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Demilitarize the Police

The use of military equipment by police is a symptom of a larger problem: an “us versus them” mentality.

October 21, 2021
Heavily armed officers with military equipment exit a truck
Scott Olson/Getty

Last summer, the Los Angeles Police Depart­ment (LAPD) became the latest police depart­ment to take viol­ent action against peace­ful protest­ers. Video foot­age shows LAPD officers acting less like protect­ors of the peace and more like an occupy­ing force in a theater of war as they beat already subdued indi­vidu­als with batons, shot noncom­bat­ive people with so-called “less-than-lethal” muni­tions, and kettled protest­ers before arrest­ing them en masse.

To those famil­iar with the history of poli­cing in the United States, this beha­vior did not come entirely as a surprise. Some of the earli­est iter­a­tions of poli­cing are found in patrols and Night Watches that hunted down runaway slaves, both in the South and around the coun­try. And law enforce­ment has a long and shame­ful history of crack­ing down on dissent, partic­u­larly when expressed by communit­ies of color. Nonethe­less, it would be a mistake to ignore the ways in which the more recent phenomenon of police milit­ar­iz­a­tion has played into the hostil­ity that some police officers exhibit toward the communit­ies they are inten­ded to serve.

The mater­ial milit­ar­iz­a­tion of police has been on an upward traject­ory since the pres­id­ency of Ronald Reagan, who “[allowed and encour­aged] the milit­ary to grant civil­ian law enforce­ment agen­cies access to milit­ary bases, research, and equip­ment”  as part of the “War on Drugs.” That anti-drug fervor contin­ued into the 1990s, when Congress allowed the trans­fer of unused Depart­ment of Defense equip­ment to state and local law enforce­ment for counter-drug activ­it­ies, a meas­ure which was then replaced with what is now referred to as the “1033 Program,” named for its estab­lish­ing numbered section in the 1997 National Defense Author­iz­a­tion Act.

Though these meas­ures were inten­ded strictly to mitig­ate drug traf­fick­ing, they resul­ted in an explo­sion of the use of milit­ary equip­ment for other purposes. We saw this milit­ar­iz­a­tion come to a head last summer, when riot police dressed for combat deployed flash gren­ades, used mine-resist­ant vehicles to drive through throngs of people, and surveilled activ­ists from advanced spy planes, drones, and heli­copters during the protests follow­ing the murder of George Floyd. It’s no wonder that calls to repeal the 1033 Program and demil­it­ar­ize police have picked up steam in civil rights circles and in Congress.

But it’s not enough to see milit­ar­iz­a­tion as simply the use of milit­ary equip­ment. As Columbia Univer­sity Law Professor Bern­ard Harcourt points out, along with tanks and night-vision goggles, Amer­ican police in many cities have impor­ted and adop­ted the mental­ity of the milit­ary, down to the idea that the resid­ents of the communit­ies where officers patrol are enemy combatants to be met with force. And it’s worth noting which popu­la­tions are seen as those enemy combatants: left-wing protest­ers are much more likely to be subjects of police viol­ence than right-wing protest­ers, who are often protec­ted by police.

This devel­op­ment flies in the face of Amer­ic­ans’ long­stand­ing belief that police and the milit­ary should be separ­ate. It is an idea that can be traced back to the nation’s found­ing, when Brit­ish soldiers quartered inside colon­ists’ homes ransacked rooms look­ing for evid­ence of treason against the Empire. The prin­ciple is also embod­ied in the Posse Comit­atus Act, which prohib­its the deploy­ment of the federal armed forces to perform domestic law enforce­ment activ­it­ies unless expressly author­ized by Congress.

The milit­ary has a differ­ent role than the police. As a Minnesota National Guards­man told a reporter during the George Floyd protests, “We’re a combat unit not trained for riot control or safely hand­ling civil­ians in this context. Soldiers up and down the ranks are scared about hurt­ing someone, and lead­ers are worried about soldiers’ suffer­ing liab­il­ity.” Police, on the other hand, regu­larly come into contact with people whose civil rights they are required to respect and uphold. This differ­ence in role should be reflec­ted in a differ­ence of capab­il­it­ies.

Prevent­ing an “us versus them” mental­ity is all the more import­ant when police depart­ments across the coun­try have been infilt­rated by white suprem­acists. While the over­all percent­age of white suprem­acists in law enforce­ment is likely low, incid­ents of white suprem­acy within police forces across the coun­try for decades have eroded public trust in the police, and with good reason: the pres­ence of white suprem­acist affil­i­ations and views in police depart­ments has been found to correl­ate with dispro­por­tion­ate poli­cing of Black and brown communit­ies as well as more use of force against those communit­ies.

Many of the communit­ies that police perceive as “them” are sorely in need of social services, not viol­ent inter­ven­tion. When police bring snipers to deal with mental health crises, for instance, they further damage an already tenu­ous rela­tion­ship between their depart­ments and their neigh­bor­hoods. As soci­ology professor and coordin­ator of the Poli­cing and Social Justice Project at Brook­lyn College Alex Vitale writes, “The altern­at­ive is not more money for police train­ing programs, hard­ware or over­sight. It is to dramat­ic­ally shrink their func­tion. We must demand that local politi­cians develop non-police solu­tions to the prob­lems poor people face.”

So, yes, we should demil­it­ar­ize the police because “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We should ask police to make mean­ing­ful changes to how they inter­act with civil­ians instead of allow­ing them to use equip­ment built for war when enga­ging with the public. But we need to demil­it­ar­ize the police because of milit­ar­iz­a­tion’s pois­on­ous effect on poli­cing culture. Today, the commonly under­stood duty of police — to “protect and serve” — is far too often replaced by a combat­ive approach.

Ulti­mately, reform­ing police must include — but cannot be limited to — repeal­ing the 1033 program and imple­ment­ing stronger protec­tions for subjects of police viol­ence. Fixing police culture will require revis­ing train­ing that trau­mat­izes recruits, root­ing out white suprem­acy, and perhaps even reima­gin­ing poli­cing alto­gether to shift many of the func­tions police perform to govern­ment entit­ies better suited to do that work.