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The Militarization of American Policing

Roderick Yang

Mark Gordon - published on 12/11/13

Think the federal government is out of control? Just wait until your local police force is listening in our your calls and flying drones.

Last April, during the manhunt for alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, television viewers were able to witness first-hand the militarization of a municipal police force. Officers in full battle gear rumbled through the streets of a Boston suburb in a variety of armored military vehicles, including up-armored Humvees and infantry troop carriers. As importantly, they deployed the tactics of soldiers, from small unit cover-and-maneuver formations and forcible, warrantless searches of private homes all the way up to the occupation-style lockdown of a major metropolitan area. It was an unprecedented demonstration of how police forces have evolved in the past quarter century. On some levels, it was also an understandable response – after all, the police were looking for two terrorist bombers who might have been part of a larger, active conspiracy.

But what many Americans don’t understand is the degree to which the ordinary business of policing in the United States is now being conducted using the equipment and tactics of the military and federal intelligence agencies. The Department of Defense regularly transfers excess or used equipment directly to the paramilitary units of police departments across the country. Just since August, for instance, 165 lumbering MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicles) have been donated to local cities and towns. And it’s not just cities like Los Angeles and New York that are the beneficiaries of such largesse; this autumn, an MRAP was transferred to Currituck, NC, a coastal town of 20,000 with no discernable terrorism problem. From drones to rocket launchers, American police departments are being outfitted with lethal and intrusive military gear at an alarming rate.

And it’s not just military hardware. A report published this week in USA Today, for instance, reveals that up to a quarter of American police departments now routinely collect metadata from local cell phone towers, and some departments have even purchased a technology known as “Stingray,” a device that tricks cell phones in a given area to connect to it, thereby giving police real-time access to voice and data traffic. Purchases of Stingray and other technology, including military hardware, are often financed through federal “anti-terror” grants administered by the DOD, NSA, and other agencies. If you were concerned about the National Security Agency (NSA) violating your privacy, wait until your local police department knows the details of your voice, data, and online life.

According to Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” this trend began in the 1970s with the appearance of paramilitary SWAT – “special weapons and tactics” – teams in most metropolitan police forces. At first, the tactics and firepower of SWAT were reserved for major public safety operations. But as it began to attract money and interest, SWAT’s role in policing grew. Over time, every police department wanted its own SWAT team, whether it really needed one or not. Potential recruits and even seasoned officers, faced with the choice of clocking speeders on the four-lane out of town or knocking down doors with a battering ram, chose the more exciting option, which created internal pressures for more and more SWAT slots.

In the late 1980s, the War on Drugs accelerated the militarization of police forces. The Reagan Administration issued a National Security Directive mandating closer cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to staunch the flow of drugs into and through the United States. That cooperation enabled the standardization of tactics and, to some extent, physical capabilities. In 1988, Congress directed the National Guard to become actively involved in drug interdiction at the state and local level, and under the Clinton Administration the DOD was authorized to begin transferring military equipment and technology to local police forces.

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