Militarizing the Police: How the Drug War and 9/11 Led to Battle-Dressed Cops Cracking Down on Peaceful Protests
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What happens when a government builds a massive, unaccountable police apparatus to thwart infiltration by a foreign menace, only to see the society it's supposed to protect take to the streets for entirely different reasons?
It looks as though we may be about to find out. The Occupy protests have been mostly peaceful, with a few fairly dramatic exceptions. But the sight of a huge police presence in riot gear is always startling, and tactics that have been honed in Europe (such as "kettling") against anarchist actions have not been as common in the United States as elsewhere. More standard forms of crowd control, such as the aggressive use of pepper spray and "rubber" bullets have so far been the outer limits of the police use of force. But it is hardly the outer limits of the possibilities.
The US has actually been militarising much of its police agencies for the better part of three decades, mostly in the name of the drug war. But 9/11 put that programme on steroids.
Recall that six short weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US congress passed the PATRIOT Act, a sweeping expansion of domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering capabilities. This legislation gave the government the ability to easily search all forms of communication, eased restrictions on foreign intelligence-gathering at home, gave itself greater power to monitor financial transactions and created entirely new categories of domestic terrorism to which the PATRIOT Act's expanded powers to police could be applied.
It was one of the greatest expansions of government police power in history, an expansion which, after some tweaking, has been mostly validated by the congress and reaffirmed by the courts.
A little more than a week after the PATRIOT Act was passed, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security to "develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks" and a year later, the Department of Homeland Security was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
Today it is the third-largest government agency, after the departments of defence and veterans' affairs. Aside from the billions the federal government spent on its own agencies, it has disbursed many billions more to various state and local police agencies, ostensibly for the purpose of fighting the terrorist threat.
Campus police with M-16s
More often, it created new surveillance opportunities for non-terrorist activity. In one notorious case from 2006, it was revealed that Homeland Security had given the remote Alaskan village of Dillingham (population 2,400) $202,000 to purchase surveillance cameras in order to track alleged terrorist activity.
Needless to say, Dillingham was not on any known terrorist's target list, so the only people the surveillance cameras were watching were the citizens. But surveillance wasn't the end of it.
"It wouldn't be surprising to find that swaggering around armed to the teeth and dressed like RoboCop might lead some cops to adopt a more militaristic attitude."
As reported by Radley Balko in the Huffington Post, a Pentagon programme - started in the 1980s - to give military equipment to local police escalated in the 2000s, with even university campus police receiving everything from M-16s to armoured personnel carriers. Balko quoted one county sheriff saying that he'd use his new Homeland Security-funded SWAT team "for a lot of other purposes, too ... just a multitude of other things".
All over the country, police switched out their traditional uniforms for Battle Dress Uniforms, dubbed by one retired policeman in the Washington Post as "commando-chic" regalia. It wouldn't be surprising to find that swaggering around armed to the teeth and dressed like RoboCop might lead some cops to adopt a more militaristic attitude.
Former San Jose chief of police Joseph McNamara raised these alarms as early as 2006 in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting in New York. He pointed out that the effects of the drug war and 9/11 had led to "an emphasis on 'officer safety' [where] paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed".
Likewise, in the name of "officer safety", the Taser became a common tool in everyday policing, deployed with little knowledge of the effects, and a tendency to Taser first and ask questions later. But over the course of the past decade, the body count grew as it became more and more obvious that tasers were sometimes as deadly as the guns they purported to replace.