The Growth of America’s Militarized Law Enforcement System, a Product of a War Economy

By Ebony Slaughter-Johnson, an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her work has appeared in AlterNet, U.S. News and World Report, Equal Voice News, and Common Dreams. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute; cross posted from Alternet

On June 5, a call came into the Broward County Sheriff’s Office alleging an ongoing hostage situation at the family home of student activist David Hogg, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Law enforcement officers arrived on the scene only to find no such situation: Hogg and his family had been swatted.

Swatting involves falsely reporting a crime, which leads to the deployment of heavily armed law enforcement officers, usually para-militarized Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, who anticipate confronting violence. Hogg was not home, and was therefore unharmed, but previous swatting victims have not been so fortunate.

Just two months before, Hogg had gathered with an estimated 800,000 Americans in Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives on March 24, which was inspired by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to rally support for more stringent gun control policy. Among the specific policy objectives of the demonstration was to advocate for an assault weapons ban, like that which was enacted in 1994 but has since expired. The reasoning behind this current push for an assault weapons ban, as with the 1994 ban, endures: Civilians should be barred from possessing military-style weapons.

Had David Hogg been home, the swatting of his home might have been the second time in less than four months that his life had been threatened by an assault weapon. That’s too many encounters for an entire lifetime.

As this current gun control movement argues that the militarization of civilians is something to be avoided, perhaps it is also time to extend this same consideration to civilian law enforcement.

Treating Law Enforcement Like War

“Weapons of war have no place in our communities,” the March for Our Lives insisted. Yet, such weapons are scattered throughout and utilized in communities across America. And they include more than assault weapons.

With more than $5.4 billion in donated equipment from the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program and $34 billion in grants from the Department of Homeland Security, state and local governments have equipped their law enforcement officers with a military arsenal. Among other materials, this arsenal includes “armored personnel carriers, M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers, and infrared gun sights,” materials more suited to sites of hot war than neighborhoods in Indiana. Federal funding outfitted police officers in and around Fargo, North Dakota, which, as of 2011, had an average murder rate of two per year since 2005, with assault rifles on every squad car, Kevlar helmets, and a more than $250,000 armored truck.

The proliferation of military weapons and gear corresponds to that of para-militarized law enforcement officers.

Modeled after the military and armed as such, SWAT teams are the most visible and recognizable manifestation of the militarization of law enforcement. And they’re becoming more numerous. Research has suggested that 80 percent of towns with populations ranging between 25,000 and 50,000 residents had SWAT teams as of the mid-2000s. That represents a major increase from the mid-1980s when only 20 percent of such towns had a SWAT presence. And these para-militarized law enforcement officers are being used more often: Deployments increased 1,400 percent between 1980 and 2000.

Perhaps more disturbing than the growing number of para-militarized units is what their deployments are meant to achieve. Research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis determined that the majority of SWAT deployments in their research sample between 1986 and 1998 were for warrants (34,271) as compared to barricaded suspects (7,384) and hostage situations (1,180). A more recent 2014 study from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reaffirms this trend. Using incident reports from SWAT deployments between 2010 and 2013 from law enforcement agencies across the country, the ACLU found that 79 percent of evaluated SWAT deployments were to act on a search warrant. Sixty-two percent of those search warrants were to conduct drug searches. According to the ACLU, these searches are “almost always” conducted by SWAT teams armed, to some extent, with “assault rifles, battering rams, and distraction devices.”

In other words, many of the between 50,000 and 80,000 SWAT team raids that occur every year somewhere in the country with military-grade equipment are to perform standard functions of crime control, prevention, and investigation. Militarization has transformed civilian law enforcement officers into something that more resembles soldiers responding to war than public servants. An assault rifle is probably no more needed to execute a warrant than it is to hunt deer.

Racist and Deadly

The March for Our Lives was visibly intersectional: Black and Latinx youth shared their experiences with gun violence alongside the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Naomi Wadler gave voice to the violence faced by Black Americans “whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

Wadler was could have just as easily been referring to the Black Americans in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Huntington, West Virginia; and Ogden, Utah, who were 24 times, 37 times, and 40 times more likely than Whites to be affected by SWAT deployments, respectively, according to the ACLU in 2014. ACLU documentation of known SWAT deployments between 2010 and 2013 revealed the existence of staggering disparities and disproportionalities. Where the number and race of those affected were known, 39 percent of those affected by all SWAT deployments were Black. Only 20 percent were White. Black Americans, who make up approximately 13 percent of the national population, were found to be 42 percent of those on the receiving end of SWAT teams acting on search warrants where the number and race of those affected by such deployments were known.

The racist underpinnings of the War on Drugs, which was launched by the Nixon administration to harass Black communities according to Chief Domestic Advisor to President Nixon John Ehrlichman, have combined with the militarization of law enforcement. The result has been that suspected drug use among Black Americans is disparately addressed using militarized action. Despite the fact that Black Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than their White counterparts, the ACLU found that Americans of color, including Black Americans, were 61 percent of those impacted by SWAT drug raids. Drug searches constituted 68 percent of the SWAT raids that involved Americans of color, but only 38 percent involving Whites.

Whether practiced by civilians or law enforcement, militarization can have deadly consequences. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety of known mass shootings that occurred between January 2009 and January 2015 revealed that the use of assault weapons or high capacity magazines led to 155 percent more people shot and 47 percent more fatalities. Data on law enforcement killings in four states compared to data on the transfer of 1033 equipment uncovered a positive correlation between law enforcement possession of military equipment and civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

Consistent with the ACLU’s observation that the burden of law enforcement militarization falls disproportionately on people of color, the New York Times determined that Americans of color represented half of the civilian deaths it documented.

Amplified law enforcement militarization has occurred in a context in which Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of law enforcement violence in general. Data from arrests between 2008 and 2012 indicated that Black Americans were subjected to force by law enforcement at rates 2.5 times higher than the overall rate and 3.6 times those for Whites. determined that Black Americans constituted 25 percent of those killed in 2017 as a result of encounters with law enforcement.

Gun violence of the kind that Wadler referenced has uniquely devastated Black communities, but law enforcement officers have played an outsized role in that devastation. According to an investigation from the Washington Post, Black Americans represented 23 percent of those shot by law enforcement in 2017. The threat of gun violence loomed large in the predominantly Black community of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. Law enforcement stared down protesterswith tanks, automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols and confronted them with tear gas and smoke bombs.

A Climate of Fear

Even schools, which have seen some of the deadliest episodes of violence perpetuated by assault weapons, have witnessed the militarization of law enforcement.

A 2014 audit from the Washington Post found that law enforcement agencies connected to a variety of educational institutions across 33 states, including more than a dozen schools, have received military gear and weapons through the 1033 Program. The presence of the 1033 Program has been especially apparent within the Los Angeles County Police Department (LCPD), which the Washington Post describes as “among the biggest public-school beneficiaries of the program.” As of the 2014 audit, the LCPD had obtained 61 M-16 assault rifles, three grenade launchers, and one MRAP. It’s difficult to see how the presence of law enforcement officers armed with weapons of war in schools might improve student safety. However, it’s easy to see how that might create a climate of fear, especially for students of color.

Furthermore, it’s possible that the sense of safety compromised by the militarization of law enforcement might be greater than what is gained when it comes to crime deterrence. A 2017 study sought to evaluate the relationship between the use of military equipment and law enforcement outcomes as measured by crime and arrest rates. It determined that the use of military equipment led to a reduction in various crimes. A 10 percent increase in military equipment produced a crime reduction rateof 5.9 crimes per 100,000 people, which is modest at best.

Is such a limited decrease sufficient to justify what might have happened to David Hogg and his family?

Nevertheless, heightened militarization is exactly the approach to safety, in schools and beyond, that is being suggested.

President Barack Obama tried to curb the alarming spread of military equipment to state and local law enforcement. His administration offered new prohibitions and stipulations on the exchange of military-grade equipment between the federal government and local law enforcement in 2015. Among other changes, the administration prohibited the exchange of grenade launchers, weaponized vehicles, and rifles.

By November 2017, President Donald Trump had undone the decision.

Military-grade weapons and gear banned by the Obama administration might become more entrenched in America’s schools thanks to President Trump: Immediately following the school shooting in Parkland, the president suggested positioning more law enforcement officers in schools and even arming teachers as a means of thwarting school shootings. These solutions, Trump’s version of the infamous National Rifle Association “good guy with a gun” theory, would create or deepen problems while solving none. Studies have shown that the presence of law enforcement officers already portends increased chances of arrest in some cases, thus perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. And that’s one of the best case scenarios. Recall the study positively linking the transfer of military equipment to civilian deaths: Students could face being killed by both fellow students and law enforcement officers armed with military-grade firearms from the federal government meant to protect them.

No reasonable American would be comfortable with the active presence of automatic and semi-automatic rifles, MARCbots, Mamba tactical vehicles, sniper rifles, ballistic shields in schools. Maybe they don’t belong actively roaming the streets of our communities in the hands of law enforcement officers either.

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  1. Field Marshall McLuhan

    I can’t escape the feeling that they’re all just biding their time until they finally get the go-ahead to use all that fancy equipment to mow down protestors

    1. Rory

      I suspect that there will be no need to “mow down protesters” if a well established climate of fear keeps the protesters from gathering in the first place.

  2. Tom Stone

    It would be nice if writers knew what an “Assault Rifle” is.
    It’s not cosmetic features, the AR15 is no more an “Assault Rifle” than Ketchup is a vegetable.
    An “Assault Rifle” is select fire and it fires a cartridge intermediate between a pistol caliber and a full power rifle cartridge such as the 30-06.
    “Assault weapon” is apparently any firearm that looks scary.
    And “No place for weapons of war”?
    Does that include Brown Bess muskets, the 1873 Colt “Peacemaker” revolver, shovels and rocks?
    All have been used as weapons in war.
    If you want to reduce mass shootings, stop giving the shooters what they want, which is publicity.
    If you want to reduce violence in general do something to give people a stake in Society.
    Decrease wealth inequality, increase social mobility, provide universal health coverage, a jubilee for student loan debt…we all know what’s needed.
    That takes work and time, virtue signalling is much, much easier.
    And MUCH safer.

    1. JCC

      I agree with some of what you are saying. I used to joke around with friends that I needed two Ruger 10-22’s, the Boy Scout “Weapon of Choice” used for attaining the Boy Scout Shooting Merit Badge when I was a kid. One would be the standard stock version, bolt action with a 3-round clip used for daily plinking of beer cans and the other would have a ABS plastic hand-guard, 10-round clip, V-Sight, recoil suppressor, and a picatinny rail added to mount a flashlight and 10X scope for Sunday Go-To-Church Meetings. Both would have the same capabilities, one would look really bad-ass. One would still be used at Boy Scout Camps across the country, the other would be illegal as hell, but perfect for the virtue signaling types among us.

      On the other hand, the reference to Brown Bess Muskets and Colt Peacemakers is not very appropriate. At the time those weapons were state-of-the-art, everyone that could afford one of these relatively expensive tools had equal access and it took a lot of skill to use one effectively. That’s a far cry from the difference today relative to what law enforcement is issued vs what the average person on the street has access to.

      It reminds me of what the average gun fanatic says. “I need these weapons to protect myself from the Govment.” Try and protect yourself from a bunch of G.I.’s or Cops with Government issued firepower, even with a select-fire M-16. I won’t hold my breath while waiting for an answer as to how that worked out.

      Lambert and others have mentioned here in the past that there some very effective methods for gun control that virtue signalers completely ignore, one very good one would be required yearly insurance payments, per gun. Another would be the shutting down of gun shows and their massive amount of un-tracked sales semi-automatic weapons. Track all the sales and make insurance requirements effective and immediate at the time of the sale, as well as required by law training classes. Those would go a long way in removing the excessive amount of guns on the street.

      1. Sid Finster

        The government and its troops are far from invincible.

        In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military used more aggressive weapons and tactics than anything available to even the most militarized police force, and the US military didn’t come out so well in either case.

        1. Tomonthebeach

          Of course, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was all-out war – including guerrilla war – and both sides had nasty military-grade weaponry. Not the best analogy.

          As in the comment by Tom Stone, the issue is not the caliber or size of the military weapon, nor its limitations relative to other weapons. The only time I ever fired my M16 on full auto was in training in order to demonstrate to me that emptying a clip was more an act of desperation than an attempt to hit a target.

          Yves point is about a police force that increasingly views its citizens as combatants vs employers. It is about the distinction between “peace officer” and “law enforcement officer.” It is about the mindset of cops who would shoot first and be exonerated later – police shooting reports are normally one-sided… the other side is often on boot hill.

          1. pretzelattack

            the us had much, much more military grade weaponry. the other side improvised well but there was no equivalence.

    2. PKMKII

      Well to be fair, it was the firearm industry that started blurring the assault rifle/weapon terminology in order to sell more guns because it sounded cool to your Seal Team 6 LARPer types. Back in the 80’s they would use the term interchangeably regardless of select fire; it wasn’t until the backlash in the 90’s when they 180’d and accused the gun control lobby of being vague.

      The danger factor, as I see it, is how the gun is setup to be handled (rifle vs pistol grip) and magazine capacity.

  3. Felix_47

    Good idea to have insurance payments along with a no fault claim process. I guess that way the insurance company would no sell insurance to a 17 year old who wants to shoot up his school. How would it be enforced though? People drive all the time without insurance.

    1. JCC

      I agree that insurance is nowhere near a perfect solution, but tagging a cost of $100/yr (for example purposes only) at the time of purchase, per gun, while at the same time eliminating “gun show” purchases, and then required yearly training classes, per gun, sure would eliminate a lot of the under-the-table guns on the street over time. Money and time for most is at a premium and many would divest quickly, hopefully to a legitimate buy-back program.

      And eliminating these stupid gun expositions masquerading as “shows” but are in actuality nothing more than wholesale distribution points for those that are retailing them on the streets here and to the South really need to go away.

      When you consider places like Switzerland, where yearly training and knowledge of where the guns are and who has them, it seems to go along way towards eliminating the nut cases with weapons/guns.

      But of course the U.S. has other very serious social issues that don’t help the situation one bit, anti-depressants and methylphenidates – Ritalin and friends – swallowed like candy, and the slow, and maybe a little intentional in my opinion, degradation of social cohesion being just two examples.

      For what it’s worth I am one of those that feel the massive amount of guns on the street and the attendant gun problems that have increased greatly over the last 30 years or so are really a symptom of a disintegrating society. When I was a child, guns were relatively common then, too, and every kid I knew had his BS Merit Badge in gun handling. Gun fatalities were very rare (in my area anyway, 2 in 10 years if I remember correctly). Generally they were more often accidental than not, and talked about locally for years afterwards, not a couple of days before moving on to the next one.

      Politicians today are too scared or too disingenuous (when money talks, BS walks) to do anything about any of this today, just one more symptom to add to the list, not to mention the overall purpose of this NC post, pointing out the serious militarization of Civilian Police Forces.

  4. SimonGirty

    It’s common now, to see M4 totting police and heavily armed rent-a-cops in the Yuppie UWS. I’ve watched this desensitization supparate up from the South. LRAD used on white folks (!) at the 2009 G20, FLIR scoped rifles pointed at citizens by OafKeepurz in Black neighborhoods; obvious agents provocateurs & frigging mercenary thugs on pipeline ROW, unleashing attack dogs, gassing folks… and it isn’t even mid-terms yet. Both parties will have to terrorize us all with Trump’s inbred nazi churls, while their EZ Credit WallyWorld Bushmasters can still cycle rounds?

    1. Angie Neer

      UWS, LRAD, FLIR, ROW…if you’re not just talking to yourself, please use English words.

      1. JCC


        yuppie UWS, I’m assuming, refers to the yuppie United We Stand enclaves that hire armed private police forces to keep out the riff-raff.

        LRAD refers to the LRAD Corporation and their Long Range Acoustical Device cannons used by civilian police forces today.

        FLIR refers to FLIR Systems Corporation and their Forward Looking InfraRed (night vision and behind-a-wall) scopes used by civilian police forces.

        pipeline ROW refers to pipeline Right Of Ways used to justify the above two weapons systems used on civilians by Civilian Police Forces.

        It’s too bad that Simon’s statement, “Don’t fret, you’ll find out”, is too near the truth. Hopefully, but not likely, many of us won’t see one of these in action.

        1. SimonGirty

          Thank you! I actually used UWS for Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where many of these acronyms refer solely to overpriced equities in folks’ portfolios and not topics of polite chit-chat. I’d erroneously figured since so many of neighbors made a killing with SWHC & RGR, following Barack’s election, and Cerebrus fucked so many deplorables out of jobs, with Freedom Group, and even HuffPo followed the story up till 2016… that everybody’s seen poor taxpayer’s money at work on we de peons? Thanks again!


    Speaking of things not suited for Indiana neighborhoods: Bloomington, IN police force getting a BearCat

    The city is moving forward with its controversial purchase of an armored vehicle for the Bloomington Police Department following weeks of protests, community meetings and a public comment period that generated about 500 responses… The Lenco BearCat is a Ford F-550 truck outfitted with metal plating and bulletproof glass designed to protect police during high-risk situations involving firearms

    Note that the funding for this toy was originally supposed to be for a building renovation.

  6. Jon S

    True story, for those who believe random posters on the Internet. See this story:

    This happened about 6 miles south of my home in Brevard County, FL and my brother was a Brevard County deputy sheriff at the time. His story was that when the children went to a neighbors house seeking help, the neighbor immediately called 911. The Sheriff’s Office dispatched its SWAT team, instead of local patrolling deputies. That entailed folks driving 30 miles south of the incident, suiting up with all of their military gear, and driving a couple of combat ready vehicles slowly up to Port St. John. By the time they got there, everyone was long dead. My brother recounted this story with tears in his eyes because he saw it as a fundamental failure of everything he believed in.

    He decided to retire when he and a couple of other deputies were performing surveillance on a drug deal in a mall parking lot one night. He called in that he and the other deputies were going to move in when they saw the drugs change hands and was told to stand down and wait for the SWAT team to arrive. He knew that the SWAT team wouldn’t make it for a good hour, and the bad guys would be long gone.

    The issues with policing these days is a combination of too many ex-military types taking leadership roles and an obsessive fixation on “officer safety”. Not that we want to put these guys and gals in harm’s way, but it is kind of what we have them for. But too often we protect them by allowing them to use excessive force on the civilian population, or as with SWAT teams, essentially let bad things happen to innocent people while the SWAT team preps up.

    Another little known but similar story was with the Pulse Night Club mass killings. When 911 was called, some cops showed up. One opened the door and was shot at. He closed the door and called for backup. The SWAT team suited up, came up with a plan, got on location, and everyone was already dead. They stood outside and arrested everyone who ran out, including many who were critically injured. While they portrayed themselves as heroes, they did absolutely nothing to stop the murders of innocent people, and may have caused more deaths by randomly arresting seriously injured people.

    Sorry for the long post, but this is a special pet peeve of mine.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Re officer safety, please to recall that being a cop is a whole heck of a lot less dangerous than a whole lot of other work, and it generally pays a lot better too.

      In 2013, out of approximately 900,000 sworn officers, just 100 died from a job-related injury. That’s about 11.1 per 100,000, or a rate of 0.01%.

      Policing doesn’t even make it into the top 10 most dangerous American professions. Logging has a fatality rate 11 times higher, at 127.8 per 100,000. Fishing: 117 per 100,000. Pilot/flight engineer: 53.4 per 100,000. It’s twice as dangerous to be a truck driver as a cop—at 22.1 per 100,000.

      Another point to bear in mind is that not all officer fatalities are homicides. Out of the 100 deaths in 2013, 31 were shot, 11 were struck by a vehicle, 2 were stabbed, and 1 died in a “bomb-related incident.” Other causes of death were: aircraft accident (1), automobile accident (28), motorcycle accident (4), falling (6), drowning (2), electrocution (1), and job-related illness (13).

      And besides, you get to violate the Constitution, abuse and kill people without fear of consequences, and for an authoritiation personality, you get to make people “obey” whatever orders, however arbitrary and inconsistent, that you and your fellow Thin Blue Liners care to bellow…

  7. pretzelattack

    my take is tptb are preparing for the upcoming class war. climate change among other things is going to destabilize societies already riven with conflicts.

    1. Lord Koos

      Exactly, I find the implications of this trend to be very clear. We ain’t seen nothing yet. They think they can keep the lid on with hi-tech surveillance and militarized cops. Kind of a super-duper version of the former East Germany.

  8. Hepativore

    Well, militarizing the police is one way to get around that pesky Posse Comitatus act. If the military outside the national guard cannot be deployed to stop civil issues, why not just make law enforcement its own military force?

    Not that the Posse Comitatus act is not going to be ignored if and when America’s peasants stage an uprising writ large.

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