Militarizing Our Police

The tragic shooting death of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri last Sunday, and the response of local police to the civil unrest that followed, have focused national attention on an issue that unites people from across the political spectrum: concern about the increasing militarization of law enforcement at all levels of American government. Conservatives, Liberals, Independents, Libertarians, Tea Partiers, civil rights activists, and faith-based groups have found common ground in their condemnation of a trend which began in the 1960’s and has accelerated rapidly since 9/11.

Here are only a few examples of the many calls for alarm that have been sounded in just the past year.

Last August, a report in the conservative Wall Street Journal warned of “the rise of the warrior cop.” Author Radley Balko summarized the history as follows:

“Since the 1960’s, 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. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment – from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers – American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.”

A few months later, in an op-ed in the rightward-leaning Washington Times, Evan Bernick of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote that “It’s past time to scale back police militarization.”

This past June, Matt Apuzzo in the left-leaning New York Times provided a similar analysis, observing that

“The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of the officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons.”

More recently, the Washington Post pointed out that Libertarians have also been strong critics of “the War on Drugs and the overly militaristic police tactics it has helped foster.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has developed a project on the excessive militarization of policing in America with a particular focus on using SWAT teams to serve search warrants.

Meanwhile the Tea Party, ever anxious to portray the United States as a “police state,” has found plenty of fodder for its extreme position in recent events, including the shooting in Missouri, warning of “a ‘terrifying’ military occupation of American cities.”

That kind of fear-mongering is par for the course when it comes to the anti-government extremists of the Tea Party and certain NRA activists. But you don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to see very serious danger in our current policy of blurring the lines between civilian policing and military combat. Just this past Sunday, an article submitted to the NY Times by the respected, faith-based Friends Committee on National Legislation warned:

“Police militarization is a growing national threat. If the federal government doesn’t act to stop it, the future of law enforcement everywhere will look a lot like Ferguson.”


UPDATE (24 August 7:00 a.m.)

Yesterday, President Obama ordered a review of Federal programs that supplied nearly half a billion dollars in military equipment to municipal police departments last year.


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1 Comment on "Militarizing Our Police"

  • uncle pepper says

    Your ability to present an issue with balance and common sense makes this a great place to discuss topics important to all sides. Thanks…

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