Spotlight: A History Of Police Militarization

Police walk around protesters as people gather along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. The police response to protests, which erupted after an officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, raised questions about police tactics and police militarization. Jeff Roberson / Associated Press
Police walk around protesters as people gather along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. The police response to protests, which erupted after an officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, raised questions about police tactics and police militarization. Jeff Roberson / Associated Press

Spotlight: A History Of Police Militarization

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Police militarization isn’t new. It’s been a trend for decades. SWAT teams have used military tactics since 1964, and police have used submachine guns and armored vehicles since the 1920s. But by 2017, chances are your neighborhood cop looks more like G.I. Joe than Andy Griffith.

If President Trump has his way, an executive order to cut back on military sales to the police will be rolled back. The order was signed by then-President Barack Obama, and it bans the sale of tracked tanks, weaponized aircraft, grenade launchers, bayonets, and camouflage uniforms to police. The order also limits the sale of military aircraft, unmanned drones, tactical vehicles, pyrotechnics, and more. Obama signed the order after protests in Ferguson, Missouri threw a national spotlight on police tactics.

Peter Kraska has spent his career studying police and criminal-justice militarization, and he gave Worldview a mini-history of police militarization. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

Jerome McDonnell: I saw a documentary recently about the 1978 Nazi riots in Marquette Park, and it looked like the police were naked. All they had were wooden batons, shields, and helmets. There were no armored vehicles even. How did that change?

Peter Kraska: The real political force that kicked this into gear was the conservative revolution of the Reagan administration and his war on drugs. Ronald Reagan and his administration were seriously blurring the already fairly blurry line between military and police. They pushed to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which is the only law we have in place that makes a clear distinction between civilian police and military forces. They didn’t succeed in repealing, but they amended it in a way to allow military special forces to train civilian police, give them grenade launchers, M-16s, and armored personnel carriers.

Now, it’s not just the gear that militarized police. It’s also culture. Whether gear drives culture, or culture drives gear, is hard to say. Another factor in the 1980s and 1990s is that local police departments were embracing a much more militaristic model for themselves. Ironically, that’s the same time that the federal government really pushed the democratized approach called community policing. But community policing really didn’t stand a chance against military policing, and, of course, militarized policing has won out and community policing was left on the back burner.

McDonnell: I remember watching a TV show called SWAT back in the day, and everybody was excited that this was the way to catch bad guys. Has SWAT accelerated the way police militarize?

Kraska: Very few people would argue that there are instances where you need a group of specialized trained police personnel in really serious situations — like hostage situation, barricaded suspect situation, or an active shooter situation. They were created as specialized units for that very purpose. But by the 1980s and 1990s, they went from being deployed two or three times a year to to hundreds per year for routine drug raids into people’s private residences.

So in other words, they’re using the Navy SEAL special operations approach — dynamic entry, flash bang grenades, and automatic weaponry — to go into people’s homes at 4 a.m. just to search for contraband. People don’t even get arrested, and this is done hundreds of times a year. …

In the United States of America, we have 18,000 different police departments, and they’re completely free to do whatever they want. So I ran into one small police department that had 25 officers and 15 of them served on their part SWAT team. I wondered how they found time and money to do that. It turns out that three paramilitary-minded officers hammered on their chief’s door for a year to send them to a three-day private paramilitary training camp. I found out later that they’d been involved in a significant tragedy, and I have no doubt that was a result of them being ill prepared to do what they were aspiring to do.

When we think of SWAT teams and police militarization, we think of the professionalized forces of LAPD or major police departments. But we also have to remember that there was a trend through the 1990s of “militarizing Mayberry.” You had all of these local police departments aspiring to the same kind of special operations that the bigger police departments have been doing for a long time, and with some real tragic consequences.

McDonnell: You mention Mayberry, the fictional town from The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s. It seems like the two police officer protagonists, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife, were almost like social workers. Is that an unrealistic vision for what police are supposed to be like?

Kraska: You’ve really touched on the crux of where the U.S. police institution is now. There’s a huge value conflict and power struggle going on in policing right now. Probably half of police personnel in the United States of America would aspire more towards the Mayberry model than they would an aggressive militarized model.

That’s why the federal government and the presidency plays a big role, because they tend to bolster one side or the other. As you can imagine, the Obama administration tended to bolster the more community policing approach, and the Trump administration, especially under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has gone seriously in the direction of militarization.

It’s important to recognise that the police themselves have to make sense of these contradictions. One of the real distortions that occurred during the community-policing revolution was that police departments were claiming the community-policing model and doing it with roving units of fully paramilitary clad and weaponized officers.

So the folks in the police world struggle mightily with each other in terms of what’s their real role in the community.  It’s not a good sign that a big segment of the police institution, including the Fraternal Order of Police, have doubled down on a much more aggressive “we versus them” mentality.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which originally aired on August 31, 2017. This segment was produced by Steve Bynum.