The Militarization of American Policing

by Mark Gordon

This article appeared at Aleteia

Last April, during the manhunt for alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, television viewers were able to witness first-hand the militarization of a municipal police force. Officers in full battle gear rumbled through the streets of a Boston suburb in a variety of armored military vehicles, including up-armored Humvees and infantry troop carriers. As importantly, they deployed the tactics of soldiers, from small unit cover-and-maneuver formations and forcible, warrantless searches of private homes all the way up to the occupation-style lockdown of a major metropolitan area. It was an unprecedented demonstration of how police forces have evolved in the past quarter century. On some levels, it was also an understandable response – after all, the police were looking for two terrorist bombers who might have been part of a larger, active conspiracy.

But what many Americans don’t understand is the degree to which the ordinary business of policing in the United States is now being conducted using the equipment and tactics of the military and federal intelligence agencies. The Department of Defense regularly transfers excess or used equipment directly to the paramilitary units of police departments across the country. Just since August, for instance, 165 lumbering MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicles) have been donated to local cities and towns. And it’s not just cities like Los Angeles and New York that are the beneficiaries of such largesse; this autumn, an MRAP was transferred to Currituck, NC, a coastal town of 20,000 with no discernable terrorism problem. From drones to rocket launchers, American police departments are being outfitted with lethal and intrusive military gear at an alarming rate.

And it’s not just military hardware. A report published this week in USA Today, for instance, reveals that up to a quarter of American police departments now routinely collect metadata from local cell phone towers, and some departments have even purchased a technology known as “Stingray,” a device that tricks cell phones in a given area to connect to it, thereby giving police real-time access to voice and data traffic. Purchases of Stingray and other technology, including military hardware, are often financed through federal “anti-terror” grants administered by the DOD, NSA, and other agencies. If you were concerned about the National Security Agency (NSA) violating your privacy, wait until your local police department knows the details of your voice, data, and online life.

According to Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” this trend began in the 1970s with the appearance of paramilitary SWAT – “special weapons and tactics” – teams in most metropolitan police forces. At first, the tactics and firepower of SWAT were reserved for major public safety operations. But as it began to attract money and interest, SWAT’s role in policing grew. Over time, every police department wanted its own SWAT team, whether it really needed one or not. Potential recruits and even seasoned officers, faced with the choice of clocking speeders on the four-lane out of town or knocking down doors with a battering ram, chose the more exciting option, which created internal pressures for more and more SWAT slots.

In the late 1980s, the War on Drugs accelerated the militarization of police forces. The Reagan Administration issued a National Security Directive mandating closer cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to staunch the flow of drugs into and through the United States. That cooperation enabled the standardization of tactics and, to some extent, physical capabilities. In 1988, Congress directed the National Guard to become actively involved in drug interdiction at the state and local level, and under the Clinton Administration the DOD was authorized to begin transferring military equipment and technology to local police forces.

As we all know, the War on Drugs was followed by the War on Terror. In the aftermath of 9/11, nothing less than a wholesale redefinition of domestic policing began in earnest. Increasingly, local police departments became to be seen as auxiliaries of the federal government’s national security apparatus, acting as first-responders and monitors of suspect individuals and populations. Soldiers returning from battle in Afghanistan and Iraq began applying for positions with local departments. Often superbly qualified in many ways, these new policemen also brought with them assumptions, values, and behaviors conditioned by their experiences on the back streets of Baghdad and Ramadi. Today, there are over 1,000 SWAT teams in the United States. They conduct over 50,000 paramilitary-style raids every year, often with disastrous consequences.

In 1878, following Reconstruction, the Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which enshrined in statutory law a basic American value embedded in Article IV of the Constitution: that the military should not be used for domestic policing except in extraordinary cases of civil disturbance. In recent years, the Act has come under a quiet yet relentless attack from the very federal government it was intended to restrain. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for instance, permits the indefinite military detention of domestic residents, including citizens, when the federal government determines that they have “supported” terrorist organizations. Since “support” can mean a lot of things, including speech, the 2012 NDAA could have significant ramifications for Article IV of the Constitution, as well as the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

A 2013 change to the US Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” permits the Pentagon to police the streets of American cities and towns without prior permission from local and state governments, or even the President of the United States. The rule reads, “Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances.” This seems to be a direct challenge to both the Posse Comitatus Act and the whole notion of civilian control of the military.

These seeming violations of the Constitution and statutory law pertain to the uniformed military services of the United States, but what about militarized police departments? To the extent that police departments – or even units within departments – have effectively been deputized as adjuncts of the federal government, we should examine closely at their purposes, tactics, and weapons. No-knock raids, warrantless searches, and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mindset may have its place on the battlefield, but not in American neighborhoods, regardless of the supposed threat.