The Militarization of American Policing

A variety of military-style semiautomatic rifles obtained during a buy back program are displayed at Los Angeles police headq
A variety of military-style semiautomatic rifles obtained during a buy back program are displayed at Los Angeles police headquarters on Thursday, Dec. 27,2012. Similar weapons have been used in at least four high-profile shootings in the past year, including most recently the Connecticut school shootings and the Christmas Eve killings of two New York firefighters. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

It is sad that it took a police killing and the excessive deployment of a military presence by local law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri to focus national attention upon a problem that has been metastasizing within American law enforcement since the early 1970s.

The militarization of local law enforcement was seeded by the Nixon administration's declaration of the war on drugs in the early 1970s, and took root in the 1980s as result of President Reagan's escalation that poured millions into the drug war, shifting the focus of local law enforcement away from violent and property crimes to mostly small-time drug offenders.

The saplings of militarization were nurtured in the years that followed through federal COPS and Byrne grants and asset seizure legislation, which allows police to confiscate property from civilians, use it for their own or sell it and keep most of the proceeds, without anyone being charged with a crime. Since then this "policing for profit" has produced an arms race between the police and the criminal elements using drug profits not seen since the days of Al Capone.

Then came the stimulant that would produce the harvest of the most devastating crop of (untrained) warrior cops in our nation's history: The 1033 Program.

The 1033 Program authorized the Pentagon to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement free of charge, without established standards -- other than a requirement that the equipment be used within one year -- and no training guidelines.

That's when doors started being battered, flash bangs deployed, and entire neighborhoods assaulted by a heavily armored military presence in response to crimes and investigations that required nothing more than the capabilities of a first responder.

The standards established by large cities, particularly Los Angeles, over many years of evolving SWAT professionalism -- recruitment, repetitive training and judicious deployment principles -- were either ignored or impossible to implement because of a lack of resources within the thousands of smaller law enforcement jurisdictions. When Sheriff X received his MRAP Cougar armoured vehicle it wasn't long before Chief Y down the road wanted one too.

Congress and the Pentagon obliged and departments got most everything they wanted, whether it was a mine resistant tank, an allocation of semi-automatic AR-16s or a crate of scoped night vision sniper rifles.

The Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT capability is perhaps the best example of how this kind of equipment should and should not be deployed. While its professional evolution met the growth of challenges presented by high-risk missions over the decades, the LAPD made sure that Constitutional values continued to be protected.

The LAPD also ensured that the appearance of a military presence was restricted to only those high-risk situations that justified use of military grade equipment. Their written SWAT Philosophy makes it crystal clear that when the mission is complete, the equipment and the fatigue uniforms are returned to the barn and remain there until the next time it is necessary to: "control a high-risk incident requiring extraordinary tactics, skills, critical thinking, and the kind of good judgment that minimizes harm to civilians and property while maximizing the safety of everyone involved."

But none of that is close to what has happened in rural America and the small cities across the country like Ferguson, Missouri.

The military mission is to confront and kill a defined enemy. The peace officer has no enemies. His or her mission is to protect the community and everyone within it. No matter what crime they may have committed, all are entitled to the protections of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and due process. There has been a catastrophic failure by many law enforcement agencies to keep that essential distinction in mind as weapons and battle gear have poured in.

The application of human values and education are key to realizing the goals of professional law enforcement regardless of the situation they must confront. Negotiation and tactics that diminish the necessity to use force should always be the first methods employed and primary objective of the police officer and leadership, whether it be a SWAT operation or any other incident that requires a police response.

It is clear that the Ferguson police response was excessive and should not have happened. Where was the leadership? Who were the leaders? Why was there no reservoir of good will within the community when the crisis occurred?

The Ferguson show of force aggravated a seething hostility that was unmistakably already in place. The people clearly mistrusted the police and demonstrated no evidence of partnership or communication with those who were sworn to protect and serve them. All of that is synonymous with a military occupation.

The war on drugs, the war on terror and the incentives from the federal government has pushed local law enforcement to the tipping point in which the very first principle of policing, written by Robert Peel's commission in the 19th century, "to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment," will fade from the American landscape if this trend is not soon reversed.

We can only hope that the lessons of Ferguson, Missouri will be the beginning of reforms that will steer all of local law enforcement back toward concerns for public safety though compassionate service and community engagement rather than excessive force and military occupation.

LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing (Ret.) is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.