The Militarization of the Police

Since the 1980s, nearly all law enforcement agencies in the United States have embraced and adopted, to varying degrees, characteristics that are common to the military. These characteristics include, but are by no means limited to, clothing/uniforms, divisions of labor based on job classifications and personnel location within a hierarchy of command, the authorization and use of high-tech equipment, operations/strategies, and the distribution and differentiation of policing areas/jurisdictions. Moreover, American law enforcement deploys the same assault weaponry found in the U.S. military arsenal (AR-15 assault rifles, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, etc.).

In many ways the control of crime has taken on many of the characteristics of the military, or what Peter Kraska and others have called the “militarization of criminal justice” (Kraska, 1999. See also, Arrigo, 1999; Caufield, 1999; Haggerty and Ericson, 1999; Simon, 1993). Echoing Quinney, Kraska makes the point that there is an underlying ideology of militarism that clearly has been borrowed in the war on crime (not to mention the war on drugs), which he defines as “a set of beliefs and values that stress the use of force and domination as appropriate means to solve problems and gain political power, while glorifying the means to accomplish this—military power, hardware, and technology” (Kraska, 1999: 208). This also involves a “blurring of external and internal security functions leading to a more subtle targeting of civilian populations,” plus an ideology that places emphasis on the efficient solving of problems that require the use of state force, the latest and most sophisticated technology, various forms of intelligence gathering, the use of special operations (e.g., SWAT) in both the police and within the prison system, the use of military discourse and metaphors (e.g., “collateral damage,” “under siege”) and last, but not least, collaboration with “the highest level of the governmental and corporate worlds, between the defense industry and the crime control industry” (1999: 208).

Kraska suggests four dimensions of the military model that may apply to the police (2007: 3)

·         material—martial weaponry, equipment, and advanced technology;

·         cultural—martial language, style (appearance), beliefs, and values;

·         organizational—martial arrangements such as ‘command and control’ centers [e.g. (COMPSTAT)], or elite squads of officers patterned after military special operations patrolling high-crime areas (as opposed to the traditional officer on the beat);  

·         Operational—patterns of activity modeled after the military such as in the areas of intelligence, supervision, handling high-risk situations, or warmaking/restoration (e.g. weed and seed).


The militarization of the police began with the riots of the 1960s and the creation of SWAT teams.  As noted by Radley Balko (2013) in 1970 there was only one SWAT team in the entire country (Los Angeles), but by 1975 there were about 500.  In 1982, 59% of US cities over 50,000 population had a SWAT team; by 1995 that percentage had risen to 89.  By 2005, about 80% of “towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people had their own SWAT team. The number of raids conducted by local police SWAT teams has gone from 3,000 a year in the 1980s to over 50,000 a year today [2014]” (Fund, 2014).

Most alarming is the fact that many small towns and cities have SWAT teams: among cities between 25,000 and 50,000, 65% had a SWAT team by 1995.  By the first decade of the 21st century there were SWAT teams in places like Middleburg, PA (pop. 2,701) and Butler, MO (pop. 4,201).  Balko reports that there were about 3,000 paramilitary police raids in the country in 1980; the number in 1995 was 30,000; there were about 45,000 in 2001. With the coming of the “war on drugs” the use of military-style force rose dramatically.  According to Balko, by 1995 three-fourths of the deployment of SWAT teams was to serve drug warrants; by 2001 the percentage was 94.[1]

 The police institution “has managed to drape themselves in military cloaks,” write Tighe and Brown (2015: 6-7). This includes “military material/equipment, elements of military culture, and military methods/tactics thus permitting law enforcement to operate as a military force” (see also, Kraska, 2007). Law enforcement has become a quasi-militaristic entity (see also Kraska and Cubellis, 1997; Balko, 2013; Whitehead, 2013; Hari, 2015).

Paramilitary force has been used frequently to quell “public disturbances” starting with the rioting in the 1960s.  In fact, watching the scenes on television we were both reminded of the rioting in places like Watts and Detroit in the late 1960s.  In almost every case, the spark that lit an already lit fuse was a police confrontation with a black citizen.  In Ferguson, it’s “back to the future.”  This time, however, citizens who were understandably angry over what amounts to a homicide by a cop, were confronted by police who were armed better than the military in the Middle East.  One veteran, Kyle Rodgers who served two deployments to Iraq and now serves as the Veteran Coordinator at Western Oregon University, told us that the cops “have better gear than we had in Iraq.” He added that “I think it is quite clear that our police at home have lost sight of their true mission and have surpassed even the warfighters who partook in one of the most infamous battles of the modern combat era” (Shelden and Brown, 2014).

What has become especially disturbing is the huge increase in the use of various assortments of military equipment (M-16 rifles, armored trucks, grenade launchers , machine guns, helicopters, night-vision gear), courtesy of the Pentagon as the result of the National Defense Authorization Act (S.3254). passed in 2013 (Haberman, 2014). As a result hundreds of police departments, large and small have been able to acquire (cheaply or not cost at all) this equipment. For instance, the New York Times reported that in the small town of Neenah, Wisconsin (population of 25,000), which hasn’t had a homicide in five years, the police department has a “9-foot-tall armored truck” that “was intended for an overseas battlefield.” Continuing, the article further notes that: “according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft” (Apuzzo, 2014).
According to the New York Times report the military hardware going to cities and towns across the country include 432 “mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles”; 435”other armored vehicles, 44,900 “night vision pieces,” 53 aircraft (helicopters and planes), 93,763 machine guns, etc. The report notes that: “In South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s website features its SWAT team, dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun” (Ibid.).

These days most of the time SWAT is used either in drug raids (where 40% of the time no contraband is found), or the enforcement of minor offenses, many of which end with disastrous results, such as this case (Kristian, 2015):

150 police officers from no less than 18 law enforcement agencies engaged in a three-day standoff at a family home. Their goal? To arrest one David M. Cady Jr., who had barricaded himself in his family's home to avoid going to jail for missing a DUI court date.

and no home in the middle of winter. The SWAT teams battered Cady's house so thoroughly that some exterior walls are gone entirely, while appliances and personal belongings are strewn about the yard.


Then there was this one (Fund, 2014):

Take the case of Kenneth Wright of Stockton, Calif., who was “visited” by a SWAT team from the U.S. Department of Education in June 2011. Agents battered down the door of his home at 6 a.m., dragged him outside in his boxer shorts, and handcuffed him as they put his three children (ages 3, 7, and 11) in a police car for two hours while they searched his home. The raid was allegedly intended to uncover information on Wright’s estranged wife, Michelle, who hadn’t been living with him and was suspected of college financial-aid fraud.


And this one (Ibid):


In 2010, a Phoenix, Ariz., sheriff’s SWAT team that included a tank and several armored vehicles raided the home of Jesus Llovera. The tank, driven by the newly deputized action-film star Steven Seagal, plowed right into Llovera’s house. The incident was filmed and, together with footage of Seagal-accompanied immigration raids, was later used for Seagal’s A&E TV law-enforcement reality show. The crime committed by Jesus Llovera was staging cockfights. During the sheriff’s raid, his dog was killed, and later all of his chickens were put to sleep.


Then there is a U.S. Court of Appeals cases where the police, Masked, “heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection” (Apuzzo, 2014). The Court of Appeals described the incident as follows:

         At approximately 12:15 a.m. Sunday morning, the club was crowded with approximately 500 patrons when persons waiting in line outside of the club crashed through the front door, pursued by forty Rapides Parish deputy sheriffs — some outfitted in full S.W.A.T. gear and black ski masks—who stormed Club Retro with shotguns, AR-15 assault rifles, and pistols drawn and pointed at both patrons and employees. At least one patron was injured in the chaos near the entranceway when a deputy sheriff “stomped” on her leg. Once inside the club, the officers forced many patrons to the ground at gunpoint, and the deputy sheriffs may have used tasers on club patrons.

The behavior of the police in Ferguson, were it conducted by soldiers or Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan, would be viewed as violations of the Rules of Engagement and result in Court Martials.  The officers ordering this action would be relieved of command and either sanctioned or removed from the military. A Washington Post story quoted one veteran (a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst) who said “You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests. That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.” Another one said: “The first thing that went wrong was when the police showed up with K-9 units. The dogs played on racist imagery…it played the situation up and [the department] wasn’t cognizant of the imagery” (Gibbons-Neff, 2014).


[1]  As noted by Tighe and Brown (2015):  “An incident occurred in Cambridge, MD in 2005 whereby local SWAT teams, employing military-like tactics, entered two apartments in search of drugs.  Andrew Cornish was shot in the face and forehead for brandishing a knife – still in its sheath.  Although a federal jury awarded Mr. Cornish’s father $250,000 the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury’s ruling thereby supporting both the law enforcement agency’s militaristic methods and the outcome of the incident – one dead citizen and the seizure of a small amount of marijuana” (referencing Balko, 2015). 




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---------- and L. J. Cubellis (1997). Militarizing Mayberry and beyond: Making sense  of American paramilitary policing. Justice Quarterly14: 607-629.  

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Whitehead, J. (2013).  A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.  New York: Select Books.