How Police Departments Became Armies

Firing rubber bullets at unarmed protesters. Lobbing tear gas canisters at news trucks. Ordering no-fly zones over cities. This wasn't the scene in some war-torn country, but rather in Ferguson, Missouri last night. And while the situation may seem shocking, the truth is that it's nothing new in America.

What we saw in Ferguson last night — and are very likely to see again in the next few days — is the logical conclusion of a trend that has been happening for decades and escalated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: the militarization of local police departments.

The officers in Ferguson, the ones who stormed a McDonald's and arrested two journalists, looked less like cops and more like soldiers dressed in camo and flak jackets. So did the ones who shot tear gas at unarmed protesters and patrolled the streets in armored Bearcat trucks. So did the ones who had assault rifles trained on crowds.

How did this happen, exactly? How did America get to the point where local cops —whose mission is purportedly to investigate crime and protect and serve the public — look and operate like an invading army?

How Police Departments Became Armies

Arguably the trend starts amid the national political turmoil of the late 1960s, when police first started organizing heavily armed SWAT teams along military lines.

After Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas tower with a rifle and fired on the people below, and local police in Austin had to deputize an ordinary citizen to help stop him, departments began to fear the possibility of being outgunned by mass shooters or suspects who took hostages.

It was the Los Angeles Police Department that coined the term "SWAT" in 1967, originally called "Special Weapons Assault Team" until the then-chief decided that name was too militaristic.

But there was always a political and racial component to these tactics. Even before the LAPD formed its team, SWAT-esque groups were deployed in response to protests by Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers in Delano, California.

Not surprisingly, this trend escalated with the inception of Reagan's War on Drugs. In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which "allowed and encouraged the military to give local, state, and federal police access to military bases, research, and equipment," as the Huffington Post reflected on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Their story points out the immediate problem with this mentality, which directly conflicts with the original purpose behind modern policing as it was developed in England (a reason why police historically wore blue instead of red, as the latter was considered a military color):

The problem with this mingling of domestic policing with military operations is that the two institutions have starkly different missions. The military's job is to annihilate a foreign enemy. Cops are charged with keeping the peace, and with protecting the constitutional rights of American citizens and residents. It's dangerous to conflate the two.

As former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb once put it, "Soldiers are trained to vaporize, not Mirandize." That distinction is why the U.S. passed the Posse Comitatus Act more than 130 years ago, a law that explicitly forbids the use of military troops in domestic policing.

In other words, when you militarize police, they start to see the people they're supposed to be protecting as their enemy.

By the mid-1990s Congress had further authorized the transfer of Department of Defense weapons to federal, state and local police for "counter-drug activities." This was in Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act, and it's something you're likely to be reading about quite a bit over the next few days. That provision has passed each year since, and it has led to the increased armoring of local departments.

When the towers went down in 2001, the federal government had a new boogeyman to fight instead of drugs, and that was terrorism.

How Police Departments Became Armies

Fears of Al Qaeda in the heartland led to the further transfer of surplus military equipment like Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to cops, as well as billions and billions of dollars given to them in the form of Department of Homeland Security grants used to purchase such equipment.

Suddenly, you had small towns in Texas and New Hampshire with armored vehicles, machine guns, silencers, armored vehicles, bomb robots, night-vision goggles, and lately, drones, all in the name of counterterrorism. Such grants have totaled about $34 billion since 2001, a number that has no doubt increased since the Center for Investigative Reporting released that figure in 2011.

Of course, since Islamic terrorists have yet to storm America's small towns, this equipment is not used for counterterrorism. The police have to use these fancy new toys, so they use them for more and more SWAT operations, like the service of no-knock warrants, drug arrests, expensive and lengthy standoffs with empty houses, and as we saw in Ferguson last night, taking on protesters.

This has exacerbated one of the most severe problems with police in America: arrests and force are disproportionately used against blacks and Hispanics, if you want to put it kindly. Alex Kane has as good an assessment on this as I have seen:

Across the country, communities of color are the people most targeted by police practices. In recent years, the abuse of "stop and frisk" tactics has attracted widespread attention because of the racially discriminatory way it has been applied.

Militarized policing has also targeted communities of color. According to the ACLU report, "of all the incidents studied where the number and race of the people impacted were known, 39 percent were Black, 11 percent were Latino, 20 were white." The majority of raids that targeted blacks and Latinos were related to drugs — another metric exposing how the "war on drugs" is racist to the core.

The problem is that it's getting worse. As America winds down its involvement on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, all that military equipment has to go somewhere, and it's increasingly going toward local departments. Even though roadside bombs aren't exactly a threat to cops in the U.S., they're armed as such.

There has been little pushback against this trend, because who wants to be the politician seen as standing against the protection of our police officers? From a June New York Times story on the same topic that centered on Neenah, Wisconsin, a small town of 25,000 people now equipped with an MRAP truck capable of withstanding land mines:

At the Neenah City Council, Mr. Pollnow is pushing for a requirement that the council vote on all equipment transfers. When he asks about the need for military equipment, he said the answer is always the same: It protects police officers.

"Who's going to be against that? You're against the police coming home safe at night?" he said. "But you can always present a worst-case scenario. You can use that as a framework to get anything."

We may look at the photos and horrifying tweets from citizens and reporters in Ferguson and wonder, "Is this really America?" It is horrifying, but it should not be surprising. What we saw in that small St. Louis suburb is the logical conclusion of a trend that has been happening for decades.

We have turned our police into armies, and we have done it with little to no oversight. We have allowed them to transform from an organization to protect us to one that sees us as their enemy and has us massively outgunned. We have allowed them to get away from their original purpose, which was to not be the military. We have paid for it with our tax dollars, too.

And like always, it is people of color and the poor who will bear the brunt of it.

How Police Departments Became Armies

Photos credit AP, Getty