The growing militarization of U.S. police over the last 30 years has transformed many aspects of local law enforcement into “national security operations” that have been especially damaging to communities of color, warns a Georgetown University law professor.
“Research indicates that the use of military weapons, gear and tactics does not serve to make the public safer,” writes Milton C. Regan, Co-Director of Georgetown’s Center on National Security and the Law, in a paper published in the Texas National Security Review.
Instead, he argued, it risks transforming law enforcement in minority communities into national security operations, with corresponding greater authority to use force and restrict civil liberties.
“Aside from the concrete harms that this can inflict, it extends the national security paradigm into a domestic setting.”
Regan, who is McDevitt Professor of Jurisprudence at Georgetown, said the increasing military approach by law enforcement has been nurtured by the proliferation of SWAT teams across the U.S., as well as the federal “1033 program” providing surplus Defense Department equipment to police agencies.
Many law enforcement leaders claimed they needed such equipment to protect themselves against violent protests, leading to front-page photos of confrontations that make many communities look like war ones.
The worst consequence of such a strategy is to to transform community members into external enemies that police departments feel they must control, writes Reagan.
“Increasing police militarization risks transforming law enforcement in minority communities into national security operations, with corresponding greater authority to use force and restrict liberty,” he wrote.
The paper, entitled “Citizens, Suspects, and Enemies: Examining Police Militarization,” argued that reliance on the “metaphor of war” traces its roots to the declaration of a war on drugs by then-President Richard Nixon, and escalated in the 1980s under the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
The wartime rhetoric supported a more expansive use of force and greater restriction of liberties. Between 1982 and 2007, the number of drug arrests tripled, leading to a rise in incarceration of African-American males, the paper said,
The approach continued following the attack on the U.S. on 9/11, which led police to increase reliance on military weapons, tactics and training. They absorbed a “soldier’s mentality” even when they are involved in “aggressive preventive policing,” Regan wrote.
Militarization covers tactics and strategy as well as equipment. The study described how police “take the fight to the enemy” in neighborhoods they see as filled with potential enemies, executing undercover sting operations, stops for minor traffic violations, surveillance techniques, and surprise raids.
And the mindset continues today, said Regan, noting that examples of excessive use of force against civilians have proliferated since the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
He said residents of at-risk neighborhoods were victims of what he called “cultural militarization.”
Regan cited the 2015 Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, which found that that African-American residents considered themselves targets of “adversarial policing” and “described being belittled, disbelieved, and treated with little regard for their legal rights”
“As the Ferguson report suggested, this adversarial posture can undermine efforts to reduce crime because it can “increase distrust and significantly decrease the likelihood that individuals will seek police assistance even when they are victims of crime, or that they will cooperate with the police to solve or prevent other crimes.
“…the practice of aggressive preventive policing reflects cultural militarization because it relies on a view of minority groups as a segment of the population that is especially likely to pose threats from which police must protect society. ”
The police mentality in these situations can be seen as occupying, pacifying and holding enemy territory, similar to the “hold and build” strategy used by the military, including counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the report said.
Believing that criminals are more heavily armed with more sophisticated weapons than they were in the past, the police arm themselves as if they were in the military, according to the report.
SWAT teams began appearing across the country after the riots in Los Angeles’ Watts section in 1965. Statistics on SWAT are hard to obtain, but one survey of 254 police departments of all sizes found that 60 percent had their own SWAT teams as of 2013.
“The most striking aspect of SWAT team deployments is their extensive use beyond the limited situations for which they were created,” the report said.
SWAT teams are supposed to respond to riots, hostage situations, barricaded suspects, and terrorist attacks.
However, according to the report, “the vast majority” of SWAT actions are “warrant enforcements for drug searches.”
Also, “a prominent feature of SWAT operations is their frequent deployment in African- American communities, even after controlling for crime rates,” says the report.
By treating members of the communities as “suspects and enemies, it deprives members of these communities the full status of citizens.”
The study concluded that “larger trends suggest that it may be important for communities to rethink which measures will best provide public safety.”
The full study can be read here.
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report.