The Militarization of Domestic Policing

Excerpted from "Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control" by Christopher J. Coyne Abigail R. Hall

Special weapons and tactics or “SWAT” teams (also known as police paramilitary units) have become commonplace in all major U.S. cities and in many smaller jurisdictions throughout the United States. By the end of the 1990s, 89 percent of American police departments serving populations of fifty thousand or more people had a SWAT team, nearly double the percentage recorded in 1980 (Kraska 2001, 7). Currently, about 80 percent of small-town departments maintain a paramilitary unit, compared to only 20 percent in the mid-1980s. There was an increase of more than 1,400 percent in the number of SWAT or paramilitary deployments between 1980 and 2000. By the early 2000s, an estimated forty-five thousand SWAT team deployments occurred annually, compared to only three thousand in 1980 (Kraska 2007, 506).

Although SWAT teams have become a common component of U.S. policing, such was not always the case. Historically, the United States has attempted to separate the functions of domestic law enforcement and the military based on the two groups’ different missions and the populations they are intended to encounter. State and local law enforcement are intended to protect the rights of citizens and enforce domestic laws. They are to “protect and serve,” respect the rights of offenders and victims, and resort to violence only in desperate situations. Military forces, in contrast, are charged with destroying external threats to the United States, often in hostile environments (U.S. Department of the Army 1962, 1).

Over time, the distinction between domestic forces and the military has eroded (see Balko 2013; Hall and Coyne 2013). That is, domestic security forces have progressively acquired more military-like training, weaponry, and tactics. This “militarization of domestic police,” in particular the creation and subsequent rise of paramilitary or SWAT teams, is another pointed illustration of the logic of the boomerang effect. In this case, military techniques and weapons used abroad in coercive foreign interventions have been imported into the United States and are now used by the various levels of the U.S. government to control U.S. citizens.

The first SWAT team in the country was organized in 1967 by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The origins of this team can be linked back to two individuals: former marine John Nelson and LAPD chief Daryl Gates. Race riots in Los Angeles in the 1960s, in particular theWatts riots in the summer of 1965, had left the LAPD with a strong desire for enhanced crowd-control techniques (see Clinton 2010). With their specific human capital and administrative positions, Nelson and Gates were able to effectively transform domestic police activities.

The human-capital channel is evident from a review of Nelson’s career. A former marine, Nelson served in an elite Force Recon unit in Vietnam. Highly trained, these units were used to gather intelligence deep behind enemy lines. Although originally intended for reconnaissance missions, Force Recon teams saw extended combat in Vietnam and received a variety of commendations for their highly accurate and stealthy means of force. The units became experts not only at gathering data but also at ambushing and killing enemy targets. Whereas the kill ratio for regular marine infantry was 7.6 enemies per one marine, the kill ratio for Force Recon was 34 enemies per one marine. Moreover, the Force Recon units were almost always initiators of combat. Regular marine infantry saw the enemy initiate contact in 80 percent of armed conflicts. For Force Recon, however, an amazing 95 percent of engagements in which the units were involved were initiated by the units themselves (Zimmerman 2010). Shaped by these experiences with Force Recon in Southeast Asia, Nelson proposed that small military-like tactical units could provide the domestic type of crowd control sought by the LAPD. Nelson “based the SWAT concept on the Recon units, [and thought] a small squad of highly trained police officers armed with special weapons would be more effective in a riotous situation than a massive police response” (Katz 2010).

Although Nelson is the man who originated the idea of SWAT, the implementation of his idea required, according to the executive director of the LAPD Historical Society, “somebody with some rank and some chutzpah to champion it” (qtd. in Clinton 2010). This person was Inspector (and later Police Chief) Daryl Gates. During World War II, Gates had served as a naval seaman on the U.S.S. Ault. While he served aboard the destroyer, the Ault saw a variety of action in the South Pacific, engaging targets behind enemy lines and providing defense in areas surrounding Iwo Jima and Okinawa (National Association of Destroyer Veterans 1998).

Upon returning to the United States, he reallocated the skills he had acquired abroad to a career in domestic law enforcement, where he eventually ended up in the upper administration of the LAPD. As the department’s chief, Gates had the ability to influence its administrative dynamics. When presented with Nelson’s concept of small tactical teams, Gates agreed that the idea had strong potential and quickly approved it. Sixty of the department’s top marksmen were subsequently gathered for what Gates intended to call the “Special Weapons and Attack Team” (Woo 2010). After it was decided that calling the unit an “attack team” was politically unpalatable, Gates changed the name to “Special Weapons and Tactics.” The first SWAT teams, consisting of five men each—a leader, a marksman, an observer, a scout, and a rearguard—were formed soon thereafter (Gates 1992, 114).

The skills possessed by the members of these teams further illustrate how the human capital gained from military service can return to domestic state activities. Each member of the new SWAT teams had specialized experience and prior military service (LAPD 2014). The SWAT units specifically worked to incorporate the newest military tactics into their domestic operations. In a quote that illustrates the spirit of the boomerang effect, Gates later noted the following regarding the training of the new SWAT teams as well as the important role John Nelson’s experience played in their development: “We watched with interest what was happening in Vietnam. We looked at military training, and in particular we studied what a group of marines, based at the Naval Armory in Chavez Ravine, were doing. They shared with us their knowledge of counter-insurgency and guerilla warfare. . . . John Nelson became our specialist in guerilla warfare. . . . [W]e attended several marine sessions on guerilla warfare. . . . We brought inmilitary people to teach [the SWATunits]” (1992, 109–10). In 1971,SWATpersonnelwere assigned to a full-time basis and, again demonstrating the unit’s connection to themilitary, were referred to as “‘D’ Platoon” (LAPD2014).

The logic of the boomerang effect can also shed light on the spread of SWAT teams across the United States, as noted at the beginning of this subsection. According to Eugene P. Ramirez, an instructor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Basic SWAT Schools, legal adviser to the National Tactic Officers’ Association, and a member of the California Attorney General’s SWAT Commission,

The explosive growth of SWAT teams can actually be traced to the U.S. military reduction-in-force program following the end of the Cold War. That program resulted in numerous donations of military surplus equipment to police agencies in the 1990s. Likewise, a cottage industry of former military and law enforcement officials grew up to provide tactical training to special police units at an affordable cost. The ready availability of equipment and training for tactical law enforcement teams has allowed even the smallest agency to deploy a SWAT unit or contribute officers and resources to a regional SWAT team. (2003)

This transfer of surplus military equipment and increased SWAT activity continued after the ColdWar and is illustrative of the other two channels associated with the boomerang effect. First, it illustrates how foreign interventions can lead to changes in the physical capital employed by the state in its domestic social control activities. Second, it illustrates how foreign interventions can lead to a centralization of state activities domestically.

To illustrate how physical capital developed for use in coercive foreign interventions can be imported back to the intervening country, consider Program 1033, passed by Congress in 1997. This legislation allowed the Department of Defense to transfer excess military equipment to state and local law enforcement, including items such as body armor, aircraft, armored vehicles, weapons, riot gear, watercraft, and surveillance equipment. By 2011, the program had seen an explosion in activity, transferring more than $500 million in military equipment to local police that year alone (Ruppert 2011). In conjunction with the rise of SWAT teams, the prevalence of military equipment for domestic use has led to a more aggressive form of domestic policing against U.S. citizens that reflects the U.S. government’s largely unconstrained activities in its coercive foreign interventions.

To provide one example of this dynamic, consider the use of “no-knock” raids by domestic police forces. A “no-knock” raid is a police operation in which police enter onto personal property without prior notification of the residents (i.e., by knocking or ringing a doorbell or doing something similar). Although the idea behind such raids is that the police may be able to collect evidence that may otherwise be destroyed, the results of the use of military tactics (SWAT) and equipment in these situations has meant substantial physical, psychological, and property damage for many U.S. citizens. The number of no-knock raids increased from around three thousand in 1981 to more fifty thousand by 2005 (Jonsson 2006). With this increase, there has likewise been an increase in perverse effects on the citizenry. Hundreds of reports detail how police use of “no-knock” raids and other tactics have resulted in raids on innocent suspects, death or injury to innocents or nonviolent offenders, death and injury to police officers, as well as unnecessary raids on medical professionals and ill persons (Couper 2004; Balko 2006, 2013; Brown 2012). The transfer of physical capital through Program 1033 is just one manifestation of the centralization of security. Since 9/11, states and localities have become increasingly intertwined and reliant on the federal political center for resources. This is evident in the data on federal aid to state and local police, which has increased markedly since the 1980s (see Boettke, Lemke, and Palagashvili 2014). One example of these transfers and increased entanglement is the advent and expansion of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) program headed by the FBI. The FBI started the task force in the 1980s to combat terrorism in New York City. Since that time, not only has the JTTF program’s scale expanded at the federal level, but the program has worked to incorporate and subsume domestic local agencies as well. Following 9/11, for example, seventy-one JTTFs were created. These forces incorporated not only the FBI but more than 4,440 personnel from fifty federal agencies and six hundred state and local forces. Through these task forces, central and local agencies are able to share information, intelligence, and training (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2012). At the same time, this arrangement means that local political units are increasingly linked to the national government.

The trend of increased linkages to the political center is evident in looking at the broader category of security-related grants provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to state governments following the 9/11 attacks. Since that time, an increasing number of monetary and other resources have been channeled from the central government to state and local authorities. Consider, for example, the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP). which was established in 2003. Between 2003 and 2011, the total grants to states made under HSGP totaled more than $16.5 billion (Center for Investigative Reporting 2011).[7]

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the HSGP “plays an important role in the implementation of the National Preparedness System (NPS) by supporting the building, sustainment, and delivery of core capabilities essential to achieving the National Preparedness Goal (NPG) of a secure and resilient Nation” (2014a). A key part of the program is providing funding to local-level political units in the name of fostering national security. Indeed, the program funds a multitiered structure of information accumulation and sharing between the political periphery and the political center. At the local level, the program funds state and major-area fusion centers that are owned and operated by state-level governments (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2014b). The purpose of these fusion centers is to facilitate the gathering and flow of data with the federal government and other local political units. However, these centers are anything but independent local entities. They are dependent on the federal government to provide a variety of support—for example, funding, personnel, linkages to federal systems and information, and so on. Further, in order to continue to receive this support they are subject to an annual assessment overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2014b). In other words, as the political periphery has become increasingly dependent on the political center for resources, it has also become subject to its rules, regulations, influence, and control. This process of centralization places more power in the hands of the federal government and weakens the checks created by dispersed political power.

Although the use of military tactics and weaponry has a substantial history and is certainly a multifaceted issue, the erosion of distinctions between police and military, in particular the rise of SWAT teams throughout the United States, can be explained by the logic of the boomerang effect. The organization of paramilitary groups as well as the weapons and other equipment utilized by these groups can be specifically traced back to coercive foreign interventions and the U.S. government’s efforts to control distant populations. Taken together, these effects threaten the liberties of U.S. citizens as the mentality of domestic policing evolves from one of protecting person and property to one of viewing citizens as potential enemies who must be controlled through the use of coercive state power.