Policing In America

The Evolution of Policing in America:

From “To Protect and Serve” to Standing Armies?

The minivan parked in the driveway contained several child car seats, and some of the kids’ toys were strewn across the front yard.   At 3:00 am on a night in May 2014, local SWAT officers, executing a “no knock” warrant at the home in Cornelia, Ga., broke down the door, and, to disorient the drowsy occupants, tossed a flashbang grenade into the home.  But the grenade, instead of exploding in an open floor space, landed in the crib of 19-month-old “Bou Bou” Phonesvanh, blowing a hole in his face and chest, exposing his ribs and covering much of his body with third degree burns.  The officers, who were executing the warrant based on a first-time informant’s tip, found no drugs, no guns, nothing illegal, and nobody to arrest.  

Flashbang grenades are just part of the ever-increasing military-based arsenal -– grenade launchers, body armor, mine-resistant vehicles, armored personnel carriers, sniper scopes, surveillance equipment, M14/M16 rifles – available to local law enforcement agencies through the Department of Defense’s 1033 military-grade equipment give-away program.  Typical recipients include not only city, county and state police, but also K-12 and higher education police departments, local park districts and natural resource agencies.  

So, how did the Defense Department’s 1033 program – and the consequent tendency toward militarization -- come into play in local, civilian activities? It evolved from the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990, section 1208, which authorized the transfer of military hardware specifically for use in counter-drug activities (remember the “War on Drugs”?).  Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney advanced the objective in 1989: 

“The detection and countering of the production, trafficking, and use of illegal drugs is a high-priority national security mission of the Department of Defense.”

The 1208 program was run by the Department of Defense from the Pentagon and its regional offices.  To accommodate the program’s expanding role, the Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services (DLA) created the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) in 1995 to work exclusively with all law enforcement agencies.  

The 1208 program was originally scheduled to end in 1997.  But in 1996 Congress made it permanent by way of the 1033 program, which broadened the program’s scope to include not only “counter-drug” but also to allow “all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assists in their arrest and apprehension mission,” with “preference given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism requests.” According to LESO, $4.3 billion worth of property has been transferred by way of the 1033 program.  And, while the program’s intended goal is the disposal of used and “excess” equipment, a 2014 report from the DLA to inquiring Congressman Henry Johnson noted that 36 percent of the equipment transferred is brand spanking new.

Without doubt, the increasing availability of military equipment incentivized the growth in the number of local police SWAT teams and use of paramilitary tactics.  But the Federal government also sweetened the deal through grant programs, with money disbursed to police agencies based on the number of drug arrests.  Free military equipment and grant money incentivized the federalization of what traditionally has been state and local law enforcement efforts.

According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the majority of police recruits are now trained in military-model programs that have a stress-based orientation.  It is interesting to note that, before 1991, the U.S. Army held a prohibition against teaching close-quarters, urban combat techniques to civilian police forces.  But that prohibition was lifted, in part because of political pressure to mount a more aggressive approach to the drug war. 

One researcher estimated that the number of SWAT teams in small American cities grew from 20 percent in the 1980s to 80 percent in the mid-2000s.  And, even though SWAT was originally created to deal with emergency, life-threatening situations such as hostage, barricade and active shooters, the use of such paramilitary squads and military tactics to search people’s homes for drugs has increased.  One investigation found that 80% of deployments of SWAT teams do not deal with hostage, sniper, barricade, or terrorist situations but, as in Baby Bou Bou’s case, to execute a warrant, usually in drug investigations.  Only 7 percent of the deployments were for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.  

Authors Abigail Hall and Christopher Coyne of George Mason University analyzed the militarization of domestic policing from a political economy perspective and described a framework, or system, of activities that originate from or are facilitated by one thing:  Government’s monopoly -- or near monopoly -- on force.  This monopoly on force can be employed in one of two ways -- as a “protective state” that uses force to protect citizen’s rights or as a “predatory state” that undermines the very rights that it should be protecting.  

Hall and Coyne go on to explain that the devolution from the protective to the predator state is generally preceded by a “crisis” – usually in the form of a perpetual “war” – that ignites a causative chain of events.  The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror” come to mind.  A crisis is useful in that it sets in motion mechanisms of change in several ways:  it prepares the minds of the public to accept less freedom and individual rights (but more taxpayer-funded activities), it signals to government bureaucracies (e.g., police and military) that opportunities to act on their inherent tendency for agency expansion are available, and it announces to special interest groups that opportunities exist to expand their power, significance and financial opportunities.  Reports indicate that all of these mechanisms are in play in the militarization of policing.


LAPD motto:  “To Protect and Serve

US Soldier’s Creed:  “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the 

enemies of the United States of America in close combat

Notes and Sources

Defense Logistics Agency, Disposition Services, “Law Enforcement Support Office” 

(LESO), and “The 1033 Program,” accessed September 8, 2016.

Letter to Congressman Henry Johnson, Defense Logistics Agency:  Fact Sheet: Responses on Excess Property Program, January 14, 2014.

David B. Kopel, “Militarized Law Enforcement:  The Drug War’s Deadly Fruit,” in After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century, ed. Timothy Lynch (Washington:  Cato Institute 2000).

Peter Kraska, Militarization and Policing – Its Relevance to 21st Century Police, Policing (2007)

Daryl Gates, “Chief: My Life in the LAPD” (New York:  Bantam, 1992).  

War Comes Home:  The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” ACLU Foundation, New York, 2014.

Peter B Kraska and V.E. Kappeler, “Militarizing American Police:  The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units” Social Problems 13 (1997): 1-18

Peter B Kraska and Louis J Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing,” Justice Quarterly 14, no. 4 (December 1997).

U.S. Deptment of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report on State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies (BJS Report).  

Radley Balko, “Overkill:  The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”  Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2006.

Abigail R Hall and Christopher J Coyne:  “The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing.”  Department of Economics, George Mason University, Working Paper No 12-50.

Adam Andrzejewski and Thomas W Smith: “The Militarization of Local Police Departments,” Open the Books.com, accessed September 5, 2016

Watchmen or Warfighters:  A Conservative Proposal for Limiting Military-Grade Weapons Sent to States,” Austin, Texas:  Texas Public Policy Foundation, August 2016.

Former Habersham County Deputy Sheriff Charged for Her Role in Flash Bang Grenade Incident,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Georgia, July 22, 2015.

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