The police response to civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, brought to public attention the “militarization of the police.” The irony is that rioting and looting of the sort that took place around the edges of the legitimate protests in Ferguson is one of the events in which a more robust police presence is appropriate. What got lost in the discussion was the far more common use of “militarized” police.
Once upon a time, the local authorities responded to trouble by calling the National Guard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwcJ5WQSamQ. Then a lot of “civil unrest” hit American cities in the 1960s-1970s: riots, rock concerts run amok like Altamont https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qTKsylrpsg, holed-up radicals http://www.nbcnews.com/video/dateline/32129377#32129377, hostage situations, and just crazy people packing a lot of fire-power.
Police department Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams became common after the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) pioneered them in 1967. Subsequent events multiplied the demand and the occasions on which they might be used. The Columbine school massacre in 1999, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the escalating violence of the war on drugs all argued for a more militarized police force as the first-responders to unimaginable dangers. The Department of Homeland Security, which is now headquartered at the old St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, has poured $35 billion into up-arming local police forces. Some of the results are so ludicrous that they attract even media attention: armored vehicles (MRAPs) that were produced to respond to IEDs in Iraq, and helicopter gun-ships.
Far more important, however, have been the militarization of attitudes among police officers. Incessant talk of policemen as the front-line soldiers in “wars” on crime, drugs, or terror combines with training in military tactics to create the ideal of a “warrior cop.” One can’t help but wonder if police officers start to think of citizens as a foreign enemy. This is far removed from the boiler-plate slogan “to serve and protect.” Radley Balko, author of Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids (Cato Institute Press, 2006) and The Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs, 2013), warned of the danger long before it began to make headlines
One thing that alarms observers has been the conversion of SWAT teams from a sensible “extreme case” response into a common feature of policing. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that SWAT team raids take place on an average of 124 times a day. Some observers wonder if having the capacity to conduct such operations creates a pressure to use it. The vast majority of SWAT operations now occur in support of drug searches. Apparently, theory holds that when policemen looking like big fighting insects bust down the door, suspected criminals will be too petrified to destroy the evidence by flushing it down the toilet. Carried to an extreme, these operations have included raids on illegal barbershops, cockfights, Tibetan monks on a peace pilgrimage in Iowa, and a guy who bet too much on a college football game. Several dozen people have been killed during these raids, although the most common victim is a family dog shot by amped-up policemen responding to incessant barking. (But who hasn’t felt that impulse in the middle of a summer night?) “The militarization of America’s police,” The Week, 1 August 2014, p. 11.)
The well-known gap between the American citizens and the military that protects them from foreign dangers, the broad reach of NSA communication searches, and the militarization of policing raise questions about the direction in which American democracy is headed.