I’ve been writing about the militarization of policing on this blog (The Power-Elite) since I started it in 2007, and have been teaching about it in Criminology and Punishment and Society since 2000. With the grotesque events unfolding in a place called Ferguson, Missouri, suddenly everyone seems to be cognizant of the disaster that comes when you give military equipment to domestic law enforcement with little or no training in how or when to deploy such force. It’s Keystone Cops meets the Battle for Baghdad, right here in your backyard.

In fact, you get classic footage like this SWAT video, posted by a Georgia police department to their website (but recently removed after national outrage).

I particularly enjoyed reading about (and watching) the Ferguson SWAT arrest two reporters at a McDonald’s, decked out in “suburban camouflage.”

The defense for jack boots, body armor and camo at McDonald’s is found in the following exchange:

Ever see St. Louis County cops in camouflage military fatigues on the street and wonder why they’re dressed like they’re going to Iraq instead of Creve Coeur?

That’s the county’s Tactical Operations Unit — the SWAT team — and Sergeant Matthew Pleviak tells Daily RFT that the camouflage is worn so the SWAT cops can “blend in with the environment.”

Blend in with the environment of Creve Coeur?

“If you go to any subdivison, there’s grass and trees and bushes,” Pleviak explains.

Snicker. From Walter Olson at the Cato Institute:

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?

Plus, the Hamburgler is often present at McDonald’s, so there’s that.

Oddly (or maybe not, if you can put away your ideological blinders for one second and think rationally), the outrage over the heavy handed SWAT tactics on display in Ferguson have cut across party and ideological lines, one of  the best articulations I’ve found comes from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (Republican):

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Again, “duh” for those of who have been studying this insanity for years now, but welcome to the debate, ideologues right, middle and left.

The one thing that’s missing in all the coverage, however, is historical context. Most of this militarization is chalked up to post-9/11 and the buildup of surveillance, technology, etc. following the advent of the War on Terrorism. But the militarization of policing has been going on since the Johnson administration and the creation of the LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration) in 1968.

The LEAA funneled federal monies directly to local police departments to increase training, build up firepower and armor and, among other things, create SWAT teams in any department that wanted one. SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) was designed for urban hostage situations. Now, under Nixon’s increase of LEAA funding, even Chief Smith of the Podunk Police Department in rural nowhere can have a SWAT team (and does).

This continued throughout the 70’s (Ford, Carter), the drug wars of the 80’s (Reagan, Bush), then kicked into high gear following the end of the Cold War in the early 90’s. Once we stood down from the threat of nuclear war and Communism, all the surplus Defense Department equipment began to find its way to the streets and local police. The Clinton administration (via the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; aka “The Biden Bill“), accelerated the flow of bayonets, grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers and military firepower to the streets of America.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security, which took over LEAA and turned on the spigot of funding for more military equipment (including mine-resistant trucks) in the newly launched War on Terror. The Obama administration has continued the flow, more targeted towards the War on Immigration (for more, see our featured sociologist of the semester Christian Parenti and his book “Lockdown America”).

And so we stand today a true garrison state, as originally envisioned by sociologist Harold Lasswell back in 1941: a state maintained by military firepower (Constitution, Posse Comitatus, and common sense be damned).

As Parenti notes in Lockdown, all of this spectacle put on by local law enforcement is not about the immediate threat of convicts, druggies, rioters or even terrorists. Spectacle is a way you control people through brute force and state terror, and these kinds of egregious uses of force have been on display in poor, minority neighborhoods for decades. What seems to have changed here is the Ferguson PD took this into middle class areas, and the immediate social media reaction was swift and intense.

The debate over militarization is, again, much welcomed by those of us who have been sounding the alarm for years now (and met with essentially deaf ears and eye rolls). Let’s hope we reach the point soon where our local police departments can stand down from militarization insanity and go back to the business of keeping the peace.

Cross posted from: The Power-Elite

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