History of Police Militarization

Abigail Hall Blanco,

Release Date
December 16, 2015


Criminal Justice

The History of Police Militarization featuring Professor Abby Hall. In recent events, police brutality has been a major concern in America. What has led to the use of military-grade weapons and tactics among American police forces?
Join the Learn Liberty staff at 1:30pm Thursday, 12/17 for a Periscope discussion of this video! https://www.periscope.tv/LearnLiberty

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (book): Investigative reporter Radley Balko documents the historical and political events that led the militarization of American police forces.
Our Militarized Police Departments (article): Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime regarding the the trend of using paramilitary forces to conduct raids on American homes.
Cops on Camera: Tech Solutions to Police Militarization & Misconduct (video): Panel discussion on the use of body cameras and other technological methods of improving police accountability.
Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (white paper): This paper presents a history and overview of the issue of paramilitary drug raids, provides an extensive catalogue of abuses and mistaken raids, and offers recommendations for reform.

Speaker 1:           When we have major snow blizzards, we had major snow blizzards I think it was a few years ago. We had the military riding through the streets with guns, they’re sitting on top with guns, the trucks and stuff with guns, sitting, looking out the window with guns. Riding through with big trucks and stuff in the back like we’re at war. But it was just snow outside, you’re just trying to protect people and keep it clear. I think it was just a threat, like a scare, just a scare. The guns and the military were just something to scare the people. You never heard an incident of when the military had to be involved in something within the United States, and they had to take out force. You never hear anything about that. It’s something that you can’t cover up nowadays.
Speaker 2:           The term police militarization involves the use of military equipment and tactics by the law enforcement officers. This includes the use of armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, sub-machine guns, grenades, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, and the SWAT team.
Speaker 3:           When you want to talk about police militarization, most people start looking back in the 1970s, and that’s really when we started to see the acceleration of police militarization. In order to actually understand how we get to that point we have to actually go back a little bit further. If you look at the Constitution of the US, and you look at laws that were passed in subsequent years, you see that the founders had a very keen understanding of what we refer to as the paradox of government power. [00:02:00] That is the idea that any time you give the government enough power to do something, you are entrusting them to do whatever that activity is, but you’re also trusting them to not abuse that power.
From that the idea is that you need to come up with a way to constrain the government so that they don’t abuse those powers. One of the things that the founders did was they separated very purposefully the functions of the military from the functions of the domestic police. They wrote into law that the military could not actually be used as a domestic police force. We start to see that over time this separation of these two groups, it starts to become particularly blurry.
Speaker 2:           Experts say there’s a long history of militarization of the police dating back to the race riots that broke out in a handful of US cities in the 1950s and 60s.
Speaker 4:           Keep on rioting until they stop all this.
Speaker 3:           Where we really start to see police militarization accelerate to the degree that we see it today really begins with the war on drugs and the war on terror. The reason those two events are particularly important, there are a couple of reasons. The first is that they both represent major crisis points in US history. Whether we want to think that they were actually crises or whether or not they were just perceived doesn’t actually matter. The idea behind a crisis is that you have some major event, and then people freak out. There’s this call for the government to do something to combat, in this case illegal drugs or terrorism.
The war on drugs officially starts in the 1970s. I think it’s in 1971 Richard Nixon officially declares a war on drugs. At this point you start to see PSAs, [00:04:00] other kinds of ad campaigns talking about things like the horrible epidemic of crack babies. Basically people started freaking out that illegal drugs are going to completely erode American society, it’s going to destroy the American youth, and that drugs are just going to be basically the end of the world. As a result going back to the economics of crisis, they call upon the government to do something.
Speaker 5:           Ladies and gentleman, I would like to summarize for you the meeting that I have just had with bipartisan leaders. America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.
Speaker 3:           1981 you see the passage of the Military Cooperation With Law Enforcement Act, which allows the Department of Defense to share information with local law enforcement. It allows them to share tactical information. It also allows them to share weapons with police departments, as well as maintain these weapons. Along with that program you have Program 1033, which was issued by the Department of Defense. This allows for the transfer of old military equipment to local police departments. There’s another program called 1122, which allows for the transfer of new equipment. This doesn’t just include things like bulletproof vests or helmets, which is some of it. It also includes things like high-powered assault rifles, grenade launchers, tanks, aircraft, those kinds of things.
Speaker 2:           Since the 1970s, riot police have fired at protesters using guns of rubber bullets or plastic bullets, which were invented by the British Ministry of Defense in 1970 for the use during the Trouble Riots. Tear gas, which was developed for riot control in 1919 by the US Army’s chemical warfare service is widely used against the protesters of today. The use of tear gas in warfare is prohibited by various international treaties [00:06:00] that most states have signed. However, it’s law enforcement or military use for domestic or non-combat situations which is permitted.
Speaker 3:           I think that repealing things like the 1033 Program, like the 1122 Program are good places to start. What I think will probably happen with the executive order, at least based on what I’ve read so far is that the rhetoric that Obama and others are using is that, “Well, this is clearly a problem. We need to make sure that the police departments who are using this equipment have a ‘good reason’ for using this equipment,” which is basically doing exactly what we’ve done before. The police departments who have this equipment through these programs, they’ve already supposedly justified why it is that they need these things for either drug interdiction purposes, for counter-terrorism purposes. That’s the ‘good reason’ that they’ve given. I think it’s potentially a first step. I think that repealing those programs is maybe something that we could do.
In terms of a long term solution to this problem, I think that it’s a lot more complex. I think you’re fighting a lot of different battles at once. At a bare minimum you have to have a massive shift in public opinion, that police militarization is a serious problem, and is something that needs to be corrected. I think that’s a pretty big assumption in and of itself. More than that, even if you do have a large shift of public opinion, [00:08:00] the other thing that you have to combat is a massive terrorism complex, and a massive drug complex. You have a lot of parties who are particularly interested in keeping these kinds of things going.
Police departments who get a lot of their funding from saying that they’re counteracting drugs, or they’re counteracting terrorism, they’re not going to want these programs to go away. It’s a large portion, and in some cases it’s the majority of where their funding comes from. They don’t want that to go away. If you start making reforms to the system you have other groups of all the people who are manufacturing these different weapons that are going to the military, and then to the police, they have an interest in keeping these kinds of things going. In terms of how you untangle that web, if you will, after it’s gone on for so long, I don’t think I have a very clean solution. I think that definitely having people recognize outright that this is a problem, and it is a systematic problem, is really fundamental in starting to reverse the tide.