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Police Militarization: Domestic Consequences of Foreign Policy

Foreign and domestic policies are most often thought of as separate functions. However, this study shows that aggressive foreign policy, such as military interventions, can generate severe domestic consequences including the adoption of methods, equipment and attitudes of militaristic social control. This adopted form of social control is most commonly identified in the militarization of police forces across the U.S., the effects of which disproportionately affect marginalized and minority populations.

The authors draw from the example found in the creation and growth of police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and their disproportional use in minority communities. SWAT teams originated in Los Angeles, California as a byproduct of U.S. foreign policy—designed by two combat veterans who made the transition into the Los Angeles Police Department. The architect of the first SWAT team used his experience from his elite special operations training to create a lethal police unit with specialized military equipment and training. The officer involved in designing the first SWAT team and the police Chief who helped gain its approval relied on their collective military experience to create an administrative and cultural openness to the use of military tactics that is “aggressive, intimidating, and confrontational by design”, says the Police Chief in charge of the first SWAT program.

The national campaigns focused on the ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘War on Terror’ acted as a catalyst, spreading SWAT teams and police militarization as local and state agencies began receiving federal funds and equipment. In the mid-1980s, approximately 20% of police departments had SWAT teams, by the year 2000 nearly 90% of police departments serving populations over 50,000 had a SWAT team. Current estimates place the number of SWAT deployments around 80,000 a year, up from the 3,000 deployments in the 1980s. Likewise, in 2013 a Department of Defense program flooded $500 million worth of military weapons and equipment to local law enforcement. This influx of federal money and military equipment, combined with the adoption of military tactics by SWAT teams, created an atmosphere that jeopardized the civil liberties and freedoms of the public. However, the effects of militarization were most pronounced in the areas least equipped to resist the pressures of an aggressive government—poor, politically unrepresented and marginalized communities.

The historical inequality found in minority police arrests began to mirror the actions of police SWAT teams. Blacks are about five times more likely to be killed by police than whites, and both races (60% of whites and 88% of blacks) believe that some racial groups are specifically targeted by police. Likewise, between 2011 and 2012, over 50% of SWAT raids were conducted against Hispanic or black suspects, compared to the 20% involving white suspects. 68% of drug raids were conducted against minority suspects compared to a much lower rate for whites, even though drug use and selling is similar across racial groups. The racial divide is more specific in some areas: in Allentown, PA Latinos are 29 times more likely and blacks are 23 times more likely to be affected by a SWAT raid than whites. In Huntington, WV blacks are 37 times more likely to be affected by a SWAT raid. In Ogden, UT blacks are 39 times more affected by SWAT raids. In Burlington, NC blacks are 47 times more likely to be affected by a SWAT raid than whites. The disproportionate police violence towards minority groups is getting worse and there are few systems in place to combat the inequality.

Past research has shown that individuals have two options when facing problems within organizations they belong to: either to “exit” the relationship, or ‘voice’ their grievances in an attempt to fix the problem.[1] However, for the minority communities most likely to be adversely affected by a militarized police force, both of these options are either weak or nonexistent. For many, ‘exiting’ a community with a large police presence may be financially impossible. Hispanics are twice as likely, Blacks are three times as likely, than whites to live in poverty. Similarly, the option to ‘voice’ their concern is limited as well. Research has shown increased racial segregation leads to a decrease in black civic efficacy—leaving communities with even majority black populations without political representation. Ferguson, MO, for example, has a 67% black population but hardly any black political leaders. The lack of political ‘voice’ and opportunities to ‘exit’ mean that minority groups are often the least able to avoid the costs and consequences of militarized police.

Contemporary Relevance:

Recently, black men killed during interactions with police, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Eric Garner to name a few, have brought attention to the inequality of police action towards minorities. The protests in Ferguson, MO introduced the broader public to a police force equipped with heavy weapons, armored vehicles and bullet proof vests; holding a closer resemblance to an occupying police force than civil servants sworn to keep the peace.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been effective in advancing this conversation by “broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state…and are deprived of basic human rights and dignity” (blacklivesmatter.com/about). Although primarily nonviolent, many protests organized or attended by BLM supporters are met by heavily armed police forces.

Talking Points:

  • U.S. militarism lead to the creation of police SWAT teams that disproportionally affect minority communities.
  • In 2013, half a billion worth of military weapons and equipment was given to U.S. police departments.
  • Current estimates place the number of SWAT deployments around 80,000 a year, up from the 3,000 deployments in the 1980s.
  • Nearly 70% of drug raids are conducted against minorities even though drug use and sales are similar across racial groups.

Practical Implications:

The militarization of police forces and their disproportionate attacks on marginalized and minority communities can be at least partially attributed to the lack of pushback federal and local governments have received from grass roots citizens. To influence the decisions leading to these destructive and racist policies, those against legislature regarding police militarization, ‘wars’ on terror and drugs, and racial profiling must become more organized and vocal in their positions against these issues.

Citation:

Coyne, C. J., & Hall-Blanco, A. R. (2016). Foreign Intervention, Police Militarization, and MinoritiesPeace Review28(2), 165-170.

Continued Reading

[1] Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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