The Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer as well as the protests against President Trump’s efforts to establish an autocracy have highlighted the militarization of our police, both local and federal. Weapons originally designed for war have now become a normal and important part of the police arsenal. This has obviously been a trend that has developed over the last few decades but its corrosive effect on local communities has become increasingly evident over the last few years.
American policing has its roots in slave patrols and anti-immigrant fervor. And, unlike their European counterparts, American police have always been armed simply because so much of the populace is also armed. But the current era of the militarization of the police began during the unrest of the 1960s in Los Angeles as a response to the Watts riots. Darryl Gates, who had not yet risen to become the chief of the historically racist and abusive LAPD, saw the riots as something like the guerrilla war that was currently being waged in Vietnam and thought that, as such, quelling the riots would require something approaching a military response. Gates teamed up with some Marines and proposed what would become the first Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, team in the country. The idea behind the team was to use overwhelming force to put down any violent situation, more recently described by current Secretary of Defense Mark Esper as to “dominate the battlespace”.
The militarization effort was also abetted by the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act which was part of LBJ’s so-called “war on crime”. That Act allowed the federal government to facilitate improving the capabilities of local law enforcement. As part of that effort, the federal government offered grants to local police to purchase “bulletproof vests, helicopters, tanks, rifles, gas masks and other military-grade hardware”. Much of that equipment had previously been used in American military actions in Vietnam and Latin America, a pattern of recycling military hardware that would be repeated over the next decades. By the mid-1970s, for example, LAPD had added a fleet of 15 helicopters to its capabilities as part of the Air Support Division that often worked in concert with SWAT teams. These early SWAT teams, primarily formed in large urban centers, seemingly showed their worth in gun battles with the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army and became nationally known through an LAPD-approved propaganda vehicle, the TV show “S.W.A.T.”.
The next step in militarization came with Reagan’s enhancement of the “war on drugs” and the 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act. That bill allowed the US military and local law enforcement to work together and was primarily targeted at drug interdiction. This resulted in local law enforcement, usually SWAT teams, using military assault-type tactics for simple, non-violent cases of drug possession or distribution. Part of that assault tactic was the no-knock warrant, a seeming violation of the Fourth Amendment. In 1980, police executed 3,000 no-knock warrants. By 2005, that had risen to over 50,000. In many states, the mere execution of search warrants, no-knock or otherwise, was a substantial percentage of their SWAT teams’ total deployments. It’s important to note that these assaults were targeting people who, in most cases, hadn’t even been charged with a crime and were simply under investigation. The search warrant was an merely an attempt to gather potentially incriminating evidence. As the Breonna Taylor case shows, these kind of assaults create danger not only for the target of the warrant but also for the police and, most importantly, any innocent bystander who may be near the target. Since the 1980s, over 40 people not associated in any way with the warrant have been killed during the execution of no-knock warrants.
Reagan’s “war on drugs” created another incentive for local police to become more militarized. The legal fiction of civil asset forfeiture, designed to target drug lords, became a vehicle for small local police departments to actually generate revenue. As Radley Balko describes it, “It became sort of expensive to maintain the SWAT team and continue their training. But now you have this policy that allows the SWAT teams to start actually generating revenue for the police department. You go out and you serve these drug raids, and anything you find in the house, sometimes including the house itself, can be leveraged or can be sold, and the money goes back to the police department…the number of SWAT raids in a particular town or city, you know, growing by five, six, seven hundred percent, 1,000% over five or 10 years in the ’80s and ’90s”.
As the police became more militarized, so did the populace, with the help of the 2nd Amendment absolutists on the Supreme Court. The ability of regular citizens to obtain military weapons like AK-47s meant that the average patrol officer was now outgunned. This became obvious during a 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery in LA where the robbers had AK-47s with high-capacity magazines filled with armor-piercing bullets and Kevlar vests that protected them against the patrol officers’ pistols and shotguns. The two thieves were eventually killed by an LAPD SWAT team but 12 officers and eight civilians were injured in the firefight. That incident led to regular patrol officers, not just SWAT teams, carrying AR-15s and semi-automatic pistols. With better armed patrol officers, local law enforcement began using regular officers in much the same way they used SWAT teams, setting up specialized narcotics and anti-gang units. As Radley Balko notes, “They start using the same sorts of SWAT team tactics, often without the kind of training that SWAT teams get”.
President Clinton and Congress responded to the North Hollywood bank robbery, further militarizing the police by initiating the 1033 program in order to counter drug traffickers. That program allowed the transfer of excess military equipment to local law enforcement who only have to to pay the cost of shipping. By this year, over $7.4 billion worth of military equipment had been transferred to over 8,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after 9/11 further enhanced local law enforcement access to military equipment. DHS now offers grants to local police to buy new, not used, military equipment.
The result of all this is that local police can not be differentiated from National Guard troops or armed vigilante gangs on the streets of our cities. Tear gas, banned for use in warfare, is used for domestic enforcement, with more potent and even invisible versions now being produced specifically for law enforcement. Flash grenades, used in war to temporarily stun insurgents in a closed space, are now used on peaceful protestors in open spaces. Small town police forces like the one in Lebanon, Tennessee, population 30,000, now own a tank. Oxford, Alabama, population 20,000, has its own armored vehicle as well as a cache of M-16s and plenty of body armor. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAPs), mass produced during the Iraq War and designed to actually transport soldiers rather than deployed as an actual weapon, have ended up being used in towns as small as 5,000 people. Shelby County, Tennessee police recently displayed their new “Tazer shields” which cost $900 each. Perhaps the epitome of police militarization was the report that the Trump administration actually considered using a so-called “heat-ray” on peaceful protestors in Washington DC. The administration did, however, employ Air Force reconnaissance planes to monitor those protests and had an army helicopter buzz peaceful demonstrators.
The collateral damage from all this militarization has been immense. There have been enormous debacles like the bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, which resulted in a whole block going down in flames, and the sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Flash grenades have burned a woman having dinner, a baby in its crib, and created a fire that resulted in a man dying from smoke inhalation. Rubber bullets have blinded protestors and reporters. SWAT teams have forcibly entered the wrong house, terrorizing the occupants, when executing a warrant. Five of the officers involved in the Breonna Taylor killing had participated in a raid on the wrong house in 2018. All this is in addition to the regular killing of unarmed citizens, especially black men, by police.
In addition to the excessive use of force that have these weapons of war facilitates, it also helps create a warrior mentality among the police and the feelings within the community that they are facing an occupying force. One of the officers involved in the botched Breonna Taylor raid was very explicit about that mentality and the attitude of the people he was supposed to protect. In an email to his fellow officers, he wrote, “Now go be the Warriors you are, but please be safe! None of these ‘peaceful’ protesters are worth your career or freedom”. Another Louisville police major also wrote, “These ANTIFA and BLM people, especially the ones who just jumped on the bandwagon ‘yesterday’ because they became ‘woke’ (insert eye roll here), do not deserve a second glance or thought from us…Our little pinky toenails have more character, morals, and ethics, than these punks have in their entire body.” As Radley Balko notes, “[T]he culture of policing is – and again, I think this goes hand-in-hand with the gear itself, but policing has become a very sort of psychologically isolated profession. And there’s a strong kind of battlefield mindset I think that’s taken over. One thing – if you go to police forums online and kind of snoop a little bit, you’ll see this phrase over and over again, whatever I have to do to get home at night. And that’s – you know, that is not to protect and serve as sort of mantra. That’s a – you know, that’s a soldier’s mantra. I’m just going to try to survive”.
A large part of that mentality is because we have asked the police to do jobs that are far beyond the purview of actual law enforcement. They have to deal with the mentally ill, domestic disputes, and drug issues that we as a society have failed to adequately address. When you see the worst the world could possibly offer, it’s easy to see how you could develop the warrior mentality and the belief that you are the “thin blue line” between civilization and chaos. In addition, these “warriors” are largely protected by the system from the abuses they inflict. Their often extensive histories of brutality remain hidden from public view. They are protected by their union and their force, as well as by the prosecutors they work with. And they receive protections such as the legal fiction of qualified immunity given to no others. In many ways, they are unaccountable.
It’s easy to see why there would be a problem with providing a largely unaccountable police force with military weaponry without requiring the extensive training that soldiers actually get in the military. And it’s not just the rank and file officer that never gets the necessary training. In the armed forces, it is ingrained in every officer that there is civilian control of the military. In law enforcement, that is not always the case. Sheriffs are elected and answer to no authority other than the voters. Police chiefs can be fired but often they have become so entrenched that they forget, or willfully ignore, that they answer to elected civilian authorities. That attitude then filters down to the rank and file officers and the police eventually become a law unto themselves.
The Constitutional Sheriffs movement believes that locally elected sheriffs are the supreme law of the land, even more powerful than the Supreme Court, and that they have the authority and the duty to disobey laws or orders that they alone believe are unconstitutional. Sheriffs across the country have defied governors’ orders related to the pandemic. In Marion County, Florida, the sheriff banned anyone, including his deputies and even visitors, from wearing a mask in his offices even as the county’s largest city, Ocala, imposed a mask ordinance. At the same time, the Ocala police chief declared that his officers would simply refuse to enforce the mask mandate.
In fact, simply refusing to do their job is a common police tactic when confronted with criticism or efforts at reform. Alec MacGillis has noted, “the shared recent experience of cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta, and Minneapolis points to one of the biggest challenges facing municipal leaders who are trying to hold police officers accountable for possible abuses of power and reform their police departments as a whole: the prospect that officers will pull back, staging a silent strike that, at best, leaves the city unable to contend with a spike in violence or, at worst, helps give rise to one”. He illustrated what happened in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore in 2015, writing, “Soon afterward, the city’s chief prosecutor announced criminal charges against the officers involved in the arrest. The officers’ colleagues responded by pulling back on the job, doing only the bare minimum in the following weeks. In the resulting void, crews seized new drug corners and settled old scores. Homicides surged to record levels and case-closure rates plunged. ‘The police stopped doing their jobs, and let people fuck up other people,’ Carl Stokes, a former Democratic city councilor in Baltimore, told me last year. ‘Period. End of story.'” As one former Seattle mayor noted about the situation in his city, “There’s a lot of evidence that the police today are not fully under control of the mayor. No mayor can admit that, but all evidence seems to suggest that”.
Perhaps the epitome of police openly defying civilian authority is currently on display in Portsmouth, Virginia. There, the local police have charged a State Senator with felonies and called the local prosecutor as a witness in a case related the destruction of Civil War statues under a 70-year old law that prevented “injury” to war monuments. But neither the State Senator or the local prosecutor were anywhere near the monuments when the destruction occurred. The point of the police effort was simply to tarnish the black State Senator and prevent the black prosecutor from handling the case. The former black police chief in Portsmouth, who was fired for no apparent reason other than trying to reform the racist police department, has stated she had “never witnessed the degree of bias and acts of systemic racism, discriminatory practices and abuse of authority” as she saw in the Portsmouth Police.
In New York City, the police have been constantly at war with the now universally despised mayor, Bill de Blasio. In 2014, cops turned their backs on the mayor at a funeral for two police officers, openly showing their anger at what they considered insufficient support for the department during anti-police protests. Earlier this year, the head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA), a powerful NYC police union, responded to de Blasio’s strong defense of the NYPD against anti-police violence by tweeting, “Mayor DeBlasio, the members of the NYPD are declaring war on you! We do not respect you, DO NOT visit us in hospitals. You sold the NYPD to the vile creatures, the 1% who hate cops but vote for you. NYPD cops have been assassinated because of you. This isn’t over, Game on!” In August, the SBA seemingly gave de Blasio an ultimatum to resign by sundown, again tweeting, “We need to hear you RESIGNED as Mayor of NYC. We are WAITING. Only a few hours left until sundown. Give 8 million people a gift & quit. You ruined NYC, Save the City and step down”. As Zak Cheney-Rice summarizes, “The conclusion is unavoidable: In New York and elsewhere, a bulk of police unions is institutionally uninterested in sharing civil society on equal terms with people who think the police are sometimes wrong. They’re bad-faith actors who would trade democracy for their brand of authoritarianism any day. They should be treated accordingly”.
Over the last half century, we have turned local law enforcement into small armies, armed with weapons usually reserved solely for warfare. Unlike the military, however, many of these small armies are often accountable to no civilian authority. And yet we are continually surprised when these essentially private armies abuse the constitutional rights of peaceful American citizens. As the entire Trump presidency so vividly illustrates, power without accountability is a recipe for disaster, for autocracy. We shouldn’t be surprised.