The militarization of law enforcement personnel in the United States is not a new phenomenon; rather, it is a decades-long trend that has recently been receiving extensive media attention due to the rising social unrest that it has ignited across the country. While the vast majority of American news audiences might only now be waking up to these realities, they have been part of the lived experiences of targeted inner city populations for generations.
By “militarization” we are not only talking about the increased use of military-grade equipment, but also the militancy in the underlying mentality that governs police behavior. This mentality can be traced back to the response to social unrest that grew out of the Civil Rights movement, the perpetual failure of the “War on Drugs”, Reagan’s war on America’s poor, Clinton’s expansion of domestic policing, and Bush and Obama’s post 9/11 security state.
The Pentagon has provided big cities and small towns alike with a massive surplus of military equipment. According to Pentagon data unveiled in a recent New York Times article, police departments in the United States have received tens of thousands of machine guns, nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines, thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment, silencers, armored cars and, in some instances, even aircraft. This surplus is a direct consequence of the military drawing down its commitments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which has left armouries and warehouses packed with excess equipment. As a result, the Pentagon has made this equipment available to local law enforcement agencies at virtually no cost, an offer too tempting for most to refuse.
This particular article also observed an increased reliance on Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to conduct routine jobs. The big question that comes to mind is then: to what end and to what consequence? Once you start equipping law enforcement agencies as if they were an occupying force, they tend to start acting like it. The philosophy that is now pervading law enforcement authorities seems to be to use force now, and ask questions about the appropriate use of that force later.
The permanence of SWAT teams has also changed the way in which police departments view themselves and their role within the communities they have been entrusted to serve. We now often see on display in police department recruiting videos and websites. Take the case of Springdale Arkansas, whose recruiting video consists of a montage of SWAT clips: in one clip you have officers throwing flash grenades into a house, and in another they stealthily make their way through a field in camouflage gear.
There are, of course, underlying incentives that encourage this behavior. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report last June contending that federal programs have created incentives for both state and local police to become excessively militarized (by employing weapons and tactics that were designed for the battlefield). The report documents how a combination of 90’s crime bills, which created the legal foundation for militarization, coupled with the cash overflow for the supposed vast need for homeland security following 9/11 has fuelled the purchasing of military equipment.
Militarization has now formed law enforcement’s baseline policy — that concerning police tactics — within most of America’s inner cities, resulting in protracted violence against predominantly people of colour. One example of this is the practice of “Broken Windows”-style policing, a tactic that floods inner city communities with police officers and focuses on addressing misdemeanours in order to prevent more serious crime. While supporters of these policies contend that they have led to recent declines in urban crime-rates, this comes at a steep price: that of further aggravating and marginalizing individuals in “hot spot” neighborhoods by fostering racial and class bias and a culture of police brutality through hundreds of targeted police interactions, and effectively pitting law enforcement against the community that they are supposed to be serving.
The now infamous case in Ferguson, Missouri offers one example of a police response that could be likened to military action. The killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August of 2014 ignited a furry of protests, particularly when no federal charges were handed down to the police officer responsible for his death. The Governor of Missouri responded to citizen demonstrations by unleashing the National Guard to suppress protestors. While some protestors did engage in violent acts, it is highly questionable whether the protests at large necessitated the need for riot gear, tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, or the issuing of a midnight curfew. The philosophy of police militarization was once again in full swing as law enforcement aggressively clamped down on social dissent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the SWAT raids alluded to before also disproportionately impact people of colour. A recent New York Times article investigated these raids and found them to be part and parcel to the infamous “War on Drugs” campaign being waged across the United States — a campaign that is disproportionately waged against minorities. Although it has been proven time and again that drug use cuts equally across racial lines, one would hardly believe this to be the case when looking at the faces of those who are actually tried and convicted of drug-related offenses. Of the 800 paramilitary raids that were studied, nearly 80 per cent were conducted for ordinary law enforcement purposes (namely, services search warrants) and against people of colour.
With the events of Ferguson still fresh in our minds, are we going to witness a shift away from militarized law enforcement practices? Until such a shift takes place, this prevailing militarized philosophy and practice will only continue to work not for the communities law enforcement authorities have sworn to protect, but rather for the authorities themselves who were supposed to have served.
Shelby Challis is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto, and has since worked for the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. Her policy areas of interest include healthcare finance, labour relations and security management.
[Image: Wikimedia, Smallman12q]