From Warfighters to Crimefighters: The Origins of Domestic Police Militarization

partment Officer Michel Moore describing the

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Los Angeles Police Department Officer Michel Moore describing the

1997 North Hollywood Shootout

If challenged to defend newly aggressive tactics and weaponry, most police officers are ready to debate. They are prepared to tell how a police armored vehicle can, by its presence alone, end most barricaded gunman standoffs. They will relate how a flash bang grenade can disorient a threat to law enforcement long enough to neutralize it. They can describe why military style tactical protective clothing is necessary when confronting a crowd after a local sports team’s win, or loss. They are set to share personal vignettes or harrowing hypotheticals that sway the heart knowing that in certain scenarios going without certain tools can mean danger and sometimes injury or death to our police officers.

There is no single definitive moment when many of our domestic police forces became armed on par with military units. There are flashpoints that illustrate the shift from a lightly armed officer walking a beat to officers seemingly ready for war, and support the law enforcement argument that they must stay ahead of public safety threats that constantly evolve. One flashpoint occurred in the late 1990s, and the combination of carnage and cinematic news footage provided a disturbing glimpse of the results when a criminal threat exceeds law’s enforcement ability to contain it.

On February 28th, 1997, two men entered the Bank of America branch in Hollywood, California with a plan of armed robbery. The incident is known by police today as simply the North Hollywood Shootout (Orlov, 2012). The two experienced bank and armored car robbers were seen entering the bank by two Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers. The men wore black ski masks, forty pounds of reinforced military-grade body armor covering vital organs, and were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, handguns, an HK-91 rifle, and fully automatic AR-15 with armor piercing bullets. (Parker, 2012) When the robbery was complete, they stepped outside the bank to a waiting group of responding LAPD officers and engaged them in a running gun battle lasting 44 minutes (Orlov, 2012).

"They were demons, devils," says now LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore who was then one of the responding officers (Orlov, 2012). Reporters captured the drama live on the ground and from the air as television viewers watched the men stand upright and walk around while perfectly aimed pistol and shotgun rounds from the officers bounced off them. The robbers laid down withering automatic fire, and at one point, officers ran to a nearby gun shop and commandeered additional weapons in an attempt to match their firepower advantage. In the end, over 3000 rounds were fired and twelve officers and eight civilians laid injured. The two bank robbers died at the scene, one by his own hand (Parker, 2012).

"We had trained for terrorists as part of the [1984] Olympics, but this was beyond what anyone thought would ever happen," Moore said (Parker, 2012). The gun battle was national news with its stunning footage of heroic but outgunned officers taking on the professional criminals. The incident brought a resounding end to any discussion whether police officers should be armed with automatic weapons. Departments across the country without such weapons quickly moved to obtain and train their officers and automatic rifles, machine guns to civilians; now ubiquitous in the trunks of most police cruisers.

As for the LAPD, just a few months after the North Hollywood Shootout, the Department of Defense (DoD) handed over to them 600 surplus M16 automatic rifles, one for each of the department’s patrol sergeants (LeMotte, 1998).


The changes brought by the 9/11 terror attacks forced police, like many segments of society, to adapt as they were pressed into new missions, with more funding, equipment and even new terminology. Along with firefighters and medical personnel, they were now grouped as ‘first responders’, an honorific they put them on par with members of the military.

In response to the attacks, the Homeland Security Act was written and signed into law by President George W. Bush in November 2002. The Act created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the specific purpose of “coordinating operations against domestic terrorism, preparing for preventing and responding to terrorist attacks” (Sylves, 2009). Terror attacks previously fell under disaster management in United States, and followed a bottom up approach, with local governments seeking supplemental help from their state government and the federal government when needed. After 9/11, and with the establishment of DHS, disaster policy pointedly became a top-down activity. The President and federal agencies began to dominate the system. State and city governments, including police, were given responsibility for a large portfolio of national security related duties, many implemented through DHS directives and grant programs, always with the understanding the federal government can and often will take charge. Between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security disbursed $35 billion in grants to state and local police (Sylves, 2009).

This funding surge since 9/11 had a transformative effect on domestic police forces, giving them buying power state and local budgets cannot offer. With that funding, police departments are able to shop for and purchase machine guns, helicopters, and even armored vehicles. Defense contractors are now turning their attention and marketing to police agencies the same products they develop and sell to the militaries around the world (Arria, 2013). As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, quips “say hello to the police-industrial complex” (Arria, 2013).

Technological innovations are also further driving the marketing to and militarization of police. Technological change is important in the growth of government and economies in general, and is crucial for the U.S. military that strives to be most technologically advanced and proficient fighting force in the world. U.S. military spending increased from $306 in 1998 to $698 billion in 2010, with a large portion going to research and development (Hall & Coyne, 2013, p. 488). While these technologies are developed for the battlefield, a militarized police force can find many applications, especially for surveillance and information technology. Expensive development costs are borne by military, which lower the entry cost for police departments to purchase equipment and this facilitates easy transfer of military capabilities to domestic police forces (Hall & Coyne, 2013, p. 490).

A lack of funds though does not limit the ability of the police to become militarily equipped. Use of the 1033 Program became widespread after 9/11, by 2005 it issued free equipment to over 17,000 law-enforcement agencies in all fifty states. The program named itself the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) and gave itself the tagline “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.” Transfers of equipment continue, including helicopters, grenade launchers, rifles, night vision goggles and more. Increased use of the program is clear even when comparing just two years. Transfers in 2010, valued at $210 million, jumped to $500 million in 2011 (Balko, 2013, p. 301).

Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, South Carolina, received a M113 military vehicle through the 1033 Program in 2008. The lightly armored vehicle was equipped with a belt-fed machine gun that fires .50 caliber rounds. Celebrating the vehicle’s arrival, he stated in a press release, “the Bible refers to law enforcement in Matthew 5:9, saying blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Balko, 2013, p. 302), In response, Charles Earl Barnett, a Marine veteran and retired police Major, labeled the gun “…completely inappropriate…” for police work since, “it’s indiscriminate.” Richland County includes the city of Columbia, the “Capital of Southern Hospitality”, and is home to the University of South Carolina. The M113, which Sheriff Lott dubbed, “The Peacekeeper”, has since been retired and replaced by a newer armored vehicle again obtained through the 1033 Program. The Peacekeeper was black, whereas the new armored vehicle was painted blue since a Deputy explained, “black…felt a lot more intimidating" (Brundrett, 2014). The fact that it is was also twice the size and weight of the previous armored combat vehicle probably adds to its overall intimidation factor.


Why? Democratization of fear No citizen and assuredly no politician wants to deny law enforcement the tools and authority needed to do their job safely and effectively, and get home safe at the end of their shift. Officers deny they are becoming militarized, and counter they are developing professionally, as any field should, improving themselves and preparing for threats unthinkable a generation ago. Also, captured in their new designation as first responders, they constitute a bridge until federal agencies arrive to deal with a large-scale attack or disaster. “If we had to take on a terrorist group we could do it”, says Police Chief William Lansdowne of San Diego, California. (Baker, 2011, p. 6).

There will be situations, say Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department, with “an armed and barricaded suspect, a man with a knife to his wife’s throat, a school shooting rampage that require disciplined, military-like operations.” He adds though that most of what police do on a daily basis “requires patience, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills” (Stamper, 2011, p.6-7).

A deeper challenge, for both police and citizens, is the perception that a military approach works. Especially in a militarized society, that approach is “attractive and seductive” as it implies that solutions can be found through application of force (Falcone, 2002). For example, there was a palpable sense of relief in the country with the deployment of Army National Guard troops in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the chaotic state and federal response. In the midst of a crisis the public will demand its government to “do something” (Hall & Coyne, 2013, p. 489). At times like that, the strength and aggressiveness emulated by the military are viewed as virtues that many citizens want their police to emulate. Despite this it might be instructive to recall the peace officer’s creed is to “protect and serve”, while the official Army Soldier's Creed declares, "I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat"  (Rizzer & Hartman, 2011).

Added to this is the reality that the structure of the police is a command and control hierarchy based on a military model (Stamper, 2011, p. 8). It is best revealed by the ranking system and titles such as Captain, Lieutenant, Sergeant, and cadet when still in training. In police academies they are inundated with military training and language and might enter the streets feeling they are all that stands between civilization and anarchy (Lindorff, 1999, p. 20). Then, there are physical manifestations of a military ethos, not just vehicle and weapons but clothing as well. Military battle dress uniforms, known as BDUs, are becoming more prevalent as the daily uniform for police officers. For police officers, public servants, perception matters and there is a marked difference between their uniform’s traditional blue as opposed to green, black, or camouflage (Paul & Birzer, 2008, p. 25).

If anything could tip the scales of the police militarization debate, the 40,000 pound Mine Resistant Armored Protected (MRAP) should be able to do it. The vehicle was designed by the Pentagon with one threat and one goal in mind: to withstand the near daily barrage of roadside Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks against American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with the overarching aim of survivability. Before the MRAP servicemen and women were being killed and maimed in alarming numbers by the IEDs. It came to be that the most dangerous assignments were simple road patrols and vehicle convoys between military basecamps. In 2007, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed the reluctant Pentagon bureaucracy for MRAPs stating they “should be considered the highest priority Department of Defense acquisition program” (Rogers, 2012). Pushed through an accelerated procurement and production process, eventually, 24,000 MRAPs were fielded costing $50 billion, with an average cost of just under $1 million each (Rogers, 2012).

The vehicles were criticized for weight, limited handling ability, and cost, but while estimates vary they did limit injuries and fatalities. In 2011, the Pentagon estimated the MRAPs saved as many as 40,000 lives between Iraq and Afghanistan. (Rogers, 2012) They were though built for a precise purpose in a specific theater of war, hence the initial Pentagon apprehension to the MRAP since they did not see a broad use for it in future DoD strategy beyond those current conflicts. Putting aside the coldness of that bureaucrat logic, it does illustrate a simple fact that nevertheless should be stated and examined, weapons of war are designed for war.

Surprising as it may sound, the American military still studies and prepares to fight against Soviet military tactics. This is not about nostalgia or an example of an oft-cited fallacy of ‘fighting the last war’, rather it is about equipment. The T-72 tank is a seminal armored vehicle developed by the Soviet Union and was the most commonly deployed tank by the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Variants of the tank spread to other nations including sizable numbers to Syria, India, Iran, and Iraq. Regardless of where they ended, they followed a common model of employment, or as it is called in the military; tactics, techniques, and procedures. This is why despite months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and later implosion of the Soviet Union, American coalition military partners studied and prepared for Soviet style armor tactics by Iraqi forces in the Persian Gulf War. Then did much the same when facing additional remnants of Soviet era military equipment in the second Gulf War.

Military equipment is built with an enemy in mind. Like any tool its use can be adapted, but regardless of origin military technology is intended for use in warfare. This is a point that many American citizens are beginning to fully appreciate when faced with police use of military equipment. In that respect the 40,000 pound MRAPs showing up in American communities are getting much attention and focusing many minds.

The combination of vast inventory and eager interest from state and local police agencies has the MRAPs showing up in locations across the nation. Texas’s Dallas County; Idaho’s Boise County; Minnesota’s Dakota County; New York’s Warren County; Arizona’s Yuma County are all now owners of MRAPs (Johnson & Shank, 2014). Following established 1033 Program application procedures, police departments are receiving these vehicles as-is at no charge and are only responsible for use and maintenance costs. Applications can be unintentionally comical, with one small New Hampshire town claiming an armored vehicle was needed by the police to protect "the town's annual pumpkin festival" (Johnson & Shank, 2014).

However, these vehicles are jumpstarting a discussion about police militarization and how the police to show up in our communities. After the Salinas, California police department received a MRAP one local citizen asked, "When did Salinas turn into a battlefield?" (Levitz, 2014). The Appleton, Wisconsin police department posted a photo of its newly obtained MRAP on its Facebook page and one comment read “You guys see a lot of land mines and IED’s in Appleton?” (Levitz, 2014). And after the Concord, New Hampshire Police Department sought a DHS grant to purchase a Bearcat, a smaller but similar type of vehicle to the MRAP, locals protested City Hall with signs reading, "More Mayberry, Less Fallujah" and "Thanks But No Tanks!" (Levitz, 2014).

Armored vehicles like the MRAP and Bearcat patrolling American city streets are "a pretty visual example of overreach," says Peter Kraska, a professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and expert in domestic police militarization. Paired with ongoing revelations about surveillance programs and the 9/11 terror attacks receding further in time police militarization is beginning to be challenged at the local level (Levitz, 2014) .

This kind of militarization is now also being confronted at the federal level with calls for better oversight and accountability of mechanisms like the 1033 Program. U.S. Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat from Georgia and member of House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees plans to introduce legislation that would ban DoD issue of MRAPs, armored vehicles, drones, assault weapons and aircraft. In a newspaper opinion piece announcing his effort, Rep. Johnson questioned the utility of those items in the hands of police and claimed “militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent” (Johnson & Shank, 2014). Whether his initiative gains support remains to be seen but the conversation is building.


Probably the crucial place for a debate about police militarization is within police departments themselves. Police chiefs to rank and file officers are questioning a trend they believe offers limited returns and can be self-defeating. One retired officer from a large police force described attending a recent ceremony and other current police officers “looked just like members of the Army, except for the police shoulder patches. Not an image I would cultivate. It leads to a bad mindset” (Fund, 2014). There is a wealth of data and research revealing a “subtle evolution in the mentality of the men in blue from peace officer to soldier” (Rizzer & Hartman, 2011). It might be the most powerful and poignant arguments against police militarization will come from police themselves.

First though there is question of effectiveness. The result of police militarization is it becomes a war waged on average citizens (Paul & Birzer, 2008, p. 22). The visible and available force held by police raises the likelihood of violence in interactions. Persons seen as criminal are more violent as they expect more violence to come from police. A show of force encourages and is catalyst for the use of force by both sides. Citizens in turn lose trust in the police risking themselves to protect the very same community (Paul & Birzer, 2008, p. 23). “The more the police fail to defuse confrontations but instead help create them ,be it with their equipment, tactics or demeanor, the more ties with community members are burned, he said. The effect is a loss of civility, and an erosion of constitutional rights, rather than a building of good will” (Baker, 2011, p. 6).

Quote after Quote

"Police have a unique ability to be accepted in the community," David Couper says. "They are important partners because they know so much about the community, if they're doing their jobs right," he says. But being accepted is impossible when "police officers look and act more like robots than peacekeepers" (Paul & Birzer, 2008, p. 22). As soon as officers are trained to think like soldiers they will be alienated from the community of which they are supposed to be a part. Indeed the paramilitary model of policing destroys the very fabric of social life, trust:

“Trust is a faith, an obligation between various parties made in the exchange of valued resources. Thus, if trust is a reciprocal action between two or more partners, what goods and resources could ever possibly be exchanged between police and community members engaged in war? The answer is nothing except fear, hatred, an increased lack of cooperation and growing violence (Paul & Birzer, 2008, p. 23).

There is a growing awareness among police leaders attempting to inculcate rookie and veteran officers that, despite the slogans and ethos of wars on drugs, crime, terror, they are not at war. They should not envision themselves or act as occupying armies. “You can have all the sophisticated equipment in the world, but it does not replace common sense and discretion and finding ways to defuse situations,” Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum said. “You can’t be talking about community policing one day and the next day have an action that is so uncharacteristic to the values of your department” (Baker, 2011, p. 6).

Chief Stamper recalls his own police force’s response to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 with regret. “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose” (Stamper, 2011, p. 6). The “Battle in Seattle,” as the protests came to be known, with lootings, fires, and overreaction by police was in Chief’s Stamper’s opinion, “a huge setback—for the protesters, my cops, the community” (Stamper, 2011, p. 6). Yet even with the example of Seattle and other numerous errors and instances of overreach resulting in part from police militarization the trend continues. Chief Stamper points to continuing distribution of military equipment and training to police, a war mentality fueled by declared wars on terror and drugs, and a SWAT or military approach to every 911 call that creates a government service that is “perpetually at war with its own people” (Stamper, 2011, p. 8).

While citizens do appreciate and applaud the daily courage of police officers, most welcome diplomatic and creative policing as opposed to the often brute force tactics of militarized police units. Pulling a false fire alarm to eject an unsuspecting suspect from a building or making arrests by promising foolish fugitives to pick up free tickets to the Super Bowl is always better than aggressively armed apprehension. There will always be situations that call for firepower and military precision; the hope is police everywhere see that as the last option.


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Baker, A. (2011, December 4). When the Police Go Military. New York Times. p. 6.

Balko, R. (2013). Rise of the warrior cop: The militarization of America's police forces (First edition). New York: Public Affairs.

Bell, T. (1993). The third amendment: Forgotten but not gone. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 2, 116-150.

Bickel, K. (2013). Will the Growing Militarization of Our Police Doom Community Policing? Retrieved from

Brundrett, R. (2014). Military Vehicles Invading S.C. Police Agencies? The Nerve. Retrieved May 11, 2014, from

Campbell, D. (1992). Writing security: United States foreign policy and the politics of identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Community Police Armed with the Weapons and Tactics of War. (n.d.). American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from

Conniff, R. (2013). A Police Chief's Sage Advice. Progressive, 77(6), 14-16.

Falcone, D., L. Wells, & Weisheit, R.. (2002). The small-town police department. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 25(2): 371-384.

Fund, J. (2014, April 18). The United States of SWAT?. National Review Online. Retrieved, from

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This is the problem/response

Are crime trends related to militazaion

Are incidents inflated to encourage militazation

Other countries?

Media role?

Better flow

Less quotes

Avoid generalization – “whole”

Crime rate or perception

Social Control

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed over two hundred public records requests in twenty-three states as part of an investigation into domestic police militarization. “American neighborhoods are increasingly being policed by cops armed with the weapons and tactics of war,” the campaign’s announcement read. “Federal funding in the billions of dollars has allowed state and local police departments to gain access to weapons and tactics created for overseas combat.” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2014)

In support of this effort the ACLU catalogued a number of recent incidents connected with growing militarization of law enforcement agencies:

  • Police in California shot and killed a seven-year-old girl after becoming confused by their own flash bang grenade.

  • Two Special Weapons and Tactic (SWAT) teams shut down a Colorado neighborhood for four hours after a Walmart reported a bicycle thief.

  • Police in Arkansas planned to patrol city streets wearing full SWAT gear while carrying AR-15 automatic rifles.

  • North Dakota police used a Predator drone aircraft borrowed from the Department of Homeland Security to monitor a farm when owners refused to return six cows that wandered onto their land.

  • New York Police admitted to using “counter-terrorist” methods to remove Occupy Wall Street Protesters. (2014)

This is a much abbreviated listing of growing domestic police militarization fueled in part by a nation in a state of continual warfare.

“You may have noticed the latest SWAT team armored personnel carrier parked at the Deming [NM] Police Department. The impressive military tank came free of charge to the department.” Excerpt from an April 2014 article in The Deming Headlight newspaper describing their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle obtained from the Department of Defense
“In a brave new world, a post-September 11 world, anyone is going to make certain mistakes. The mistakes that have been made on homeland security, on protecting our Nation from another terrorist attack, are mistakes of omission. We are simply not doing enough.”

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York

“I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”

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