Photo by Jaeger Moore
United States / Police

The American Homefront: Understanding the Militarization of Our Nation’s Police

Over the last eight months, police forces across the United States have undergone increasingly vociferous criticism for what many believe to be racially motivated uses of force. Most recently, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have galvanized the American public into questioning the accountability, institutions, and practices of American law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, the subsequent protests have only added to the polarized cacophony of domestic politics, entrenching both side’s views of each other as either “jackbooted thugs” or “professional rioters.” Thus, the accusation that the police have become more militarized holds little meaning when the term is hurled as an insult or without restraint. However, the salient issue of an evermore aggressive police force cannot afford to be lost in the emotionally-charged fervor of the national debate, as it affects the most fundamental aspects of American society: our constitutional right against unlawful search and seizure, and our societal responsibility to draw the fine line for law enforcement between ensuring security and restricting liberty.

Defined as the process by which civilian police forces model themselves after the methods and structure of the military, the “militarization of the police” is a phenomenon most associated with the rise of SWAT, or Special Weapons And Tactics teams. Established by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1966, the first SWAT teams emerged as a defensive response to rare high-risk scenarios involving hostage rescue, active shooters, dignitary protection, and citywide unrest. These volatile situations required a level of training, expertise, and marksmanship that the average patrol officer could not be expected to possess and the formation of these specially trained units would ultimately save the lives of civilians and policemen alike. The early successes of the LAPD’s SWAT team led other metropolitan police departments to form similar units, a trend that rapidly accelerated with the War on Drugs.

Beginning in 1981 under the Reagan administration, combating drug use and trafficking became “a high priority national security mission of the Department of Defense (DoD).” Under then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, the military assumed major responsibilities in drug interdiction efforts and interfacing with foreign militaries to target manufacturers. However, due to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, banning the military from operating on US soil, the burden of prosecuting the War on Drugs at home fell on local law enforcement and forever transformed the role of SWAT teams.

Over the next two decades, SWAT teams found themselves fundamentally changing in training, number, equipment, and utility. Unable to operate domestically, yet mandated to address this national security threat, the military exerted considerable influence through cross training with budding SWAT teams all across the United States. While SWAT teams had always been paramilitary in nature as a consequence of their work, the extent to which they interacted with and ultimately patterned themselves after their military counterparts was unprecedented.

The scale of this expansion is reflected in the sheer number of SWAT teams now operating in the United States. Whereas in the 1970s, only the largest metropolitan police departments could afford to field SWAT teams, the obsession to vanquish drugs in America resulted in the massive provision of federal funds to even the smallest police forces.  In cities with populations under 50,000, the percentage of police departments with SWAT teams exploded from 13% to 89% in less than 20 years. Lacking any form of oversight, SWAT teams were established at such a breakneck pace that the National Tactical Officer’s Association (NTOA) found their quality to range from “highly capable to only marginally capable.”

Furthermore, legislation such as the highly controversial DoD 1033 Program has only fueled the changing character of SWAT teams as police departments gained unparalleled access to military-grade equipment. Intended “for use in counter-drug activities” and later for counter-terrorism, over $5.1 billion USD in military equipment has been allocated to more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies since 1997. In addition to innocuous items such as cold weather gear and office equipment, police departments are also eligible to receive grenade launchers, amphibious armored personnel carriers (APC’s), and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Despite the potentially dangerous nature of these warfighting materials, there is remarkably little program oversight with a 2003 DoD audit finding “incorrect or inadequate documentation in about three-quarters of the [records] analyzed.” Two years later, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the program had lost “hundreds of millions of dollars in reported lost, damaged, or stolen excess property.”

Even beyond the training and equipment provided by the military, SWAT teams have found themselves adopting an entirely new set of responsibilities far beyond their original duties. No longer used as a last resort in only the most dire of circumstances, SWAT teams have been increasingly repurposed for routine narcotics searches and in extreme cases, patrolling the streets in full tactical gear. Presently, only 7% of national SWAT deployments fall under the original mission criteria while over 80% are related to drug offenses. These deployments have also taken on a more militaristic approach as SWAT teams serve “no-knock” warrants at an alarming rate.

Meant to be used if there is a belief that the suspect will escape, harm bystanders, or destroy evidence, “no-knock” warrants enable SWAT teams to forcibly enter a home without first announcing their presence. Although their existence is certainly necessary, these warrants are similar to SWAT teams in that they were intended to be used sparingly and with careful consideration. In the frenzied decades-long pursuit for narcotics, such restrictions have fallen to the wayside as the number of “no-knock” warrants skyrocketed by more than 1600% over a 30-year period. Regularly obtained on the word of unreliable informants, “no-knock” warrants have had deleterious consequences with innocent bystanders being killed or wounded, wrong houses being raided, and police officers being killed by armed homeowners.

In examining the enormous pressures and changes SWAT teams have undergone in the last 30 years, there arises a clear need to reorient and restructure their methods of operation for the 21st century. First, as identified by the NTOA and numerous law enforcement publications, the enormous variance in quality and training of SWAT teams must be addressed. Regardless of the fact that the NTOA recommends that SWAT teams train 200-250 hours annually, it is estimated that more than half of all teams train less than 50 hours, calling into question what actually constitutes a SWAT team. Without the barest of minimum training requirements, any law enforcement agency can form a SWAT team irrespective of capability, and in doing so, jeopardize the lives of those they have been charged to protect and serve. Training standardization exemplifies the original purpose of SWAT teams: saving lives.

Second, the longstanding relationship between SWAT teams and the military should not be demonized. In conducting the Global War on Terror, the US military learned many hard-fought lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, lessons that SWAT teams could greatly benefit from as well. According to renowned counterinsurgency (COIN) expert, Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, “You have got to stop these middle of the night knock on the door searches, throwing people on the ground, making them see red… Many of the arrests were done with a boot on the head, in front of his woman… You’ve created a blood debt when you do that.” Perhaps the United States lacks the same concept of “blood debt” that exists in Mosul, but in both countries, community relations are irreparably destroyed in the process. In a lesson that is unnervingly applicable to SWAT teams conducting drug raids in America, military officials quickly learned that “a raid that captures a known insurgent may seem like a sure victory, but the… second- and third-order effects can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals.”

Lastly, the DoD 1033 Program requires a major overhaul in how gear is allocated to the 17,000 participating law enforcement agencies. While the program has proven remarkably useful in providing discounted essentials such as ammunition, communications devices, and office equipment, a minority of law enforcement agencies have taken advantage of it either for personal benefit or for reckless abandon. The unconstrained provision of warfighting material such as grenade launchers or mine-resistant vehicles must be curbed and limited to departments demonstrating both capability and necessity. Doing so would also limit the hemorrhaging of hundreds of millions of dollars and would necessitate the repossession of materials in unqualified and unnecessary hands.

The continuing trend of police militarization directly contradicts the major strides taken by police departments nationwide to adopt more professional practices. The lack of adequate training standardization, cherry-picked use of military tactics, and unfettered access to military equipment has resulted in paramilitary policing units with enormous discrepancies in quality, efficiency, and necessity. Ironically coined in the same year as the first SWAT teams, Abraham Maslow’s 1966 Law of the Instrument appears all the more appropriate: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a        nail.”