Tactics and Toys: The Dangerous Militarization of Local Police

Why your neighborhood cop now has access to tear gas, M16 rifles, and some really big army vehicles.

A police officer keeps watch over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 13 in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Aug 14, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

The police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last Saturday has rocked the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. For the past four days, people have taken to the streets for rallies and protests against police brutality. In response, police have pelted crowds with rubber bullets, thrown noise and flash grenades, tear gas, and smoke bombs, and rolled through town in armored personnel carriers.

While the images of cops in their riot gear and body armor made them look more like an invading army than suburban law enforcement, many vets have argued that these police are so out of control it’s wrong to even call them “militarized.”

“The U.S. Armed Forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops,” Gawker’s Adam Weinstein wrote earlier today. Further, he remarked, “the cops aren’t acting like soldiers. They’re acting like extras in a Michael Bay movie playing soldiers.”

The paramilitary swagger of small-town cops is no accident. “Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier,” wrote Radley Balko, a journalist and the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Since the 1990s, a U.S. Department of Defense program has put military tools and property into the hands of local law enforcement, creating extremely well armed and sometimes dangerous police departments, according to Balko. The goods are managed by the Defense Logistics Agency, a government combat support agency. “In 2013 alone, $449,309,003.71 worth of property was transferred to law enforcement,” the agency’s website boasts.

Many of these tactics and toys have caused innocent people to be seriously injured or killed, often in their own neighborhoods and homes. Even pro-gun Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke out against the militarization of police forces in Ferguson, though he put his trademark antigovernment spin on the issue. In a Time magazine op-ed Thursday, Paul wrote, “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies.”

Here are nine ways your local cops are starting to look like a paramilitary organization:

1. They’ve Got Some Big Guns

Police departments across the country have received “tens of thousands of machine guns” from military surplus during the Obama administration, according to a New York Times report from June. So, local police now write speeding tickets, visit children’s classrooms to warn against misbehavior, and can rain bullets on dozens of Americans at a time. It’s hard to imagine when, if ever, the last scenario would be necessary.

Between Aug. 2, 2012, and Feb. 13, 2013, law enforcement in St. Louis County, which includes the town of Ferguson, received twelve 5.56-millimeter rifles and six .45-caliber pistols from the Department of Defense, USA Today reported Thursday.

We can’t say for sure whether police in Ferguson used one of those DOD guns to shoot Michael Brown, but we do know they have some pretty big ones.

(Department of Defense)

The demand among law enforcement for powerful weaponry appears to be growing. One former Riverside, Calif., police officer who was involved in downsizing a former air force base wrote to Balko that he was bombarded with “requests for surplus military property from helmets and M-16s to armored personnel carriers” from fellow officers.

2. They’ve Also Got Some Serious Tactical Vehicles

Police departments have received 435 armored vehicles, according to the New York Times report from June. The Missouri Department of Public Safety confirmed that law enforcement in the state has received “four-wheel drive vehicles (such as pickup trucks, blazers, ambulances and armored personnel carriers)” from the DOD’s weapons transfer program.

3. The Military Has Also Passed Along Some Fancy Aircraft

Since the 1990s local and state police departments have received 533 planes. The Missouri Department of Public Safety confirmed that cops in Missouri have “aircraft (both fixed wing and rotary)” from the Department of Defense.

4. Local Cops Have Really Nice Body Armor

6. They Use Aggressive Surveillance Tactics

Local police can request a U.S. citizen’s personal email from Internet service providers without a warrant.

7. SWAT Teams Pursue Low-Level Drug Offenders

Perhaps the most significant and egregious creep of militarization into policing is the growth of SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams. SWAT teams are often sent to execute low-level drug warrants in small towns, and SWAT missions have led to injury and death. An ACLU report released earlier this summer found that 46 people were injured and seven people were killed during more than 800 SWAT deployments between 2011 and 2012.

The use of SWAT teams is only growing. In 1983, thirteen percent of towns in the United States had a SWAT team. In 2005, eighty percent did. While Balko notes that number of older or former officers are critical of SWAT policing, local police departments often highlight their SWAT teams in recruiting.

The ACLU report found that 80 percent of SWAT deployments were to execute a search warrant, often for drugs. SWAT teams used a battering ram to enter a house 65 percent of the time, and more than half of the people SWAT deployments targeted were black or Latino.

Earlier this year, a Wisconsin SWAT team threw a flash grenade into the bedroom where Alecia Phonesavanh, her husband, and her children were sleeping. It was the middle of the night, and the police were searching for drugs. The flash grenade landed in her two-year-old son’s crib and burned a hole in his chest. He survived but had to be placed in a medically induced coma.

8. Police Have Sophisticated Ways of Controlling Crowds

In a scene that looked like combat, police unleashed rubber bullets, noise grenades, tear gas, and smoke into the crowd in Ferguson last night.

9. Cops Silence and Arrest Journalists

Like some sort of military coup in a distant, despotic land, reporters are being endangered and harassed. Yesterday, Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post were arrested in a Ferguson McDonald’s. Later that evening, police repeatedly demanded that journalists turn off their cameras.

Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief at The Huffington Post, wrote in a statement on the arrest, “Police militarization has been among the most consequential and unnoticed developments of our time, and it is now beginning to affect press freedom.”