The Militarization of America’s Police: A Brief History

Brian Miller – May 29, 2019

“Get the weapons of war off our streets!” This may sound familiar, as it’s often heard from those attempting to pass more gun control legislation. But what you don’t hear is that it’s simply untrue that “weapons of war” are available to the general public.

What is true is that you’d last about three minutes in a conventional war with an AR-15, even with one of the most aggressive builds you can get your hands on. The only people with “weapons of war” on America’s streets are, increasingly, the police.

Thanks primarily to the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows law enforcement agencies to get their hands on Department of Defense technology, and the Bush-era War on Terror, American police have received a startling amount of heavy-duty, military-grade hardware.

In fact, between 1998 and 2014, the dollar value of military hardware sent to police departments skyrocketed from $9.4 million to a startling $796.8 million.

As the police have militarized, focus has shifted from one who keeps the peace to one who enforces the law — an important difference.

Law Enforcement Officer vs. Peace Officer: What’s the Difference?

It’s a subtle, but important, distinction: Is the role of the police to enforce the law or to keep the peace?

Consider the difference between the police force of a typical American city and the fictional Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show. The former is concerned primarily with enforcing the law for its own sake and catching as many “lawbreakers” as possible. The latter, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with keeping the peace. Sometimes that means looking the other way when laws get broken.

How Did Police Become Militarized?

It all began during Prohibition in the 1920s. Organized crime got its first foothold in American life thanks to the lucrative black market in liquor. This was also the golden age of bank robbery with figures like Bonnie and ClydePretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger becoming folk heroes. The Thompson submachine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle were increasingly used by these crime “stars.”

On the flipside, the Prohibition Era saw domestic police departments using automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and ammo developed with the express purpose of being able to penetrate the early bulletproof vests worn by gangsters of the era.

Overall crime increased by 24 percent during the first two years of Prohibition. This included a 9 percent increase in theft and burglary, a 13 percent increase in homicides, and a 13 percent increase in assault and battery.

Because the police were busy fighting the scourge of demon rum, it was difficult for them to target crimes unrelated to this.

In fact, a study of South Carolina counties that enforced Prohibition versus those who didn’t found a whopping 30 to 60 percent increase in homicides in the counties that enforced the law.

A few decades later, America saw another wave of police militarization during the race riots, including the Watts Riots and the 1967 riots in Detroit, as well as increasingly militarized organized crime — thanks in part to the beginnings of the War on Drugs.

Incidents like the 1986 FBI Miami shootout and the North Hollywood shootout of 1997 were game-changers for law enforcement weaponry and equipment — due to officers not having sufficient stopping power during these notorious shootouts.

What Is the 1033 Program?

The 1033 Program was enacted in the wake of the 1997 North Hollywood shootout. Created by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, it allowed law enforcement agencies to get their hands on military hardware.

Between 1997 and 2014, $5.1 billion in material was transferred from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement — with ammunition being the most common requisition.

About 8,000 law enforcement offices were participating in the program as of 2014.

What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture (CAF) is a major driver in the militarization of the police force. Put simply, CAF is a legal principle that allows police to seize money and property from suspected criminals, which they can do without a warrant because the suspect’s property doesn’t have the presumption of innocence.

CAF is effectively a legally allowed form of theft by police officers. Here is a short list of military hardware purchased with CAF funds:

  • $5 million helicopter for the Los Angeles Police Department
  • $1 million mobile command bus for Prince George County, Maryland
  • $227,000 for a tank in Douglasville, GA
  • $54,000 for 27 M-4 assault rifles in Braselton, GA

SWAT Teams: The Military of the Police

Begun in 1965 in Philadelphia, SWAT teams were conceived as a way to restrain urban unrest, deal with hostage situations, or handle barricaded marksmen.

The number of SWAT raids in the US grew dramatically from about 3,000 in 1980, to a whopping 50,000 SWAT raids in 2014.

Some more startling facts about SWAT teams:

  • 62 percent of all SWAT deployments were for drug raids
  • 79 percent of these were done on private residences
  • Only 7 percent of all raids were done for situations SWAT was invented for — namely barricades or hostage situations

The Detriments of a Militarized Police Force

There are a number of negative consequences arising from the existence of a militarized police force:

  • Civil liberties violations
  • Surveillance
  • Excessive use of force
  • Alienation of community
  • Killing dogs (Yes, really — the Puppycide Database Project tracks these things)
  • Future militarization: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) weapons projects currently being worked on include an invisible ray gun, a shotgun Taser, skull-piercing microwaves, and a long-range acoustic device

The most heavily armed gang on the street isn’t your local street gang—it’s law enforcement. They have weapons far in excess to that of the average citizen or even the average criminal.

This raises a point worth considering: The usual suspects will rage at your ability to legally own an AR-15, a right codified by the United States Constitution. But rare is the gun grabber who makes any kind of fuss when police use directed energy weapons.

This is a condensed version of an article originally published at Ammo.com. Brian Miller is the publisher at Ammo.com. Work from Ammo.com‘s Resistance Library has been featured by USA Today, Reason, Bloomberg’s Business Week, Zero Hedge, The Guardian, and National Review as well as many other prominent news and alt-news publications.

Image Credit: (DOD/David Moore)

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