Abolition for the People

When Police Play Soldier, Everybody Loses

The militarization of police departments has only intensified an ongoing cycle of failure and oppression

This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

Around 1968, a “gutty little ragtag outfit” linked up on the streets of Los Angeles. This group “traded expertise” with friendly Marines and began studying guerrilla warfare. Its members soon obtained weapons just like the ones U.S. infantry soldiers carried in Vietnam. And the group’s leader came up with a snappy name, to signal his desire to rule the city’s streets: “Special Weapons Attack Team.”

But, for a band of sworn law-enforcement officers, that name was too provocative. And the white leader of the new unit, who recounted this history in his memoir — complete with hackneyed action-movie descriptions — would go on to be the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for 24 years. Begrudgingly, Daryl Gates changed his elite group’s moniker to Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT.

Nevertheless, “attack” was the team’s primary mission, and the Black Panther Party was its highest-value target, necessitating the party’s own primary mission at the time: self-defense. LAPD SWAT attacked the headquarters of the party’s Southern California chapter on December 8, 1969. After incapacitating the Panthers with tear gas, police officers fired 5,000 rounds, wounding six Panthers. Using tear gas to make the barricaded targets easier to shoot with conventional firearms was a tactic taken straight from the U.S. war in Vietnam.

This violent episode, according to writers like Radley Balko, inaugurated police militarization — the adoption of military weapons, vehicles, armor, and tactics in everyday policing activity on American streets. Police now look like soldiers, and their mission increasingly seems to resemble the types of “counterinsurgency” that the United States has pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan: heavily armed raids, often based on electronically gathered intelligence.

Critics of militarization typically argue that using this gear alienates police from regular people, increases the likelihood of violent encounters, and has no place in a democracy that cherishes a strict division of domestic policing and foreign military action. Yet looking more closely at the LAPD’s response to political protest indicates that thinking about the police as a domestic body and the military as an international one is reductive. Police in the United States have long looked beyond borders and to the military for help resolving problems of their own making. Police militarize when they are in crisis, relying on innovations that are a product of U.S. empire — the ongoing effort to force the rest of the globe to accede to the designs of Washington and Wall Street.

In the 1960s, before Daryl Gates created SWAT, some of the LAPD’s top officers were already operating far beyond city limits, as I’ve illustrated in my book Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. At the request of the attorney general in 1962, Los Angeles sent a pair of Spanish-speaking cops to the Dominican Republic to impart lessons on “riot control” to the police force there, fearing that Communist subversives were planning to foment civil unrest. The LAPD maintained a reputation for expertise in controlling unruly crowds. These officers brought LAPD training manuals to the Caribbean, while also introducing tear gas and recommending the use of batons.

In the short term, these LAPD efforts seemed to pay off. At a large demonstration in Santo Domingo less than two weeks after the officers began training local cops, the police did not turn too violent and the crowd dispersed without much trouble. But in April 1965, there was a coup. A revolutionary upsurge overwhelmed the police, leading to a brief civil war. President Lyndon Johnson feared Communist forces were gaining the upper hand. He ordered the U.S. military to invade. When open hostilities ceased, the Dominican Republic’s police were reconstituted as a far meaner and vicious force. Soon, the U.S.-trained police would be responsible for political persecution of leftists, including torture, forced disappearance, and cold-hearted murder in the streets.

Compare this sequence of events to what happened in Los Angeles in the 1960s, culminating in SWAT. There are eerie parallels when looking at the Watts rebellion of 1965 and its aftermath: In both instances, police were overwhelmed, the military got involved, and then police returned even meaner.

This pattern is global. American police commanders declare that their officers are so well trained and experienced that they should teach cops elsewhere how to do their jobs. When those cops inevitably falter in a crisis, officials come to believe more aggressive approaches are necessary.

After an incident of police brutality involving a Black motorist, Marquette Frye, and his brother and mother on August 11, 1965, exaggerated but plausible rumors began to spread about police attacking a pregnant Black woman. Watts residents began protesting — and in response, cops ran wild, acting even more unhinged than usual. Looting, shooting, fires, and mass arrests ensued. The situation quickly became the most destructive “civil disorder” the twentieth century had yet seen. The National Guard patrolled in jeeps and cargo trucks, wearing helmets and carrying bayonet-tipped rifles. And then, once an uneasy calm returned to the streets, the LAPD became even more venomous against Black and Chicano activists.

Determined never to be caught off-guard again, the LAPD created two new units in ensuing years: SWAT was joined by the Public Disorder Intelligence Division, a secretive outfit that spied on activists and even on some elected officials. By the early 1980s, one of the officers the LAPD had sent to the Dominican Republic, in fact, became the leader of that Division. Meanwhile, Gates touted SWAT’s successes at adopting military tactics, offering blueprints for other police forces around the country to militarize when they run into trouble.

This pattern is global. American police commanders declare that their officers are so well trained and experienced that they should teach cops elsewhere how to do their jobs. When those cops inevitably falter in a crisis — whether civil unrest or apparent crime surges — officials come to believe more aggressive approaches are necessary. Then, the military gets involved. The police commanders, in turn, take new lessons from the more militarized approaches. These become the new baseline, and anyone who opposes them becomes an enemy.

Police militarization is the way police forces compensate for their own failures and mistakes. Police admire the military because it models what they want to be: an extremely well-resourced, technologically sophisticated, tactically effective, and widely respected instrument of state violence. So when police seem insufficiently trained, undisciplined, or even corrupt, commanders will look to the military for models on how to improve. Those improvements rarely occur, but in the process, the police adopt military weapons. (The Pentagon has transferred $7.4 billion in surplus weapons and supplies to police since 1997, while additional materials come from private donations, other federal sources like the Department of Homeland Security, or state and local budgets). Accompanying this gear is a martial mentality that makes leaving the precinct house seem like a mission into hostile enemy territory.

At almost any point in the past 120 years, we can find examples of this cycle, as police seek help and guidance from the military. And each round of police militarization at home has built upon a foundation already forged abroad. The question before us right now is whether the cycle will continue after the rebellions of 2020.

In the past few months of protest against police violence and racist abuse, police have frequently worsened the situation. In city after city, protesters have faced violent assault by heavily armed police, from officers in Brooklyn using their vehicles as battering rams on crowds to cops in Philadelphia firing tear gas at fleeing demonstrators pinned against a barrier. In only a few cases has the National Guard intervened, and military leaders balked when the Trump administration considered using soldiers to crush demonstrations. But the baseline, as everyone has seen, is already a highly militarized force. And it has failed miserably at lessening the intensity of protest. In fact, police accomplished the opposite: spurring the most sustained and widespread period of political unrest in the United States in decades, if not ever.

After the proverbial smoke clears, when the expert studies are finalized, the re-training is complete, and a newly equipped force is unleashed, we must ask, what will the next iteration look like? Will the police militarize even further, taking inspiration from overseas operations?

Police crises like the current one inevitably cause police to look for outside help. The demand to defund police is a prophylactic against this possibility.

When protesters chant “Defund the police,” cops respond, “But who will come to rescue you when you’re in crisis?” We could turn the question back on the police: What if you didn’t have the military to rescue you in your moments of crisis? And this new question opens onto a new horizon of abolition, and of hope: a world without police or soldiers.

Author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing (University of California Press, 2019)

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