The militarization of local law enforcement

One of the many disturbing trends since 9/11 is the steady militarization of our domestic police. Thanks to loads of money and equipment funneled through Homeland Security to local communities, local police are increasingly using military weaponry designed for “combating terrorism” for everyday police work.

According to Rizer and Hartmann writing for the Atlantic, before 9/11, small-town police officers had a standard shotgun, and possibly a high-powered rifle, and a surplus M-16, for use by the supervising officer. But now, police officers “routinely walk the beat armed with assault rifles and garbed in black full-battle uniforms.” Both large and small police departments have “acquired bazookas, machine guns, and even mini-tanks for use in domestic police work.”

Besides local police departments stocking up on military weaponry, military training is causing the police to exhibit more aggressive behavior. One recent example is the assault with military grade pepper spray, by a member of a university police force, on peaceful student protestors who were exercising their first amendment rights. Another is the Tampa police rolling out a tank-like vehicle at an Occupy encampment in a park in downtown Tampa.

The Tampa police deployed the massive 12-ton vehicle—one that is supposed to be used for rescuing people in a natural disaster or during a terrorist attack—to intimidate people at a small-scale peaceful protest. This vehicle was purchased from the military and paid for with a Federal security grant, according to the City of Tampa website. It was also underwritten by local corporations. (The city also purchased another smaller amphibious, bulletproof military vehicle equipped with a rotatable 360-degree platform, which can be used to mount a weapon.)

Corporate logos on Tampa police tank

Instead of walking the beat and communicating with residents, police are wearing bulletproof vests, riot gear, dark goggles, and masks even for routine work. S.W.A.T. teams are no longer used for extreme situations, but are used for everyday policing, including serving warrants. Instead of connecting with the community, the police are separating themselves psychologically from the communities they serve. As they become more like the military, they take on a dangerous mindset reserved for soldiers—one that is focused on killing an enemy.

Rizer and Hartmann report that we are witnessing a fundamental change in the nature of law enforcement. When a police officer takes someone into custody, they  consider him or her innocent until proven guilty. They are expected to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the vilest of criminals. Lethal violence is an absolute last resort.  Soldiers, on the other hand, are trained to identify two groups—the enemy and the non-enemy. Once identified, they kill the enemy. The blurring of the line between police and military is influencing, in a negative way, how the police engage with people in their communities.

This blurring also opens up the country to other dangers. With local police being given military equipment, weapons and training, there is little difference between them and the military itself. Thus, it makes it easier for an administration, if it so choses, to bypass the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 effectively eliminating the need to declare martial law. This is not a good trend. In mid November, 18 cities coordinated attacks on Occupy encampments. The origin of those coordinated attacks is not known at this time.

Glenn Greenwald, writing at Salon, sees a relationship between the growing militarization of the police and the growing economic unrest in the country:

It was only a matter of time before a coordinated police crackdown was imposed to end the Occupy encampments. Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.

The reason the U.S. has para-militarized its police forces is precisely to control this type of domestic unrest, and it’s simply impossible to imagine its not being deployed in full against a growing protest movement aimed at grossly and corruptly unequal resource distribution. As Madeleine Albright said when arguing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” That’s obviously how governors, big-city Mayors and Police Chiefs feel about the stockpiles of assault rifles, SWAT gear, hi-tech helicopters, and the coming-soon drone technology lavished on them in the wake of the post/9-11 Security State explosion, to say nothing of the enormous federal law enforcement apparatus that, more than anything else, resembles a standing army which is increasingly directed inward.

Chi Birmingham and Alex S. Vitale, in a recent art Opinion piece in the The New York Times, provide a visual diagram charting the evolution of police uniforms over the last decades. To view it, click here. The days of “Officer Friendly” visiting a local grade school appear to be over.