Police (not a platoon of soldiers) in Ferguson, Missouri, forcing a protester away from the city’s business district into a nearby neighborhood on August 11, 2014
The aggressive response of the Ferguson, Missouri, police force in the face of recent protests shocked many Americans. Armored personnel carriers with machine guns, tear-gassing of demonstrators, snipers at the ready—not exactly a how-to on crowd control under the U.S. Constitution. The events in Ferguson have brought national attention to the level of police force militarization that is now commonplace across the country. Congressional hearings are planned, and the Obama administration announced a review of federal programs that provide military equipment to state and local law enforcement.
One program operated by the Defense Department sent $500 million in surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies in 2011—anything from armored vehicles and bullet-proof vests to flashbang grenades. As part of its counterterrorism mission, the Department of Homeland Security also offers grants to police departments. Just as troubling as the military-style gear is the martial mind-set: some law enforcement recruitment videos depict joining the police much like joining the army. It is becoming harder to distinguish a police officer from a soldier—and in our constitutional democracy, there is supposed to be a significant divide between the two.
The SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team epitomizes police militarization. The country’s first SWAT unit was created in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Now there are thousands of such squads in the United States. In 2005, 80 percent of cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had a SWAT team, up from 13 percent in 1983. Not surprisingly, the number of raids by SWAT teams has also increased—from about 3,000 per year in the early 1980s to 50,000 in 2005. Originally designed for response to hostage situations, riot control, or other clearly dangerous scenarios, SWAT teams have been sent to serve warrants, conduct drug searches, or even to break up illegal poker games.
Image credit: © Scott Olson/Getty Images
- Police Militarization in Ferguson—and Your Town
This article from the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, written just days after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, focuses on the police militarization apparent during the civil unrest; includes a video of a forum featuring Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.
(Source: Cato Institute, August 13, 2013)
- Debate Over Police Militarization to Begin in Earnest
This story recounts efforts being announced or planned by the Obama administration and Congress to reexamine the militarization of police forces by in the wake of the protests and civil unrest in Ferguson.
(Source: MSNBC, August 25, 2014)
- Report Points to “Dangerous Militarization” Of U.S. Law Enforcement
This article, written before the protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, MO (citing the ACLU report listed next), examines the dangers of militarization to the mission of law enforcement.
(Source: NPR, June 24, 2014)
- War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing
This webpage summarizes the report titled “War Comes Home” that documents the “excessive militarization” of police forces in many U.S. communities; includes the full report, links to related stories, videos, and more.
(Source: American Civil Liberties Union; accessed September 3, 2014)
- Rise of the Warrior Cop: Is It Time to Reconsider the Militarization of American Policing?
This article by Radley Balko, written more than a year before the disturbances in Ferguson, MO, urges a reconsideration of police reliance on military hardware and tactics (a number of factual inaccuracies in earlier versions of the story have been corrected).
(Source: Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2013)