The militarization of American policing is a controversial subject. Some say the police have to arm themselves like soldiers so that they can keep up with the threats posed by terrorists and drug gangs. Others maintain that the line that has traditionally separated the police function from the military function has been badly blurred and, as a result, the police are now using confrontational tactics and unnecessary violence. In January 2015 President Obama ordered several changes to the federal programs that provide armored military vehicles and weapons to local police agencies. That order did little to resolve the controversy. The order was criticized from all sides for doing too little and also for going too far. This primer will briefly describe the federal programs that contribute to the militarization trend at the local level and the tactics of paramilitary units in American communities. The primer will conclude with several policy recommendations.
Following riots in Los Angeles in 1965 and the mass shooting at the University of Texas in 1966, several big city police departments started to create special tactical teams to respond to emergencies, such as hostage situations and active shooters. These tactical units are commonly referred to as SWAT teams (Special Weapons and Tactics), but different jurisdictions sometimes use other names, such as “Special Response Team.”
During the 1980s, with the escalation of the drug war, the SWAT teams also began to take on a more expansive role in domestic law enforcement. A few hundred paramilitary raids a year gradually became tens of thousands as tactical units were increasingly used to serve search warrants.
Today, police departments around the country launch approximately 80,000 raids a year. Roughly four out of every five raids today are serving search warrants instead of addressing extraordinarily dangerous situations.
Unfortunately, the drastic expansion of the use of raids to serve warrants has led to an increase in the number of botched raids. A SWAT raid is an inherently violent, dangerous event. Property damage is common, with battered doors and broken windows. Family pets, especially dogs, are sometimes killed due to their reaction to the invading agents.
Far too often, there is an human cost to the raid as well. Here are a few examples:
- On July 29, 2008, a SWAT team from the Prince George’s County (Md.) Sheriff’s office burst into the residence of the mayor of Berwyn Heights, MD, Cheye Calvo. Police had been tracking a package of marijuana from Arizona when it was delivered to Calvo’s door. Without any further investigation, the police stormed the Calvo residence. The family’s two dogs were shot and killed. Soon thereafter, it became evident that Calvo had nothing to do with the drug package. The marijuana had been mailed to his house either by mistake or so some third party could pick it up before the Calvos could retrieve it from their front porch.
- In January of 2011, police in Framingham, MA raided an apartment in search of drugs after confidential informants reported making drug purchases “around” the area. When police smashed the door of the apartment, they found 68-year-old Eurie Stamps, not one of the suspects, laying on the floor with his hands above his head. One of the officers kept his M4 rifle trained on Stamps as the other officers searched the apartment. When the officer pointing the gun moved to secure Stamps, he claims his gun accidentally discharged, killing Stamps.
- In the early hours of May 28, 2014, a Habersham County (Ga.) SWAT team raided the home of the Phonesavanh family. Police were serving a warrant in search of a family member who had allegedly sold a small amount of drugs to an undercover officer. This was a “no-knock” raid, meaning the police did not knock on the door or announce their presence prior to breaking into the home. The family was taken by surprise, and when officers could not get the bedroom door open, they lobbed in a “flashbang” grenade. The door wouldn’t open because the crib of a 19-month-old child was pushed against it. The flash grenade landed in the child’s crib and exploded. The child survived his injuries after several surgeries, but will be permanently scarred. The suspected drug dealer was not at the home when the raid occurred. He was later arrested without incident at another location.
Federal Role in State and Local Militarization
The federal government has contributed to the spread of paramilitary police units and to the “warrior cop” mentality of police culture. Through federal grants and equipment transfer programs, state and local police departments have become heavily armed.
The 1033 program, administered through the Department of Defense, allows for the free transfer of military surplus weapons, equipment, and vehicles, to state and local law enforcement. A task force commissioned by the White House in 2015 found that the 1033 program, along with similar transfer programs, were not properly overseeing local law enforcement’s use of the equipment, not adequately training recipients, and not coordinating with other federal agencies to ensure that slipshod police departments were barred from the program.
The federal government also plies state and local law enforcement with billions of dollars in federal security grants and civil asset forfeiture payouts. The justifications for these transfers and grants typically relate to the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, but there are reasons to be skeptical that the equipment is actually used against drug cartels or to protect national security.
When officials in Keene, NH, applied to the federal government for funding for a BearCat tactical vehicle, for example, by citing a terrorist threat to the annual town pumpkin festival, one city council member stated: “Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money. What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That’s what it comes down to.”
Policing has historically been the province of state and local governments. These federal programs undermine the traditional balance between the federal government and the states. When law enforcement agencies turn to the federal government, rather than their locally elected officials, for equipment and funding, the goals of those police agencies can shift away from local crime-fighting priorities.
Some police commanders have experienced regret. In September 2015, the Burlington Police Department in Vermont decided to stop accepting transfers of federal military equipment. Here is how Chief Brandon del Pozo explained his reasoning: “There are times when military-style equipment is essential for public safety, but they are very rare. We have the resources to handle all but the most inconceivable public safety scenarios. Amassing a worst-case scenario arsenal of military equipment results in officers seeing everyday policework through a military lens. When I realized what a small role the military played in equipping our police, I concluded it was better to return the items.”
Militarization of Federal Agencies
State and local law enforcement are not the only beneficiaries of the federal push for militarization. Federal regulatory agencies have also acquired military weapons and equipment. A 2016 report commissioned by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 found that between 2006-2014, the federal government spent more than $335 million equipping agencies like the EPA, IRS, and Smithsonian Institution with guns, ammunition, and other military equipment, such as night-vision goggles and grenade launchers.
The militarization of regulatory agencies is unjustified. The federal government already has several agencies that are tasked with law enforcement responsibilities, such as the FBI.
- The use of special tactical teams should be reserved for potentially deadly emergencies, such as hostage situations, active shooters, and barricaded suspects. They should not be used for routine law enforcement practices, such as serving search warrants.
- The federal government should not provide military weapons to local civilian police. At the least, never directly, without the explicit approval of locally elected officials. When local civilian oversight is bypassed, there is a danger that the police will become unresponsive and unaccountable to the local electorate’s policy preferences and priorities.
- Federal regulatory agencies do not need paramilitary units. The FBI has SWAT units and should be called upon when their extraordinary weapons and tactics are actually needed.
Adam Andrzejewski and Thomas W. Smith, “The Militarization of America: Non-Military Federal Agencies Purchases of Guns, Ammo, and Military-Style Equipment, Fiscal years 2006-2014 Oversight Study.” June 2016.
“Demilitarizing America’s Police: A Constitutional Analysis,” The Constitution Project, August 2016.
Radley Balko, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America,” Cato Institute, July 17, 2006.
Radley Balko, The Rise of the Warrior Cop, PublicAffairs Publishing, 2013.
Peter B. Kraska and Louis J. Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing,” Justice Quarterly, December 1997.
“Recommendations Pursuant to Executive Order 13688 Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition,” White House Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, May 2015.
“War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” American Civil Liberties Union, June 2014.
Diane Cecilia Weber, “Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments,” Cato Institute, August 26, 1999.
Prepared by Adam Bates.