even small cities and towns began acquiring armored vehicles, weapons, surveillance gear, and more under the rationale that such gear was needed to combat terror threats or go after drug cartels.

So now, some police forces just don’t have the mentality of a militarized police force, they have the equipment as well. Today, there’s a growing awareness about the issue of militarized police and some public outcry against it. But it’s unclear whether this will be enough to stop the further spread of such tactics.

Continued reform is needed. Repealing or significantly changing initiatives like the 1033 Program may be one option. Importantly, more people need to recognize the unexpected ways that foreign intervention can impact life back home.