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Militarization of Police
By Tim Butz
The killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by the Ferguson (Missouri) Police Department not only sparked demonstrations but also ignited controversy over the militarization of police. Looking like Marines in Fallujah, the Ferguson Police attempted to repress public anger over Brown's killing. It failed to do so, leading to a new approach by the State Police, a de-militarization of law enforcement.
If you watched the Sunday morning talking heads, you would get the impression that the militarization of police was a new development brought on by the Department of Defense giving surplus military equipment to the police over the last ten years. Nothing could be further from the truth; the militarization of police can be traced back to the Vietnam War.
The early dawn raid was one often repeated by US forces in Vietnam. The helicopters landed in a clearing and disgorged their cargo of young men clad in jungle fatigues and flak vests, armed with M-16 rifles. They quickly rounded up the natives and held them at gunpoint. Reinforcements arrived by land and the augmented force began a line sweep of the surrounding terrain. They literally went over hill and dale in search of their targets.
The search completed, the prisoners were taken back to headquarters for interrogation. The young men breathed a collective sigh of relief; the operation was completed without any confrontation with an armed hostile force. They boarded their helicopters and vehicles and returned to their base.
But these prisoners were not Vietnamese peasants suspected of being members of the National Liberation Front. They were members of the Oglala Sioux Nation, residing at Crow Dog's Paradise on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
The troops who captured them were not members of the US Army, but rather members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Special Apprehension Teams (SAT), and their September 5, 1975 raid on Crow Dog's Paradise was one of several that they had conducted on the reservation in search of Native Americans suspected of the murder of two FBI agents. Over 100 FBI agents took part in these raids, conducting them with military precision, military tactics and military equipment.
Throughout the country, similar raids had taken place in search of political activists as well as "common" criminals. Some of these raids were conducted by the FBI's SATs and others by their locals police counter-parts, usually called Special Weapons and Tactics teams (SWAT).
As movements for social change became more powerful and militant in the 1960s and 1970s, the government reacted by militarizing the police, changing them from Officer Friendly to Sergeant Rock. The police have historically been a para-military force in their structure. The command and control of police forces has relied on a scaled-back version of military structure. The ranks used in police departments mirrors the military, and even the organizational structure has sometimes been similar; most state police departments are organized into "Troops." However, the similarities ended there.
In 1879, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act which prohibited the Army from acting as law enforcement as had been done by Union troops during the Reconstruction. US Marshals had been responsible for enforcing law in the former Confederacy and they often drafted federal military troops as their posses for doing so. The law allowed the federal military to enforce law only when the state was unable to protect constitutionally protected rights, an exception that was first used in Little Rock when Governor Faubus refused to act to protect African American students seeking to enroll in Central High School following a 1957 federal court order that they be enrolled.
The road to militarizing police began with the development of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams during the height of the civil unrest in the late 1960s. Chief Darrell Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department determined that an elite unit within the department was needed to respond to riots, barricaded suspects and other emergency situations. His idea took root in law enforcement, and by the mid-1970s there were 500 SWAT teams; now it seems as though every town larger than Mayberry has a SWAT team. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, criminal justice professor Peter Kraska, of Eastern Kentucky University, established that in 1985, just 13% of police departments in towns of 25,000 to 50,000 people had a SWAT team; by 2005 that figure rose to 80%. SWAT is everywhere.
The FBI likewise began militarization by striking a deal with the Army to trade access to FBI computers for training 200 FBI agents on riot control tactics. Slowly and quietly, a transfer of military philosophy and materials began to be seen in civilian law enforcement. In 1971, the Marshals Service created its own Army, known as the Special Operations Group (SOG). By the time of the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee by the FBI and US Marshals, the Marshals and the Army were cooperating to the point that Col. Volney Warner of the 82nd Airborne was sent as a military liaison with the Justice Department at Wounded Knee. Warner not only coordinated the delivery of military supplies to the Justice Department, he used his power to deliver military supplies to influence the Justice Department negotiations with Native Americans inside of Wounded Knee.
When the "War on Drugs" began to take root, SWAT teams began to proliferate. In June 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union released a detailed report on the current state of militarized police. It focuses on these key points: militarizing the police has occurred "with almost no transparency, accountability or oversight;" the majority of SWAT raids were drug-related and had overtones of racial disparity in their use; and "the use of violent tactics and equipment often resulted in property damage and/or bodily harm." Ferguson brought all this into focus for the American public, which awoke to a realization that the police were behaving as an occupying army rather than as public servants.
Modern policing seems to rely on terrorizing the citizenry as opposed to protecting it. As the ACLU argues, there are some circumstances where specialized training and equipment may be appropriate, such as hostage rescue. However, the exception seems to have become the routine. The public saw in Ferguson police in Battle Dress Uniforms, armed with surplus M-16s and body armor and driving Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) assault vehicles, and acting like an Israeli occupation force in Palestine. And then there was the realization that Ferguson was no different from any other city in the US.
According to an article on the US Department of Justice Community Policing website, SWAT teams proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, as did their deployments: an estimated 30,000 SWAT uses in 1995 alone. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2005 (the last year for which data was available) there were over 50,000 SWAT raids.
An investigation into the depth of militarization was done by New York Times reporter Mark Apuzzo and published on June 8, 2014. Apuzzo reported evidence that civilian police departments (including school district police departments) had received 432 MRAPS, 435 other armored vehicles, 93,763 assault rifles (both M-16s and M-14s), 180,718 magazines, including 100 round capacity magazines.
Police were never intended to be soldiers; the American model of law enforcement was based on the concept of keeping the police and military functions separate from each other. In the rush to fight the civil unrest of the 1960s, through the War on Drugs and now the War on Terrorism, we have created what author Radley Balko calls the "Warrior Cop." There have been enough public outcries over the issue of warrior cops that the US Senate is now investigating the Department of Defense program that allows the transfer of materials to civilian law enforcement. Given the failure of Congress to provide significant oversight of anything done by the Pentagon, don't expect to see anything change.
Tim Butz was a participant in VVAW'S Operation RAW, a VVAW organizer at Kent State and a coordinator for the Winter Soldier Investigation. he also worked on other VVAW actions. Tim was one of the founding editors of CounterSpy Magazine and was an investigator for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee. A former Executive Director for ACLU Nebraska and the Nebraska Justice Center, he is currently the Assistant Director of the Fair Housing Center of Nebraska and Iowa, supervising housing discrimination investigations.