The militarization of law enforcement in the United States is a trend that dates back more than two decades. But until the results of that militarization were put on full display in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the public and the media remained largely unaware of how far it had progressed. During protests spurred by the police shooting death of Michael Brown, many were shocked to see heavily armed police officers marching in formation or riding in military-grade assault vehicles, dressed like soldiers and mimicking their “peacekeeping” techniques.
In 2020, the militarization of modern policing has once again been in the news. As tens of thousands gather to express their outrage over the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others to name, battalions of battle-clad warriors with badges have been dispatched to keep the peace.
They’ve been noticeably absent or slow to respond in areas where arson and looting have been reported. But more and more disturbing videos have emerged showing police officers using extreme force and wicked weaponry to uproot and disperse apparently peaceful protestors. As evidence of police abuse of power accumulates during the ongoing civil unrest, law enforcement’s adoption of military technology, tactics and strategies is coming under closer scrutiny.
President Trump has threatened to deploy the United States military to stop looting and rioting. But if such an action is taken, it won’t change the nature of current pacification practices. While those who’ve been dispatched to preserve law and order still carry the shields of local law enforcement, in reality the military occupation of America’s streets has already begun.
The list of military-grade combat equipment purchased by local police departments to fight crime and preserve the peace includes:
In the 21st century, police officers arrive at crime scenes, either real or imagined, outfitted for war and ready to battle well-armed and implacable foes—who may or may not actually exist.
The incorporation of military-grade weaponry and protective gear into the arsenals of police departments began in earnest in the late 1990s. While crime rates declined as the decade progressed, in the early ‘90s murder and other violent crime rates were peaking. This trend was sensationalized in the media, which created a sense of danger that panicked the citizenry and alarmed the law enforcement community.
In this climate of fear, Democratic and Republican legislators at the local, state and federal levels stumbled over each other in their rush to see who could appear tougher on crime. President Clinton set the stage for an explosion of incarceration in America when he signed the infamous 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill into law, and he followed up this dubious “achievement” by adding a section to the 1997 Defense Department budget bill that required the Pentagon to transfer excess military equipment and supplies to local police departments.
This new initiative, which was called Program 1033, set the stage for the mass militarization of police forces across the country. More than 8,000 police departments have received in excess of $7.4 billion dollars of equipment from the Defense Logistics Agency under the terms of Program 1033, which is still going strong more than 20 years after its inception.
Many municipalities that have added military equipment to their collective arsenals have used it to create or outfit SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. These elite law enforcement squads are modeled after military special forces units, and they carry heavy-duty gear and equipment that is allegedly suited for the tasks they are assigned.
SWAT teams have been formed in more than 90 percent of U.S. cities with populations greater than 50,000. Since 1980, the number of SWAT team deployments initiated by local police forces has increased from about 3,000 to over 50,000 annually, and the number keeps rising.
Originally created to handle emergency situations, SWAT teams are now used primarily as enforcers in the War on Drugs. They have helped fill America’s jails with (usually nonviolent) drug offenders, supplying a source of cheap labor for privatized prisons and a lucrative source of income for their departments. The latter benefit is a result of civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow police departments to keep any money or assets they seize during drug raids.
More than 90 percent of the time, SWAT teams are deployed to issue search warrants and conduct drug raids. They will sometimes serve these warrants before entering homes, but in other instances they will break in unannounced. Highly controversial ‘no-knock’ raids (like the one that led to the death of Breonna Taylor) are examples of a military-style tactic that has been adopted by many local law enforcement agencies, and by their very nature they create sudden and intense conflicts that can and sometimes do end in bloodshed.
Military equipment transferred under Program 1033 are provided free of charge. However, local law enforcement agencies that receive it must pay all costs for transportation, training, maintenance and storage. They are also required to show evidence that they’ve actually used the equipment and supplies they obtained within one year of the acquisition.
These additional codicils may help explain why military-grade equipment, which should presumably be reserved for emergencies, is used so freely and frequently during drug raids (a common occupation in modern policing). These activities help justify equipment transfers, while guaranteeing a steady source of income under civil asset forfeiture laws that can be used to cover the expenses incurred when military equipment is acquired.
Program 1033 jumpstarted the militarization of American policing. But the process accelerated even further following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Police departments on the frontline in the War on Drugs felt even more challenged by the threats associated with an expected War on Terror, and with the help of grants from the Department of Homeland Security they began to stockpile even more heavy-duty armaments, vehicles and protective gear.
But the pitched battles with armed terrorists that many law enforcement professionals anticipated never materialized. In the meantime, violent crime rates had plummeted by the early 2000s, removing yet another justification for massive police arms buildup. Mass shootings became a real and frightening phenomenon, and SWAT teams were often called on to respond. But these were sporadic events spread out geographically and not a regular feature of everyday life.
The fears that motivated police departments to prepare for Armageddon proved to be largely unfounded. But the militarization of policing has continued without interruption, with new justifications adopted to make it seem reasonable and rational.
Now, militarization is sold as a desirable outcome because it supposedly reduces crime rates while keeping police officers safer. But the latest research contradicts these assertions and offers even more ominous evidence that calls the whole process of militarization into question.
In an August 2018 article published by the National Academy of Sciences, researcher Jonathan Mummolo from Northwestern University revealed the results of his study of SWAT team deployments in the state of Maryland from 2010 to 2014. He was searching for signs of change in crime statistics and police officer injury data related to SWAT team utilization, but he found no evidence to suggest that a militarized approach to law enforcement reduced crime or increased officer safety in any way.
What Mummolo did demonstrate, however, is that people of color were disproportionately affected by SWAT team activity. Analyzing demographic data covering more than 8,200 SWAT team deployments, Mummolo found that a 10 percent increase in Black residents in a community or neighborhood increased the frequency of SWAT team invasions in those locales by 10.53 percent.
Other studies have focused on the effect of police militarization on public safety, and their results have been even more disturbing.
In the June 2017 issue of the journal Research & Politics, a team of social scientists discussed their attempts to find a connection (either positive or negative) between Program 1033 transfers and the use of lethal force by police. After accounting for other potential causal factors, they found a direct correlation between increased police militarization and greater incidents of civilian death and injury.
The researchers collected data from four states (New Hampshire, Nevada, Maine and Connecticut), where approximately 88 percent of all counties reported making material acquisitions through Program 1033 channels. They showed that a more militarized approach to policing was closely correlated with a rise in the rate of civilian deaths, which included more killings of dogs as well as of human beings.
Validating the results of this study was another research project carried out by University of South Carolina political scientist Edward Lawson, Jr.
In the July 2018 edition of Political Research Quarterly, Lawson revealed the findings of his 50-state study on police militarization and its relationship to police killings. After examining data collected over a two-year period (2014-2016) and accounting for all other factors that might have affected the results, Lawson found a clear relationship between the acquisition of military-grade equipment and increased use of lethal force by local police departments.
The troubling aspects of police militarization include more than just its increasing reliance on powerful and sophisticated killing technology. Concerns have arisen about the development of an ‘us versus them’ culture that sees outsiders (however they are defined) as enemies. This fosters feelings of paranoia and hostility that can color interactions with members of the public, causing officers to perceive threats where they don’t actually exist. This may be especially true in large gatherings (like at protests, for example), where police feel besieged and surrounded by potential troublemakers on all sides.
This type of mentality, when combined with an embrace of hard-edged martial values learned through warrior-style training, can lead to tense interactions between police officers and members of the public that can quickly spiral out of control. Signals can be misread, biases can be reinforced, and tragedy can sometimes be the result.
In the United States, there are approximately 25 civilians killed by police officers for every police officer killed by a civilian. While policing is a dangerous occupation, this civilian death toll does not seem commensurate with the actual risks associated with the job. Of course, it has been well documented that people of color are disproportionately the victims of police officers who resort to violence, whether spontaneously or by deliberate choice.
Militarization of policing is not the only reason why police officers in the United States kill more people than law enforcement professionals in other nations. Qualified legal immunity (99 percent of police officers are never prosecuted for using lethal force), a code of silence among cops that prevents exposure of abuse, faulty recruiting and selection practices, rampant steroid abuse, a lack of effective mental health screening, and bigotry and prejudice against people of color and other excluded groups may also help explain law enforcement’s proclivity to violence.
But the link between the militarized policing and an increase in civilian deaths has now been confirmed by research, and these latest findings should be taken seriously by police departments and the government agencies that fund and supervise them. Legislators and members of the public should be made aware of what the evidence suggests, as they contemplate various proposals for police reform.