The History of Police Militarization

Release Date
July 31, 2017


Criminal Justice Justice

Why did the police start using militarized tactics and equipment on American citizens? Dr. Abby Hall says the line between law enforcement and war is getting dangerously blurry.

      1. History of Police Militarization(video): Professor Abby Hall explains how the War on Drugs and War on Terror have contributed to police militarization. 
      2. What of ‘Posse Comitatus’? (article): Gene Healy explains the blurring lines between police and the military. 
      3. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (book): Balko describes the history and implications of police militarization. 


Abby Hall: The trend of police militarization is something that people really talk about starting to happen in the 1960s. I think there were some trends prior to that, but it didn’t really take off like it did until you hit really Vietnam and then war on drugs. That actually is one of the things that we talk about in looking at and linking up foreign policy to domestic consequences.
SWAT teams are probably one of the best examples. SWAT teams are now something that pretty much any moderately sized police department has, so if you have a town of 50,000 or more people, chances are you have got a SWAT team. Special weapons and tactics teams, also referred to police paramilitary units, or PPUs. The fact you’ve got the word military in there is fairly pointed.
But where did those come from? We actually know exactly where they came from. You have two people who are generally considered responsible for SWAT teams, Daryl Gates and John Nelson.
John Nelson was a former Marine, a Vietnam veteran. He was part of an elite force recon unit, so this unit was tasked with going deep behind enemy lines. And despite having the name “reconnaissance” in the title, they were actually a very effective killing force. They engaged the enemy, I think it was something 90% of the time, which was incredibly high, and he came back, joined the LAPD, and you have the Watts riots.
Looking at these race riots, he goes to his boss, Inspector Daryl Gates, who is a World War II veteran, and says, “Hey, I have an idea of how we might be better able to control crowds.” He suggests modeling a unit after these recon units that he’d been a part of in Vietnam. Gates likes this idea, runs with it, and what was originally supposed to be called the special weapons and attack team … But it was thought “attack” was politically unpalatable. SWAT team was born.
It’s modeled after that particular unit. According to the LAPD history, every member of the original SWAT unit had prior military training. They were interested in, and if you read Gates’s biography, he talks about watching what was happening in Vietnam, getting training from the military … So you start to see these kinds of very intimate connections that are happening between police and the military. They’re interested in using not only those mentalities that they’ve cultivated abroad, but they’re also interested in using those technologies that they’ve developed.
Dave Rubin: If you had your druthers, would these things just not exist at all? Policing would just be purely the way it was before all this?
Abby Hall: Policing historically in the United States has been distinct from the military. If you look at the constitution, if you look at laws that came after that, probably the big one that people point to was enacted right after the Civil War, called the Posse Comitatus Act …
Dave Rubin: I don’t even know that one. What’s that one?
Abby Hall: Posse Comitatus literally translates to Force of the People. The purpose of this law was to separate police from the military, so military could not be used as a civilian police force. Pretty much as soon as the ink is dry this thing is getting violated. It’s getting suspended, I think, in World War I, World War II. Then there are a series of court cases in the 1970s that pretty much take any kind of sticking power that this thing had to begin with completely out of it. You see this big blurring of these lines.
In addition to things like SWAT teams, which comes within this time period, the war on drugs and the war on terror are particularly important because you see that continued interconnectivity between domestic law enforcement agencies and what the federal government is doing. Now you have police departments who, instead of having their job, which has historically been to be peacekeepers, uphold domestic law, protecting the rights of citizens, both individuals who are the perpetrators of crime and the victims of crime. Instead of serving that function, they are now on, quote-unquote, “the front lines” of two perpetual wars, the war on drugs and the war on terror. Which are different from other conflicts that we’ve seen before, because if you think about Vietnam or one of the world wars, the enemy is very clearly defined and external to the United States, but with the war on drugs, you not only have things like South American cartels, but you have people who are domestically manufacturing, selling, and consuming drugs who are enemies of this war. There’s been a big emphasis on homegrown terrorism, so now your police departments are tasked with another job that is not part of their job description.
It’s been a building and a combination of all these things that I think has really contributed to this police militarization, which now I think a lot of people are more aware of.