Knock, knock – you’re dead! The militarisation of the police force in the Land of the Free

Posted: September 3, 2014 by Admin in At the coalface, capitalist crisis, Commodification, State repression, State terrorism, Surveillance state, United States, United States - history, United States - politics

Photo: SD Lewis

Photo: SD Lewis

by Andy Warren

While black men are being executed on the spot in Missouri, if not harvested for the private prison industry (1), heavily-militarised police SWAT teams are smashing down doors across America and terrifying people in “the safety of your own home”, a place once considered the sacrosanct privacy and safety of the family castle, a corner stone of US white middle class expectations.

At some point a distinct shift has occurred away from the donut-eating coffee-swilling local cop who knows the local reverend and your kids by name. Now across America, heavily-armed SWAT teams driving amphibious armoured personnel carriers are conducting terrifying “no-nock” raids, getting it wrong, and shooting innocent people – seemingly with impunity.

Military-police complex

Billions of dollars have been provided in funding for the purchase of military equipment and the provision of military training. Since the 1970s the numbers of police departments operating such teams and how often they are deployed have increased dramatically. Police SWAT teams regularly train with and receive operational support from elite military units such the the Navy Seals and Special Forces. A military command body, referred to as NORCOM, has been established specifically to coordinate this cooperation.

The term “policing”, meanwhile, is now often used to describe military operations overseas. The US referred to its brutal occupation of Vietnam as a “Police Action”, even though over 550,000 troops were involved. ‘Humanitarian intervention’, while involving troops, bombing by plane, drone assassinations and so on, is portrayed as an act of community-building, support and reconstruction. This is referred to as the “Police-isation of the Military”. Policing is supposed to be the protection of the citizens of a democracy who are afforded definite rights under the US constitution. In recognition of the fact that the authorities don’t always get it right, you are supposed to be allowed the chance to “have your day in court”, the right to silence, the right to face your accuser and many other formal rights which typically reflect history, especially things that people and social movements have fought for, and legal precedent.

Contrast this with military practice: highly-trained and skilled soldiers must react in life-or-death situations – with a heavy bias towards treating all personnel as enemy combatants. House-to-house fighting in an urban setting should seem a long way from the streets of an ostensibly first world democracy like the US or NZ. Unfortunately “hello this is the police” has become “bang you’re dead”. As we’ve seen on the streets of Baghdad, an assassination of civilians by helicopter gunship hovering a kilometer away is how America delivers post-war reconstruction to Iraq.

Eroding civil liberties

If there’s one thing we know – capitalist democracies tend to erode civil liberties rather than strengthen them. Would there be organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Democracy Now, Amnesty International, Occupy and many others if this weren’t the case?

Protesters across the US in recent months have been confronted by this paramilitary style of policing. From the Occupy protests which briefly captured broad unfocussed frustration with Wall street corruption – to the civil liberties focus around the execution of young black men – US citizens are finding themselves cast as “insurgents” on their own streets. This is a logical extension of the labelling of citizens of third world countries as “insurgents” – a codified appropriation of legitimacy for US forces who have imposed themselves on a sovereign state.

The US experience of the British occupation which led to the War for Independence was that soldiers on the streets and in communities caused fear and was incompatible with freedom (2). The Declaration of Independence includes protections against such government tyranny. These were passed with the experiences of the war fresh in people’s minds – and without controversy. Specifically the separation of the military and the police was seen as essential. The civil war of the 1860s saw these provisions suspended by Lincoln under emergency powers – and immediately following the war, martial law was imposed in the rebel states. The military became politically active in all areas of the post-war south – and Congress passed laws to make it possible. This ended following a “political firestorm” caused by military interference in the 1876 Presidential election. In the aftermath, troops were withdrawn and the Posse Comitatus Act was passed expressly forbidding such use of the military in domestic affairs.

Changing role/structure of police

The military have been used against workers and protest movements since 1794, but the use of a professionalised and isolated, internalised police force is much newer.

Police forces were originally drawn from local communities. Officers had no formal uniforms or training and close ties to the streets they patrolled. Professionalisation, a building of a strong internalised militarised culture, and the breaking of ties to the communities where police officers operate have led to increasing isolation and a separation of values and priorities and culture.

The most significant early use of a professionalised and isolated, internalised police force was against striking workers in Pennsylvania in 1905 – where previously there would have been strong identification of officers drawn from local communities with the workers they live with. Pennsylvania Federation of Labour referred to them as “Cossacks”. This ushered in a new age in policing.

J. Edgar Hoover took this further when he tidied up the FBI – seen as corrupt and mismanaged – and established the National Police Academy in 1935.

SWAT and the militarisation of police

The first use of the term SWAT is associated with Philadelphia in 1964, but it didn’t become publicly known until 1967 when the cops in Delano in California’s San Joaquin Valley used SWAT teams against the attempts of the United Farmworkers to organise impoverished farm workers into the union. More SWAT teams appeared in the state, ‘justified’ by the case of a lone gunman who killed a number of civilians before being killed by lightly-armed beat cops. SWAT teams were mobilised against members of the Black Panthers – armed because of the need to protect their communities from police brutality. Dozens of Black Panthers were murdered or wounded in SWAT attacks. Today, almost all US urban areas with 50,000 or more inhabitants have SWAT teams; the percentage of towns with 25-50,000 people with SWAT teams, meanwhile, rose from 25% in 1980 to 80% by 2005, and has further risen since then.

The growth of the SWAT approach to policing and their deployment have tracked alongside the use of the “War on Drugs” by various administrations. The “War on Terror” following 9/11 has only accelerated this and converged it with a massive growth in complementary authoritarian trends – namely surveillance and the legal provisions of Homeland Security.

SWAT teams now carry out routine policing. Instead of being held in reserve for emergencies requiring specialist skills under specific circumstances, they are deployed to carry out normal policing activities. With alarming results. The manner, mindset and intent of a paramilitary officer are wholly unsuited to peacetime domestic policing. The military model of insurgency treats all “others” as combatants – there are no constitutional protections until afterwards when the smoke has cleared and the police department sued by grieving family members and the ACLU.

The US has organically grown into a rather militarised police state. With a massive intelligence apparatus backed by drones in the skies and armoured cops on the streets, the home of the brave, the land of the free, has become something quite different. And protesters are learning this as they take to the streets and test the theory that the US is a democracy and the voice of change simply needs to be heard.

(1) Joel Dyer, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime
(2) Diane Cecilia Weber, Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments

  1. Joe Catron says:

    I always wonder about this kind of thing, though. To be sure, the militarization of police is a Very Bad Thing, and one on which I frown.

    But has it actually made them any more racist, violent, or likely to injure and/or kill you than they were before?

    I haven’t crunched the numbers. But I strongly, strongly doubt it.

    This mentions “Pennsylvania in 1905 – where previously there would have been strong identification of officers drawn from local communities with the workers they live with.”

    In that case, it might even be true. I don’t know.

    But there’s a strong undercurrent of Norman Rockwell-esque bullshit in a lot of left discourse around militarization, which implicitly, when not explicitly, hearkens back to some mythical golden age of caring neighborhood officers we all know perfectly well never existed for most.

    • badcop666 says:

      Joe, a uniformed beat cop from the local station, who has had to wake a judge to get a warrant, knocks on your door with their donut-munching coffee slurping patrol-buddy and smells some weed on your breath when you answer the door. It almost seems innocent – something out of a coming-of-age film. Night sticks, steel-toe boots, handguns…

      Whereas in reality Congress has passed legislation allowing “no-knock” raids by heavily armed officers using the same tactics developed by the British and French in their colonies and refined during WW2 and Vietnam – namely – house-to-house fighting and counter-insurgency.

      Even the most racist cop is somewhat hampered if they can only shoot you through your closed front door. Give them congress’s blessing and kevlar armour and an APC and the picture is very different. You could simply compare US gun ownership and gun-related homicides to answer your question.

      These guys believe they ARE involved in counter-insurgency – they have been inculcated with the kill-or-be-killed urgency of video game-like training and split-second decision making. Those decisions don’t include “do I need to pause and respect this person’s civil rights”.

      Has this made them any more “likely to injure and/or kill you” than “previously”. Let me double check. Yes! I think it has! Oops! sorry! My M16 just fired 10 rounds into your husbands chest – my mistake! The stakes are just slightly higher than if I were to beat him with my night stick.

      I suggest you do crunch the numbers. I’m not sure what you are referring to as “previously” – and in what way it qualitatively differs from today. Willing-but-lacking-only-the-means doesn’t count I’m afraid. And unfortunately there aren’t a lot of comparative trials on this kind of thing – when the black body armour was being handed out the police were all in! With some notable and articulate exceptions I would add. Where atrocities have occurred and the police censured and SWAT teams stood down (several examples) the rate of violent and/or fatal incidents caused by police in those areas have declined afterwards. Robbed of the means – the culture may have continued but the deadly bits have been removed from the toybox.

      I wonder are you perhaps “on the same page” through some tricky logic – suggesting that cops would be throwing flash-bangs into cots and assaulting pensioners regardless? You’d need to convince me of that. You’d be hard pressed to find comparative examples where militarisation hasn’t pushed things towards escalation instead of building community relations. Something along the lines of “Safer Communities Together” is painted on the police car that just went past.

      The numbers are public record. And stack up alarmingly with other stats like corn-syrup and obesity. I’m not clear on your Rockwell reference – please do expand on that though.

      This is a brief piece, which does an ok job of briefly describing the origins (“Gangs of New York”) and historical development of the US police. Labelling it “leftist discourse” isn’t useful at all really. It’s just historical fact.

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  3. badcop666 says:

    Will be interesting to look further into this in other countries…Spain appears to be watching and copying…