The History of Police Militarization

According to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, members of law enforcement must have written permission from a court of law to lawfully carry out search and seizure while investigating criminal activity. In 2001, the introduction of the Patriot Act changed the game. Law enforcement officers were permitted to enter and search a person’s home or business without informed consent or knowledge, if there was suspicion of terrorist activities. The Act was controversial as it was in direct violation of civil liberties and Constitutional law. The law changed again when the filing of the United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), went to the Supreme Court. Jones was a nightclub owner that was suspected of drug trafficking. The police had placed a GPS tracker on Jones’ car to track his movements without obtaining a warrant. The Supreme Court ruled that police had violated Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights guaranteeing citizens protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Posse Comitatus Act

The debate over the militarization of police is decades old. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act to address allegations of civil liberties abuses by the U.S. military during the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877). The Posse Comitatus Act, 18 U.S. Code, Section 1385, states:

Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

The law was amended in 1956. The amendment added the Air Force to the roster of military personnel and stated that the military may not be used for domestic law enforcement unless authorized by the President of the United States under certain circumstances. Note that the act doesn’t apply to the National Guard nor the Coast Guard, a maritime law enforcement agency not regulated by the Department of Defense.

Prohibition Era

Militarized police first made news in the 1920s during the Prohibition Era. The ban on “intoxicating” beverages introduced black market liquor. Bootleggers built illegal operations and with it came big money. Police didn’t have the firepower to compete against the bootleggers.  The 1920s were also the time of glorified bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde, and organized crime figures like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. As crime grew, so did the appearance of automatic rifles and the Thompson submachine gun (AKA the “Tommy Gun”).

Police began to wield automatic weapons. Police forces in heavily-laden criminal areas like Chicago armed officers with automatic weapons and armored vehicles. Crime increased dramatically – 24 percent during the first two years of Prohibition. Police were so busy fighting bootleggers and the organized crime syndicate that it had little time for other cases. South Carolina saw a meteoric rise in crime in the counties that enforced prohibition versus the counties that did not. The strictly regulated counties saw as much as a 60% increase in homicides.

Prohibition ended in 1933. Police militarization was put to rest until the 1950s.

Race Riots

Race Riots and incidents of civil unrest have occurred since the dawn of time. However, until the 1960s, most were handled by local law enforcement. The explosion of militarized police activity occurred in 1965 during the Watts Riots (1965). On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, a pregnant African-American woman on parole for robbery, was pulled over by police for reckless driving. During the stop, an argument broke out between Frye and the police. The argument escalated. Members of the community stated that police had hurt Frye, and the Watts Riots began. The California Army National Guard was called in to assist the LAPD. The troops and the LAPD employed military-style weapons of war to end the six-day event.

Full-scale militarization is credited to an incident that took place in Newark in 1967. African-American cab driver, John Smith, was pulled over for allegedly driving in the wrong direction. He was arrested and beaten by white police officers for using obscene language. News of the beating spread like wildfire, leading to demonstrations lasting for five days. Community members protested racial violence that seemed to be approved by Newark mayor Hugh Addonzio. The option of peaceful resolution was taken away when the National Guard was called to end the demonstrations. The violent confrontation ended with 26 dead and hundreds injured.

The involvement of militarized police accelerated with the 1967 Detroit Riot and the infamous riot outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

War on Drugs

Not all militarized police activity involved riots. Beginning in the 1980s, police began to face members of organized crime syndicates. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan promoted legislation to support the war on drugs. The 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act permits the U.S. military to cooperate with civilian officials. Operations include assistance in civil disturbances, counter-drug operations, counter-terrorism, special security operations, explosive ordnance disposal, and similar activities. While there are restrictions, the act permits law enforcement officials to gain access to military bases and equipment.

Inadequate Weapons

Cases involving police militarization are too numerous to mention. However, the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout and the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout made a significant impact on the use of SWAT teams and military weapons.

In 1986, eight FBI agents had a showdown with two serial bank robbers and murderers in Miami. The FBI agents did not possess the firepower to end the standoff, leaving two agents dead and five wounded.

The bank robbers were also fatally injured. The FBI believed that the incident could have been resolved without so much collateral damage if the agents had been adequately armed.

The 1997 North Hollywood Shootout also involved a bank robbery. During the 44-minute shootout, the bank robbers were able to fire twice as many rounds as the police. The confrontation resulted in two dead bank robbers, and 12 officers and eight civilians wounded. The standoff was resolved with the arrival of a SWAT team and appropriate firearms. The incident spurred a change in authorized weapons for the LAPD.

1033 Program

In 1997, the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1997 created 1033 Program allowing the transfer of excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies.  From 1997 to 2014, 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have received $5.1 billion in military equipment from the United States Department of Defense. Transferred equipment includes surplus aircraft, bayonets, tactical armored vehicles, weapons, including grenade launchers, and watercraft.

Restrictions

In 2015, President Barack Obama announced that he would place limits on the types of military equipment transferrable to police departments. The military can no longer transfer certain weapons including bayonets, weaponized vehicles or grenade launchers. The law would also require police to participate in training programs to ensure proper use of the equipment.

In 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced lifting the restrictions saying that the Trump administration would not “put superficial concerns above public safety.”

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