Bringing it all back home: The roots of militarized policing

August 21, 2014

The law enforcement response to the rioting that followed the recent killing of an unarmed black man by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri is generating vast media attention. Images of heavily armed riot police, swathed in body armor and seemingly poised for combat, permeate the press coverage. The American public is learning about the “militarization” of police forces across the country—a transformation made possible, we are told, by enthusiastic U.S. government efforts to transfer surplus firearms, ammunition, uniforms, and even “up-armored” vehicles to state and local law enforcement agencies.

But militarization involves more than equipment. It also includes an operational approach that equates cities with combat zones and likens residents to hostile populations. The origins of this approach can be traced to the 1960s, when techniques developed to counter rebellion and revolution in the developing world seemed applicable to controlling disorder inside the United States.

As many media reports have pointed out, the “War on Drugs”—launched by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, and reenergized during the following decade by the Reagan administration and an enthusiastic Congress—was a major impetus for providing police with military equipment. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, counterterrorism became an all-important rationale. Responding to lavish incentives offered by the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, state and local police forces from coast to coast rushed to buy helicopters, night vision devices, and automatic weapons. Rich absurdities were almost inevitable. For example, in tiny Keene, New Hampshire, police acquired an armored personnel carrier to patrol the hamlet’s annual “Pumpkin Festival.”

Federal incentives aimed at fighting drug trafficking and terror form part of the explanation for the militarized policing so dramatically on display in Ferguson. But the roots go far deeper, and involve more than money and technology. During the 1960s, rioting in America’s cities led some government officials, academic theorists, and military officers to seek new approaches to quelling unrest. Counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques, designed to neutralize communist-inspired revolutions in the Third World, might be equally suitable for pacifying restive ghettos at home.

The August 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles played a key role in the emergence of COIN-influenced policing. Thirty-four people were killed, 1,000 were injured, and 4,000 were arrested during the six days of mayhem. Not surprisingly, the riots left an indelible impression on those involved. Daryl Gates, who would later serve as the city’s police chief, was a commander in Watts during the unrest. “The streets of America’s cities had become a foreign territory,” he wrote in his memoirs.

Post-Watts, Gates became an eager student of counterinsurgency (COIN). Although some of COIN’s fashionable veneer fell away after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the COIN movement’s most important political advocate, it remained a key component of America’s burgeoning war in South Vietnam. As Gates recalled, “[W]e began reading everything we could get our hands on concerning guerrilla warfare. We watched with interest what was happening in Vietnam.” From Gates’ ruminations on COIN emerged the SWAT concept. On December 8, 1969, SWAT made its operational debut. Policemen with AR-15 rifles (the civilian version of the M-16), dynamite, grenade launchers, tear gas, and helicopters, converged on the South Central Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panther Party. Six Panthers were wounded and 17 taken into custody.

The ghetto-as-battlefield mentality was not confined to the policemen responsible for keeping order. As the decade wore on, and cities like Detroit, Newark, and Washington, D.C. were swept by what was termed “civil unrest,” other voices joined the chorus. Predictably, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover pointed to “Communist oriented black nationalist groups” who were “seriously considering instituting armed insurrection in this country.”

But such views were hardly confined to political mossbacks like Hoover. New York mayor John V. Lindsay, a darling of liberal Republicanism, insisted on “the need to declare an all-out emergency [and] put the United States on a wartime basis.” Left-wing extremists did everything they could to encourage the sense of incipient revolution in America’s ghettos. In a speech delivered shortly after the 1967 Detroit riots, H. Rap Brown, a leading African-American militant, declared that “when you look at the black revolution, the black rebellion, when you see a brother in the streets throwing a Molotov cocktail, he’s not out there for his health; he’s out there for his freedom.”

More ominously, the U.S. military considered tools and techniques deployed in South Vietnam and other theaters for use in domestic riot-control operations. Army research institutions identified technological responses to ghetto unrest, and analysts at Pentagon-sponsored think tanks considered the domestic application of COIN techniques. Figures like Major General William P. Yarborough, the army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence from 1966-1968—and John F. Kennedy’s favorite Green Beret—expanded urban surveillance and intelligence. According to historian Joan M. Jensen, the army, using more than 1,000 plainclothes military personnel, worked “to develop counterinsurgency information on black communities similar to that collected on Vietnamese guerrilla organizations.”

By the early 1970s, the nation’s urban underclass had grown less restive and large-scale rioting largely ceased. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, military discourse began seeping back into civilian policing. In 1993, then-Attorney General Janet Reno challenged an audience of defense, intelligence, and industrial notables “to turn your skills that served us so well in the Cold War to helping us with the war we’re now fighting daily in the streets of our towns and cities across the Nation.”

More recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped reinforce the belief that the nation’s urban areas are “battlespaces” requiring the application of military tactics, techniques, and procedures. Indeed, the criminal gangs and drug traffickers operating in the nation’s cities have sometimes been characterized as “insurgents” capable of mounting “catastrophic attack from within.” Given the skills that military personnel have acquired, it’s hardly surprising that many seek employment in law enforcement. To be sure, many veterans have been sharply critical of the policing on display in Ferguson. However, it seems likely that at least some veterans will bring habits of mind acquired in counterinsurgency campaigns to urban policing.

The local police response to violent disorders in Ferguson has prompted politicians across the political spectrum to question government support for militarized policing—and in particular, the transfer of surplus Pentagon weapons and equipment to state and local law enforcement. But guns and materiel are only part of the issue. Demilitarization also requires changes in mindsets—and in particular, rooting out the cities-as-battlespace mentality approach to law enforcement.


William Rosenau is a senior research scientist at the Center for Strategic Studies, CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research institution in Arlington, VA. The views expressed here are his own.


Photo credit: Laurie Avocado