The Militarization of American Police Departments

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A police officer watches over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. A police officer watches over demonstrators protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Over the last decade many state and local law enforcement agencies have become increasingly militarized. Kara Dansky, a senior counsel at the ACLU and one of the authors of the report War Comes Home, explains how and why federal programs have created incentives for law enforcement to use paramilitary tactics and military grade weapons, including mine-resistant armored vehicles.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri clashed with heavily armed police this week. “What we’re seeing in Ferguson today is, in many ways, a reflection of the militarization of policing that’s been happening across America for decades,” Dansky said. The ACLU now estimates that there are 50,000 paramilitary police raids across the United States each year. That’s about 135 raids every day.

Many of these raids are being carried out in order to serve search warrants, often for drugs. “We found a shocking number of incidents where the police would raid a home, traumatize people within the home and not find the weapons or drugs they claimed would be there,” Dansky said. These raids also disproportionately occur in communities of color.

Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, state and local law enforcement agencies are being given military grade equipment, free of charge. This can include guns, helicopters, night vision goggles and, Dansky added, “really anything that the military has in its arsenal that [the DoD] deems necessary for law enforcement.” The ACLU has identified that more than 600 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been placed with police departments around the country.  In addition to receiving free military equipment, state and local law enforcement agencies can also apply for Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security grants to purchase weapons directly from manufacturers.

Dansky noted that police are being trained to view towns as battlefields and operate as though they’re going into combat, and that police departments have a built-in incentive to use military grade equipment. “The program requires police departments that get this kind of weaponry to use it within one year,” she said.


Kara Dansky

Comments [19]

Debbie from TN from TN

This is Tennessee. A stand you ground state. And it is a common known fact that if you Break in my house,You come at me to harm me,You attempt to harm my children, my home, my way of life,and I will shoot. But all this going on in Ferguson, MO is INSANE. The parents of that boy (innocent or guilty) brought out their complaint about WHY and HOW that all took place. They have that right. But all the other people who just keep on stirring that pot need to STOP. I think if the local police can't take care and disarm that situation, then their officials need to ask for National Guard help. Oh...Wait..Our Military is banned under the Constitution from attacking it's own citizens. OH...But Wait...Obama and his "signing EXECUTIVE ORDERS" that serve HIS purpose, has made a way for that to happen. What other reason would there be for FEMA, Wildlife agencies, DCS, DHS, and other NON LAW ENFORCEMENT agencies to have SWAT TEAMS. And why else would all these Police, Sheriff, and State Police agencies be GIVEN without charge all the military surplus. Because he is arming government agencies to use AGAINST AMERICAN CITIZENS. Go to YouTube and just search FEMA CAMPS. Then go to STOCKPILES OF PLASTIC COFFINS, then go to videos submitted by citizens documenting OFFICE WORKERS from local gov agencies in MILITARY TRAINING. As for Ferguson, MO, they need to SHUT THAT DOWN. And the number one thing...GET THE DANG MEDIA OUT OF THERE. Stop the ATTENTION and this dies down considerably. The whole thing is feeding off itself. They try to enforce, and the people buck up. They buck up, and police enforce. They all just need to BACK OFF and if the family wants to take it to court and go after the Police dept, so be it. I feel really sorry for that family. They lost a child. A child who was walking down the middle of the street blocking the flow of traffic. THAT is the reason the police approached him. They did not even know at the time that this BOY had just stolen two handfuls of Cigars from a store. There was no reason for him to be walking down the middle of that street. NO REASON ! And he put an officer in the hospital BEFORE he was shot for NON COMPLIANCE of the officer's instructions. WHY DIDN'T HE JUST DO WHAT THEY ASKED. Now the parents own ordered autopsy says that he was shot 6 times from the FRONT. Four in the right arm and then 2 to the head. FROM THE FRONT. NOT shot in the back. The whole thing is a MESS. People are allowed to protest peacefully. But peaceful demonstration does not include yelling things DESIGNED to antagonize those officers. JUST SPREADING HATE, VIOLENCE, DISORDER, and Perpetuating all of the above.HOLD A SIGN and KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. Nothing wrong with that. You want to prove a point...TRY THAT and STAY AWAY FROM THE DANG CAMERAS. That tells the whole world that you are enjoying all the media attention and that your cause is not worth as much as being on TV is. SEEK A LITTLE TRUE PEACE and YOUR CAUSE will promote itself.

Aug. 18 2014 05:39 AM

The prime reasons local law enforcement agencies have become increasingly militarized are simple and practical. Just about any person, from law abiding citizen, to violent gangs, to radical anti-government anarchist, has easy access to military assault rifles / ammunition, body armour, bomb making and detonation instructions on the internet,... These items can be purchased with virtually no backround check over the internet, unregulated private gun sales, illegal straw purchases from interstate gun traffickers,... Law enforcement, out of necessity due this reality, needs to be fully equipped to engage the threats posed by today's easy access to weapons. Any law enforcement agency that simply equips it's personnel with .35 caliber revolvers is certain to be ineffective against today's criminal elements.

Aug. 14 2014 05:35 PM
tom LI

Does anyone think the NYPD doesnt have at least 6 (likely more) MWRAPs in their garages...? I sure dont...I would be very surprised if they the NYPD anti-terror force is one of the better trained and better armed, and well traveled of any of them in the US.

Aug. 14 2014 02:28 PM
tom LI

Joanne, because the law has nothing to do with how the local police arm or train themselves. It deals with the recognized military forces.

Anon - well we live in a gun culture, what is to be expected? And what better way to use the already up-trained returning vets, many of whom will simply go into a police job as the easier path to employment. Who then work next to the "Super Cop" types who have an all things cop and gun fetishes.

Smokey, because after their Academy training, most cops only perform their gun qualifying work, and rarely take advanced training in armed confrontation, or better gun handling techniques.

One of the bigger issues not raised is what sort of advanced training are regular cops getting when their precinct arms/armors-up? My guess, not too much. Maybe some "vendor" training, but nothing more. Which means anxious, under-trained cops with greater firepower, many of them white in non-white neighborhoods, which will mean more harm then any perceived good, as well as more cover-ups and nondisciplinary actions. Because, you know all cops are perfect, and to critique them now is to be unpatriotic, as all cops now bask in the glow of Hero of those who died, or were involved on 9-11 at the WTC.

Which of course is the epicenter of how the US citizenry entered the Age of Apathy.

Aug. 14 2014 02:15 PM
Amy from Manhattan

There was also a case in NY in which a woman died of a heart attack when a flash-bang grenade was thrown into her home.

Aug. 14 2014 02:04 PM

If the victims have any money, it may be seized in the raid.
You then have to sue to get it back.
But they took the money with which you might have hired a lawyer.
Another thing you should email your Fed Reps against:

Aug. 14 2014 02:02 PM
mamc from Manhattan

Leonard, there were tanks on the street of Manhattan on the morning of 9/11/2011, the tenth anniversary. I had attended a beautiful and peaceful dance performance by the Buglisi Dance Company on the Lincoln Center Plaza. Leaving the plaza, I felt uplifted and optimistic, but then walking home up Broadway I saw that the NYPD had stationed tanks along the side streets above Lincoln Center. By the time I got home, I was totally bummed out and disgusted with the Bloomberg Administration and Ray Kelly and their response to 9/11.

Aug. 14 2014 01:58 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Doesn't the undermining of trust in the police lead to underreporting of crime, making it look as if these tactics reduce crime?

Aug. 14 2014 01:57 PM

The excuse for no-knock warrants was to keep the drugs from being flushed down the toilet.
People die in these violent raids.
One raid was to find a person who had defaulted on a student loan.

Aug. 14 2014 01:53 PM
Adam Adams from L.E.S.

I was there when the tank came to take us out of our home for many years on 13th Street here in NYC. They called us squatters, when we rebuilt the entire structure. Now it is rented for $8,000 a month per apartment.

Aug. 14 2014 01:52 PM

Ask your Federal representative to end this war on drugs.

Aug. 14 2014 01:50 PM
Olivia from New York City

Sounds an awful lot like facism to me - what is happening to us? I have some ideas, but they are not pleasant and require more than 'comment space' to explain. Besides, I hope I am wrong.

Aug. 14 2014 01:50 PM
Peter from Tribeca

Good question, it seems a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act.

Aug. 14 2014 01:48 PM

The war on drugs is the excuse for all this. We can end this war on civilians if we end the war on drugs.

Aug. 14 2014 01:48 PM

Even without military gear, most NYPD confrontations with someone armed (or assumed to be armed) end up in a hail of bullets - not to wound but to kill. This is like sanctioned execution.

Aug. 14 2014 01:48 PM

This is insanity. We wonder why we don't have money for universal health care in this country, or quality public education, or affordable housing. Imagine if the money being used to buy these weapons were used for other purposes.

Aug. 14 2014 01:46 PM

The flash bang grenade thrown into a child's crib.

Aug. 14 2014 01:45 PM

The flash bang grenade into a child's crib.

Aug. 14 2014 01:44 PM
Joanne from Brooklyn

Can you ask why the ACLU or other groups have not yet challenged the militarization of USA police forces as a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act ? And if this is planned for the near future in court?

Aug. 14 2014 01:38 PM

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