From Warfighters to Crimefighters: The Origins of Domestic Police Militarization

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Speaker at dedication of the National Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial

in Washington, D.C.
The current trend towards police militarization has its roots in the 1960s and began as a response to the social unrest sweeping the nation at the time. The development of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were themselves a reaction to the Watts riots in Los Angeles, stood up by a young LAPD Officer named Daryl Gates. SWAT teams are unapologetically militaristic in their approach to law enforcement and seen at the time as necessary antidotes to rising violence from groups like the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army, and in mass shooting incidences like the University of Texas clock tower massacre in 1966 (Balko, 2013, p. 53).

In the early 1970s, drugs were named by political leaders a major threat to United States. (Hall & Coyne, 2013, p. 13). Moral panic, drugs were not a problem President Richard Nixon declared an all-out “war on drugs” pushing policies meant to attack drug users and dealers including sending federal agents to storm private homes. The raids did little to affect drugs supplies but conveyed an urgency of the problem to citizens. The war on drugs theme continued with both Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan who each officially designated drug trafficking as a national security threat (Campbell, 1992, p. 198).

Wars need soldiers and SWAT teams, initially developed to deal with uncommon episodes of disorder and mass unrest, adjusted themselves to be more involved with the fight against drugs. Since the early 1980s, the use of SWAT teams has undergone a dramatic expansion nature both in the number of teams and number deployments. Proclaimed need and use for executing an exploding amount of drug case warrants amounts for much of the significant increase in SWAT activity (Bickel, 2013). SWAT teams are now a normal part of the American police landscape with one study showing 90% of cities with populations of more than 50,000 have SWAT teams and as well as three quarters of those with populations under 50,000 (Paul & Birzer, 2008, p. 18).

In the 1990s, a war on terror was added to the ongoing one on drugs. Driven in part by episodes like the Ruby Ridge Incident, the attack on the Branch Davidian compound, and most forcefully the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Terror was a now a target at all levels of government especially law enforcement. In fact, the siege of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians was for many their first prolonged glimpse of law enforcement militarization. Outside Waco, Texas, there was the largest military force ever assembled against a civilian suspect including two M1A1 tanks, ten Bradley armored vehicles, and four combat engineer vehicles. Eight hundred ninety-nine law enforcement personnel were part of the mission, mainly FBI agents and Texas Rangers and police officers, but also over a dozen Army soldiers, both National Guard and active duty (Gladwell, 2014).

In this same era, the DoD was directed to set up a program to transfer military equipment to law enforcement agencies. Congress passed legislation establishing the 1033 Program, the name drawn from the section of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act of the same year. The law, influenced by fears of domestic terror attacks and perceptions of peace dividend equipment, directed the DoD to issue “appropriate excess military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies without charge” (Johnson & Shank, 2014). The 1033 Program was viewed as a smart use of taxpayer dollars, reutilizing military items and helping financially strapped agencies with weapons, vehicles, and even aircraft. The great majority of items issued included body armor, sleeping bags, boots, and even office equipment and computers (Hall & Coyne, 2013, p. 14). Initially the office remained obscure but that would change after the 9/11 terror attacks.
“This was beyond what anyone thought would ever happen."

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