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Ferguson and the militarization of the police

As of this writing (August 27, 2014), so much has been said about the killing by police of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown that it is hard to provide a neat, concise summary  (for a collection of news reports click here). We’d like to focus on one aspect of this case, namely what has been called the “militarization of the police.”

Since the 1980s, nearly all law enforcement agencies in the United States have embraced and adopted, to varying degrees, characteristics that are common to the military. These characteristics include, but are by no means limited to, clothing/uniforms, divisions of labor based on job classifications and personnel location within a hierarchy of command, the authorization and use of high-tech equipment, operations/strategies, and the distribution and differentiation of policing areas/jurisdictions. American law enforcement deploys the same assault weaponry found in the U.S. military arsenal (AR-15 assault rifles, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, etc.).

The beginning of the militarization of the police began with the riots of the 1960s and the creation of SWAT teams. As noted by Radley Balko (The Rise of the Warrior Cop) in 1970 there was only one SWAT team in the entire country (Los Angeles), but by 1975 there were about 500. In 1982, 59% of US cities over 50,000 population had a SWAT team; by 1995 that percentage had risen to 89.

Most alarming is the fact that many small towns and cities have SWAT teams: Among cities between 25,000 and 50,000, 65% had a SWAT team by 1995. By the first decade of the 21st century there were SWAT teams in places like Middleburg, PA (pop. 2,701) and Butler, MO (pop. 4,201). Balko reports that there were about 3,000 paramilitary police raids in the country in 1980; the number in 1995 was 30,000; there were about 45,000 in 2001. With the coming of the “war on drugs” the use of military-style force rose dramatically. According to Balko, by 1995 three-fourths of the deployment of SWAT teams was to serve drug warrants; by 2001 the percentage was 94.

Paramilitary force has been used frequently to quell “public disturbances” starting with the rioting in places like Watts and Detroit in the late 1960s. In almost every case, the key event that precipitated the riot was police confrontation with a black citizen. In Ferguson, it’s “back to the future.” This time, however, citizens were confronted by police who were armed better than the military in the Middle East. One military veteran, Kyle Rodgers, who served two deployments to Iraq and now serves as the Veteran Coordinator at Western Oregon University, told us that the cops “have better gear than we had in Iraq.” He added that “I think it is quite clear that our police at home have lost sight of their true mission and have surpassed even the warfighters who partook in one of the most infamous battles of the modern combat era.”

The behavior of the police in Ferguson, were it conducted by soldiers or Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan, would be viewed as violations of the Rules of Engagement and result in Court Martials. The officers ordering this action would be relieved of command and either sanctioned or removed from the military.

A Washington Post story quoted one veteran (a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst) who said “You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests. That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.” 

Keywords: police practices, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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