The Guardian • Issue #2064

The Police-Industrial-Complex

How the US Police Became Militarised

Greenville, NC Police Department.

Greenville, NC Police Department. Photo: (CC0)

US citizens believe they have the right to representative democracy, freedom of speech, religious worship, a free press, and equality before the law with a fair trial before a jury of their peers. According to Radley Balko in his Rise of the Warrior Cop (2014) these rights have been deeply eroded since the 1960s, with the police force becoming increasingly militarised as part of a Police-Industrial-Complex. The military weapons and gear used by the police are manufactured in the US, a boon for weapons manufacturers. Complementing this access to military weapons were new laws that increased the power of the state at the expense of citizen’s rights.

In 1963, in the trial of Ker v. California, the Court concluded “that the Fourth Amendment requirement that searches be reasonable applies to the states as well as the federal government, and that evidence obtained in unlawful searches is inadmissible.” The following year New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller pushed through two important pieces of legislation, the “no-knock bill” and the “stop-and-frisk” bill. In 1973 a set of draconian laws were pushed through, known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Today police officers, dressed in military gear and armed with the latest military weapons, can enter a residence with no-knock-and-announce requirement, if they believe the suspect is destroying evidence, such as flushing drugs down a toilet. The police can smash in the front door with a ram, following an unverified tip from an anonymous source. This has led to numerous wrongful arrests and police breaking into a wrong address. No matter how small the quantity of drugs found on the premises, the raid is reported as a success. Residents are known to have fired in self-defence at the door, thinking the attacker was a criminal. Any conviction limits the chances of the “criminal” having a successful career.

On 11th August 1965 racial tensions broke out across Watts, Los Angeles. Violent riots followed in Baltimore, New York, Washington D.C. and Detroit. America was burning. With the local police unable to cope, the National Guard was called in. It was from this that the militarisation of the police began. Daryl Gates of the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) formed SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Team), its purpose tempered by clashes during the United Farm Workers strike and the Delano Grape Strike. SWAT became an elite police unit against the Class Struggle.

As the police cracked down on civil liberties, the Warren Court ruled in what became the Miranda decision in 1966. The arresting officer must read to the individual their Miranda Rights. Under the Fifth Amendment they had the right to an attorney during questioning and at trial. They had the right to not self-incriminate. In 1967 in Katz v. United States the Court held that the Fourth Amendment protected people from “unreasonable search and seizure.”

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, on 4th April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots in black communities broke out once again. Police units across the US stockpiled armoured vehicles, helicopters, high-powered rifles, sniper rifles and bayonets. That year Richard Nixon was elected president arguing that drugs were the reason why young people attacked traditional values, not the political and social system they were rebelling against. A 1969 poll showed that 42 per cent of parents would turn in their own children if they took drugs.

A poll taken by Newsweek in 1969 showed that whites regarded Blacks as a major problem. In December 1969 SWAT raided the Black Panthers Party headquarters in Los Angeles. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had “declared war” on the group.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared a War on Crime, President Richard Nixon officially declared a War on Drugs in 1972. Police forces were given funding and military training to wage Nixon’s war on drugs and the youth. Under Nixon’s policies, violent crime across the US increased by 40 per cent and property crime rose by 24 per cent. The government responded by getting even tougher on crime, not tackling the root causes.

In 1973 SWAT battled with the urban guerrilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army. In 1975 the TV show S.W.A.T. was so popular that its merchandise swept the country, from board games to lunch boxes.

The new Reagan administration wanted to end the Miranda Rights, abolish bail and parole, destroy marijuana crops and use the military in its war on drugs. Questioning the drug war was seen as a sign of drug addiction. This was in spite of there being no evidence that marijuana was an addictive drug, or that its use caused crimes. On 8th April 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed the National Security Decision Directive 221, which made narcotics a major threat to national security. As Radley Balko argues: “The declaration put pot, cocaine, and heroin at nearly the same class of enemy as any nation against whom the United States had fought a conventional war.”

Under the 1987 National Defence Appropriation Act, the National Guard was financed with US$60 million for counterdrug operations, and local law enforcement agencies were given surplus military equipment. The following year George H.W. Bush, former Director of the CIA, was elected president, on a platform of fighting crime.

In May 1991, officers of the LAPD were filmed viciously beating a Black man, Rodney King. In response, riots broke out in East LA and 13,500 troops from the California National Guard, the Third Battalion First marine and the Seventh Division of the US Army were sent in. Following the riots more money was made available to law enforcement. By 1995, 89 per cent of cities with more than 50,000 people had a SWAT team.

The George W. Bush administration made the drug war a culture war, especially after the 9/11 attacks. Drug offenders were enemy combatants, not citizens with rights. President Bush continued President Clinton’s assaults on medical marijuana. SWAT tactics were necessary to fight drug dealers, despite the lack of evidence that drug dealers used high-powered weapons.

Zero-tolerance to crime meant that “community policing” had become militarised. Long gone was the role of the police as part of the community. Over 45,000 paramilitary raids were conducted in 2001, mostly for drug warrants. Despite drug dealers being portrayed as violent in the media and on TV shows, such as CSI Miami, in 2005 only 51 police were killed in the line of duty, out of 800,000 police officers in America.

A 2007 article in the journal Criminology concluded that, “COPS spending had little to no effect on crime.” At the 2008 the Democratic National Convention police wore T-shirt with “We Get Up Early, To Beat the Crowds” printed on them. Balko concludes that “The police today may be more militarised than the military.”

In 2023 militarised police are videoed smashing through doors, shooting unarmed civilians in the back, using attack dogs on people with hands raised, with people of colour fearing for their lives. Despite calls to “Defund the Police” there is little action for police departments to give up their military equipment, or their funding. There are too many interests that benefit from the Police-Industrial-Complex for governments to pay attention to public outcry.

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