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The Militarization of Law Enforcement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andrew Vaz
April 3, 2015

Clay Bennett editorial cartoon

Clay Bennett editorial cartoon

When Michael Brown was shot and killed in August 2014, it ignited a firestorm of controversy concerning the handling of African-American citizens by law enforcement. Officer Darren Wilson killed the unarmed youth, witnessed by onlookers, in a Ferguson, Missouri neighborhood. Protests erupted throughout the city, forcing police to use armor gear and riot tanks to control the crowds. While many argue that the law enforcement officials were justified in their use of excessive force, critics maintain that the clashes in Ferguson are a classic example of the increasing militarization of law enforcement across the nation.

The Military-Industrial Complex

The Military-Industrial Complex, a term used to describe the advance warfare law enforcement agencies deploy in every city, arose in the late-20th century. Since the 1960s, local law enforcement agencies have been using tactical enforcement strategies. The Special Weapons and Tactics teams (SWAT) were developed to handle the ever growing problems with riots and senseless violence. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the police departments in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles, California, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide. Initially, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations or large-scale disturbances. However, this is no longer case. By the 1980s, Congress passed laws that allowed the military to share equipment with local law enforcement.

The 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act is a federal law that allows the U.S. military to cooperate with its civilian law enforcement agencies. Operations in support of law enforcement include assistance in counter-drug operations, assistance for civil disturbances, special security operations, counter-terrorism, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and similar activities. Constitutional and statutory restrictions and corresponding directives and regulations limit the type of support provided in this area. This allows the U.S. military to give civilian law enforcement agencies access to its military bases and its military equipment. The legislation was promoted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan during the War on Drugs and is considered a part of a general trend toward the militarization of police. The Act is cited in the 1992 essay “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012” as having set a precedent that the author, a United States Air Force officer, considered dangerous.

Throughout the 1990s, we have seen the escalation of police brutality in our neighborhoods, most notably the 1992 Los Angeles riots which were in response to the beating of Rodney King. What must follow is a discussion on how to make policing more accountable and effective for everyday citizens.

Building Accountability

In the recent years, community policing initiatives have been developed across the country to address the lack of accountability within police departments. Community policing is service oriented, promoting the concept of community as client and police as provider. The needs of the client become the goals of the provider in delivering professional, client-centered service that is effective, efficient and accountable. The objective is to determine community needs and policing priorities and to promote police accountability and effectiveness. Consultation with the community, through community police forums is of critical importance. But forums are not the only means of consultation. Other channels may also be developed and should include the participation of all stakeholders. Surveys, interviews, workshops, community profiles and other methods can help identify community needs. In community policing, accountability is achieved by making the provider responsible to the client, creating mechanisms through which the police are accountable for addressing the needs and concerns of the community they serve.

With open communication between the public and the police department, one can ensure accountability is upheld to the highest standard. The question that remains is how to deal with the mistrust the community will have toward law enforcement.

Managing Community Mistrust and Skepticism

Community policing may be effective at problem-solving and addressing accountability, but much more is required in order to eliminate skepticism placed on law enforcement. Sociologist Giovanni Sartor states that trust is a public good; if there was no trust, there wouldn’t be any co-operation and society would break apart. According to popular social theory, trust indicates a depth and a sense of assurance that is based on strong but not logically-conclusive evidence, or based on the character, ability or truth that someone or something has shown over time or across situations. While such public unrest may not always be focused directly on police conduct, it inevitably is the task of the police to balance the right of free speech against the reality of destruction such anger can impact. Without the approval and consent of the public, law enforcement can scarcely fulfill their mission to police.

By communicating policies and procedures to the public, it builds relationships between both the public and the police that will eliminate fears and make way for progress.


Author: Andrew R Vaz, M.S., M.P.A. is a doctoral student in public policy and administration program at Walden University. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration program at Florida International University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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One Response to The Militarization of Law Enforcement

  1. Louis DeAnda Reply

    April 5, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    I read this essay with interest but was vexed by the singular perspective applied by the author to this multidimensional issue. The police militarized largely due to the dramatic increase in very violent crimes that took place from the 1980s through the 1990s, largely a result of explosive growth in drug trafficking nationwide. Major metropolitan police departments set this trend in response to the tactical scenarios they were increasingly confronted with during routine patrol functions.

    Organizations such as the National Tactical Officers Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police actively pushed for improved tactical response capabilities at the patrol level. A complete change in tactical patrol doctrine included rapid mobilization of tactical teams separate and distinct from SWAT.

    I agree that some departments around the country may have taken the tactical model to an inappropriate level. It should be the citizenry and city leadership that dictates what is an appropriate or socially acceptable force posture by their police.

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