This essay won first prize in the 2018 John Quincy Adams Society /TNI Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.
It appears prudent for the United States to reduce military involvement on foreign soil, in a number of regions, given eight hundred overseas bases and involvement in seventy-six nations . One critical area of military involvement rarely discussed however is American territory itself. Domestic police increasingly use the military’s hardware and orientations, and, as surveillance efforts merge, the military increasingly performs domestic law enforcement functions. These shifts prove dangerous, disproportionately harming marginalized groups and fracturing American communities. Our nation absolutely must challenge military involvement here on the homefront, as domestic policing steadily resembles theaters of war.
Police militarization is supported most tangibly from the arming of domestic agencies with excess military hardware through the “1033 Program.” Recently re-expanded by President Donald Trump, this program can include assault rifles, grenade launchers, explosives, even armored vehicles and aircraft. The Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) oversees 1033 which at one point followed the motto: “ from warfighter to crimefighter .” Per LESO, overall, 1033 has distributed $6.8 billion in military hardware to police. Most infamously at least five hundred police agencies have received bomb-resistant MRAP vehicles . This distribution began in the 1960s, when the anti-drug and anti-terror programs shifted the nature of police identity and operation in a more militaristic direction. Radley Balko’s 2013 article, Rise of the Warrior Cop , described the post–9/11 period as “opening the spigot” for federal Department of Defense support for domestic militarization efforts. For example, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, the leading source of federal justice funding , supports a wide range of program areas including courts, drug treatment and crime prevention. However grantees spent 64 percent of 2012–2013 funds on law enforcement, with hundreds of state and local agencies investing in weaponry, tactical vests and body armor. In addition, the Department of Justice offered 220 cities $114.6 million in grants to staff 800 law enforcement positions with post–9/11 veterans. The federal government has supplied the arms and incentives which facilitate this transition towards domestic militarization, thinning the line between the DoJ and the DoD.
Law enforcement gradually incorporates not only military weaponry, but also counterinsurgency doctrines and tactics. The late LAPD Chief and co-creator of SWAT teams, Daryl Gates , wrote in Chief: My Life in the LAPD: “we studied what a group of marines, based at the Naval Armory in Chavez Ravine, were doing. They shared with us their knowledge of counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare.” In the 1960s, SWAT developed as rapid response to violent racial and labor unrest. But now police increasingly use SWAT for nonviolent crimes ; a sample showed 80 percent served warrants, usually for drugs, with 65 percent yielding no evidence. SWAT raids have escalated from three thousand annually in the 1980s to what criminologist Peter Kraska estimates as many as eighty thousand annually . Such intense prevalence of paramilitary anti-drug raids is an increasingly dangerous trend that brings global conflicts homeward. The War on Drugs and War on Terror rhetoric now often merge into “narcoterrorism,” integrating domestic and foreign campaigns such that confronting the drug trade domestically appears an extension of foreign policy against groups like Mexican drug cartels, FARC, Shining Path, or Hezbollah. Organized crime expert Vanda Felbab-Brown’s 2011 speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, “Narcoterrorism and the Long Reach of U.S. Law Enforcement,” discussed foreign “narcoterrorism,” warning against “indiscriminate and uniform application of law enforcement,” and concluding that the “application of law enforcement without prioritization can indeed push criminal groups into an alliance with terrorist groups.” Intensive and unstrategic State repression may catalyze the “narcoterrorist” nexus rather than diminish it. We must not let military operations, whether anti-drug or anti-terror, bleed over onto American soil and create the very threats we seek to thwart.
Parallel to the rising military nature of police, the military increasingly assumes policing capacities and domestic surveillance operations. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) forbade the government from using the armed forces for most law enforcement functions, however, an ongoing integration of military and police surveillance and intelligence jeopardizes this. Interagency partnerships, called Fusion Centers, created between 2003–2007, pair state and local law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security and DoJ for intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination. Some Fusion Centers host active-duty military personnel, in ambiguous roles, and some use the U.S. Navy’s “Law Enforcement Information Exchange” system. And this trend escalates currently. The Trump administration seeks to deploy the military for border policing, in administrative and surveillance roles. Military personnel could not make direct detentions but would, however, use drones and watchtowers in conjunction with law enforcement. This will prove controversial and further builds up the American homeland as a theater of operations.
Whether the transformation of domestic agencies, or the expanded use of military as police, these trends painfully polarize American culture. Despite a longstanding trend of police being a safe profession, police nevertheless feel besieged. Recent decades have proven the safest for police , yet police unions frame these debates over weapons and tactics as life and death for officers on the ground. Comparing the defensiveness and “War on Police” mentality against previous generations’ thoughts on policing reveals the entrenchment of our current era. Policing’s zeitgeist has changed dramatically from when fictional 1960s sheriff Andy Taylor opined, “When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he's getting might really be fear. So I don’t carry a gun.” Modern police statements convey very different sentiments, and many Americans hold grave reservations about how law enforcement relates to the public.