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War Games: The Militarization of American Policing

A series of endless campaigns by the federal government, first Presidents Nixon and Reagan’s largely fruitless ‘war on drugs’ and later President Bush’s declared ‘war on terror’, have led to the wide-scale militarization of local police forces in the United States. When protestors assembled following the shooting by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, many Americans were shocked by the images of heavily armored vehicles and police in full SWAT gear clearing protestors from the streets with tear gas and rubber bullets. Yet this is becoming uncomfortably familiar all across America, as federal budget allocations provide ever more military-style equipment to regional police forces. The mass militarization of American law enforcement is a stain on America’s rule of law, and encourages only fear and mistrust of police. This trend can, and must, be turned around in order for policing to once again work for all Americans, and to prevent crime as opposed to waging war on criminals.

As early as the 1980s the federal government began providing large sums of money and military-style equipment to community law enforcement forces, particularly in southwestern border states, to combat the war on drugs. In the 1990s this process was accelerated, most notably by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 1033 program. Begun in 1997, the program has since transferred $4.3 billion worth of actual military equipment to law enforcement. Program 1033’s purpose is to provide funds for the purchase of military hardware as well as to transfer surplus military gear to local police forces, as stated by their revealing motto “from warfighter to crimefighter”.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Bush Administration and the Pentagon poured even more money into initiatives such as the 1033 program. Between 1990 and 2013 the annual transfers through the 1033 program increased from $1 million annually to nearly $450 million. As the war in Iraq came to a close much of the surplus equipment was shipped back home for use by domestic police. Furthermore, under the guise of fighting the War on Terror the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has funneled north of $34 billion in grants to police agencies intended to buy such equipment as drones, tactical vests, armored personnel carriers (or ‘BearCats’), bomb-disarming robots, and a plethora of gear unnecessary to local policing. To drive this point home, look no further than Payne County, Oklahoma, home to a police force with only 40 officers and 2 mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicles.

This increased militarization has furthered a battlefield mindset amongst police, and the corresponding increase of force reflects this changing mentality. When SWAT teams were first unveiled by Los Angeles and Philadelphia police forces, their primary purpose was as an elite unit to be used only in cases of active shooters or hostage situations. Yet today, SWAT teams are deployed by even small town police agencies for a wide assortment of disturbances. A study by Eastern Kentucky University found that there are now approximately 50,000 SWAT raids per year in the United States. Upon further review the ACLU found that almost 80% of these raids were merely to execute search warrants, with SWAT teams breaking down doors roughly half of these times.

The permeation of the use of force in police squads nationwide drives a wedge between communities and their law enforcement. This runs counter to the official government policy of community policing, a praiseworthy method long championed in the U.S. which seeks to cultivate trust through police officers acting as problem solvers as they engage with the community. Rapid militarization of the police fuels distrust and, especially in poorer communities, furthers a view of the police as an “occupying army” hell-bent on waging war against criminals, rather than reducing crime or protecting civilians. Aggressive policing tactics manifest themselves in greater instances of violence at the hands of police. The recent shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy armed with nothing but a toy gun, and the shooting of John Crawford III in an Ohio Wal-Mart simply for holding a toy pellet rifle are both prime examples of the many unnecessary killings by police each year.

To roll back these changes in a way that would benefit communities across America, the federal government, particularly the DoD and DHS, must bring a swift end to supplying equipment intended for Iraqi war zones to local police and sheriff offices. Furthermore, those same police departments should train their officers to be less like soldiers and more like the community service workers that they should be. SWAT teams and tactical units do have their place, but ought to be used sparingly in the high-intensity conflicts they were originally intended for, and not to merely serve up search warrants. Tougher gun laws would help quell police violence as well, as cops today know that suspicious individuals are likely to be bearing arms. The militarization of American policing can be, and must be subdued if we are to effectively reduce crime and protect the liberty of individuals as promised by the Constitution.

Image License: Some rights reserved by Inventorchris

About Michael Swistara

Michael graduated from McGill University in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics, and currently attends Columbia University where he is pursuing a master's degree. As former Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, Michael continues to occasionally contribute articles on his favorite topics, including American politics, economic policy, and foreign affairs.

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