Even before states began to deploy the National Guard and President Donald Trump unleashed federal police forces in Washington, the streets of many U.S. cities already looked as if they were swarming with soldiers.
At a daytime protest of deadly police violence in Cincinnati, officers with the sheriff’s department formed a compact row of shields and riot helmets while police parked massive, mine-resistant vehicles nearby. Officers in Miami wore head-to-toe body armor while those with the King County Sheriff’s Department in Seattle wore helmets and tactical uniforms. And many officers were violent: Police in multiple cities were filmed showering protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, apparently unprovoked, while others were recorded assaulting or macing unarmed protesters.
Their violence has been years in the making. For decades, federal funding for the war on drugs has encouraged ordinary local law enforcement agencies to amass huge military arsenals. This trend is never more obvious to the general public than during huge protest movements, when the equipment is set upon unarmed demonstrators. And as people grow more outraged by what they see, calls arise to demilitarize the police. A bipartisan push in Congress this week aims to end a Pentagon program that transfers military hardware to local authorities.
But removing the equipment is just treating one of the symptoms of a system that goes deeper.
“At this point, ‘military’ is already the culture of policing,” said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has studied police militarization for decades.
Attributing police violence to the officers’ militarized hardware — claiming that everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer — gets it backward, Kraska said. Police obtain military gear because their culture, training, and methods inculcate the idea that they’re warriors. They’re trained to see nails, and so they grab hammers.
Kraska pointed to a viral video from this past weekend that purported to show the Minneapolis Police Department and Minnesota National Guard sweeping down a residential street, shouting “light ’em up,” firing paint canisters at residents on their porches.
“To me, that just indicated the extent to which our police forces have devolved into being so internally militarized,” he said. “Even if you eliminated the hardware — I think it’s questionable that at this point it’s having that much of an impact on how they’re reacting.”
Late last week, video showed a New York City police officer in shirtsleeves bludgeoning unarmed protesters with his bicycle. Video from the day after that showed an officer in Brooklyn opening the door of his moving sedan into a protester. In both cases, officers didn’t need sophisticated equipment to embolden acts of violence.
That’s not to say the equipment isn’t a major problem. The greater impact of showing up to a civil protest with military hardware is that it reinforces the idea that police are not peacekeepers but the opposing side in a conflict, said Lindsay P. Cohn, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“In most cities, I would call their equipment and appearance escalatory,” said Cohn, who is writing a history of the deployment of federal forces inside the U.S. “When you show up to a protest outfitted like that, the message it sends is, ‘We don’t trust you, we expect you to engage in violence, and we will respond with violence.’”
David Sklansky, a professor at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, agreed: “It sends a message to the police and to the protesters about how the police relate to the protesters and the community. It positions the police as an occupying force rather than as part of the community, as warriors rather than as guardians.”
Long before Trump threatened to treat peaceful protesters as enemy combatants, he found other ways to send that message. In 2017, his administration revived a Pentagon program that repurposes equipment and vehicles discarded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for local police departments.
“When you show up to a protest outfitted like that, the message it sends is, we don’t trust you, we expect you to engage in violence, and we will respond with violence.”
President Barack Obama had placed restrictions on that same program — albeit weak ones — after the militant response in 2014 to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, inspired a national outcry. The program, known as 1033, accounts for just a small portion of the military gear held by police departments, but it’s a powerful symbol, Sklansky said.
“When the Trump administration reversed that rule, that was a way of telling local police departments that the federal government wanted them to revert to older approaches of policing, to go back to a more militaristic style of law enforcement,” he said. “That’s the message this administration has sent in other ways as well, a message many local police departments have responded to.”
Militarizing In The Shadows
Police carry that message with them during daily activities, Kraska said. It’s not as though all the equipment seen at recent protests— the flash-bang grenades, body armor, and helmets — sits idle between mass civil unrest.
Especially in poor and Black and brown neighborhoods, police frequently use paramilitary gear to perform routine tasks such as serving search warrants. Instead of making a straightforward arrest, they’ll use battering rams, armored personnel carriers, and night vision goggles to raid suspects’ homes and seize money or property potentially connected to a crime, which many departments are allowed to liquidate straight into their budgets. Thus, their arsenals are an integral way to secure funding, Kraska said.
The difference in this week’s protests is that more middle class and white people are seeing these tools of war in action, either in person, on social media, or on the news.
“It takes police militarization out of the shadows of the poor and Black communities that experience it the most and puts it into public view,” Kraska said. “The protests just bring it out into the streets so everyone gets to see it and be horrified. But that horrification is a regular occurrence for some communities.”
That is the true obstacle facing opponents of police militarization. Law enforcement could stop bringing body armor, tactical helmets and tear gas to civil demonstrations tomorrow, and it wouldn’t change how law enforcement typically uses these tools.
The protests just bring it out into the streets so everyone gets to see it and be horrified. But that horrification is a regular occurrence for some communities.
As for the 1033 program, the leftovers from foreign wars actually account for just a tiny portion of the military gear in local arsenals. A much greater share comes from cash grants — especially a program run by the Department of Justice — meant for police to arm themselves in the war on drugs, and from police departments simply purchasing the equipment themselves.
Driven By Fear
Those programs are premised on the idea that military-style gear is necessary to keep police safe. But save for extreme circumstances, such as an active shooter situation, the weight of the evidence says otherwise.
One of the most methodical studies of how SWAT teams operate, in Maryland, found that local law enforcement agencies are more likely to employ those units in minority neighborhoods. The study found no evidence that creating or using a SWAT team reduced violent crime rates, assaults on police, or officer deaths. It also found that the use of SWAT teams diminished peoples’ support for funding police or seeing police in their neighborhoods. And crucially, it inflated the amount of danger people perceived in their communities.
Maki Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who helps train police, said discussions about demilitarizing the police often discount the fear police officers feel. But, she said, it’s a mistake to let that fear justify heavier arms.
“Military-grade equipment is exactly what it sounds like: It is to be used by the military against enemies outside the country,” Haberfeld noted.
Plenty of officers agree that police militarization erodes ordinary peoples’ trust, and not all favor of arming themselves like a paramilitary unit.
“I do not care for the military look,” Sheriff Jay Brooks of Chesterfield County, South Carolina, said in 2015 as he sought to get rid of some military gear his predecessor acquired from the 1033 program. “We go to great lengths to make sure we don’t look like a militia instead of a sheriff’s department.”
It makes it pretty difficult, when you’re talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look let’s tone this down.' Gil Kerlikowske, former police chief of Seattle
This week, R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, called it a mistake that he militarized his city’s police ― the same force responsible for the death of George Floyd on May 25 after a white officer persisted in pressing his knee on the Black man’s neck, which sparked the current wave of protests and unrest.
In a 2014 interview with NPR, Gil Kerlikowske, then the head of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said he regretted a decision he made as Seattle’s police chief to outfit police in riot gear for Mardi Gras. Police felt safer, he said, but he was certain that their paramilitary appearance fueled a noticeable rise in violence at that year’s celebration.
“It makes it pretty difficult, when you’re talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look let’s tone this down, let’s calm things down, let’s make sure that those people that need to be apprehended are arrested because of their intoxicated state, their level of violence,’ et cetera,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you’re hardened up. I regret that.”
But calm is not what the Trump administration nor many state and local authorities have in mind at the moment. The president spent Tuesday urging states to deploy the National Guard, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) urged New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) to deploy the entire NYPD force ― 38,000 ― on the streets Tuesday night.
Cohn, the professor writing the history of domestic military deployments, said the introduction of military personnel only tends to reduce chaos when they act as a source of peace and de-escalation — not when they’re introduced as a threat, as Trump has done.
“Even if that were true — that a huge, overwhelming show of force along with some demonstration that you aren’t afraid to use it would terrify people into going back home — this is a democratic civil society,” Cohn said. “That is not how this is supposed to work.”