From Warfighters to Crimefighters: The Origins of Domestic Police Militarization

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From Warfighters to Crimefighters: The Origins of Domestic Police Militarization

Christopher J. Kincaid

Masters of Public Administration Candidate 2015

New Mexico State University

Always introduce direct quotes
Two years ago, United States President Barack Obama spoke at the National Defense University, in Washington, D.C., an educational institution funded by the U.S. military and attended by senior military and civilian officials. At the time, the speech was highly anticipated with the expectation this was start of a slow but deliberate reframing of our nation’s counterrorism strategy. Opening his remarks with a passing overview of American conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the end of the Cold War, President Obama acknowledged and thanked those who came before and preserved the nation and its way of life. He then turned to the past decade of conflict, mentioning the initial quick victory expelling Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the shift to Iraq, and then the renewed focus on Afghanistan during his administration. The broader purpose of his speech was reflection, consideration of where the nation had been and where it should go next. Considering the decade since the 9/11 terror attacks, he challenged Americans to “ask ourselves hard questions, about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them” (Obama, 2013).

He asked the country to be mindful of our approach, saying “we must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us” (2013). His comments acknowledged that a war on terror is a war on a tactic, rather than a tangible foe, and by definition can never end. “Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,” he declared.  He also stated the inherent danger of engaging in conflicts with no end, sharing “…James Madison’s warning that ‘no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare’” (Obama, 2013). That danger is evident abroad, and as a result of police militarization, becoming ominously visible at home.

This paper will examine how American militarization has slowly seeped into the nation’s law enforcement agencies using combat equipment and tactics on city streets. The combination of the nation’s continuous military engagements, federal funds and grants for law enforcement, plus availability and marketing of military equipment to law enforcement is bringing military weapons to domestic police forces. As we attempt to reconsider and close over a decade of active warfare since the attacks of 9/11; the same consideration should be given to changes within our domestic law enforcement which looks much different from police even just a generation removed.
“A standing army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to

the liberties of the people. Such power should be watched with a jealous eye.”

Samuel Adams in letter to Massachusetts militia General James Warren in 1776
Safeguards against the increased militarization of police forces extend back to the very founding of our nation, hidden within an amendment with seemingly least application to American life and liberty today. The Third Amendment of the constitution reads, “No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” A strict reading conjures up images of British soldiers beating on the doors of colonial homes to gain admittance which did occur, and happened more frequently the closer the colonies came to revolution. Armies in that era and place operated in a dual role of occupying force and sometime police force. Once inside, they availed themselves of whatever they needed, invading home and hearth without regard for private property (Bell, 1993, pp.125-126). The violations were all the more repugnant in light of the Castle Doctrine, a principle imported to the colonies from British common law (Balko, 2013, p. 5). The doctrine name is a play on the phrase that “a man’s home is his castle,” and conveys the idea that a home is sacred ground. The irony is the British neglected to honor a longstanding covenant between citizens and the Crown based on their own legal traditions. In response, the colonists sought relief through multiple avenues of change including protests, court actions, and the legislature. Receiving no satisfaction they eventually turned to war.

Now, while there were instances of British forces forcibly taking property and accommodation, the basis for the third amendment was more nuanced and should be linked to pervasive colonial fear of standing armies. The fear was so strong that some of the founding fathers were opposed to any type of national army preferring instead to entrust civilian militias to provide for the nation’s defense (Balko, 2013, p. 5). Others such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the aforementioned James Madison all agreed that armies posed a threat to the new country’s democracy but felt the fledging nation had a greater need for a federal military force, within limits (Balko, 2013, p. 5). The Third Amendment was in part a subtle attempt to answer concerns by more strident opponents of federal armies who viewed them as anathema to a free society. A broad view of the Third Amendment and the debate surrounding it reveals eventual acceptance for a federal military force within limits and an implicit expectation that this force would not act against its own citizens.

This background is pertinent even though our modern police departments have no direct lineage to colonial police forces. At that time police departments did not exist, yet our founding fathers would immediately recognize the organization and operation of our police today as analogous to the standing armies they hoped to contain. There is no doubt that American society has evolved (or devolved) to the point where an armed and trained police force is a necessity. To argue otherwise is to pine for a time that no longer exists and ignores the realities of modern life. What does merit debate is whether that police force should be trained, armed, and deployed in a manner that would shock our founding fathers and should alarm citizens today.

This is not to discount the very real dangers faced daily by law enforcement and the duty we have, as citizens to support them. Citizens also have other duties, and protecting our freedoms requires vigilance since cracks can come from without and within. When it becomes difficult to distinguish a soldier trained to close with and destroy his enemy, and a police officer meant to protect and serve, it must be asked how the American nation got there.

“The policeman is a peacetime soldier always at war.”

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