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The Militarization of American Policing

Roderick Yang

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

As we all know, the War on Drugs was followed by the War on Terror. In the aftermath of 9/11, nothing less than a wholesale redefinition of domestic policing began in earnest. Increasingly, local police departments became to be seen as auxiliaries of the federal government’s national security apparatus, acting as first-responders and monitors of suspect individuals and populations. Soldiers returning from battle in Afghanistan and Iraq began applying for positions with local departments. Often superbly qualified in many ways, these new policemen also brought with them assumptions, values, and behaviors conditioned by their experiences on the back streets of Baghdad and Ramadi. Today, there are over 1,000 SWAT teams in the United States. They conduct over 50,000 paramilitary-style raids every year, often with disastrous consequences.

In 1878, following Reconstruction, the Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which enshrined in statutory law a basic American value embedded in Article IV of the Constitution: that the military should not be used for domestic policing except in extraordinary cases of civil disturbance. In recent years, the Act has come under a quiet yet relentless attack from the very federal government it was intended to restrain. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for instance, permits the indefinite military detention of domestic residents, including citizens, when the federal government determines that they have “supported” terrorist organizations. Since “support” can mean a lot of things, including speech, the 2012 NDAA could have significant ramifications for Article IV of the Constitution, as well as the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

A 2013 change to the US Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” permits the Pentagon to police the streets of American cities and towns without prior permission from local and state governments, or even the President of the United States. The rule reads, “Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances.” This seems to be a direct challenge to both the Posse Comitatus Act and the whole notion of civilian control of the military.

These seeming violations of the Constitution and statutory law pertain to the uniformed military services of the United States, but what about militarized police departments? To the extent that police departments – or even units within departments – have effectively been deputized as adjuncts of the federal government, we should examine closely at their purposes, tactics, and weapons. No-knock raids, warrantless searches, and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mindset may have its place on the battlefield, but not in American neighborhoods, regardless of the supposed threat.

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