What is a Militarized Police Force?

Militarized police confront civilians

The militarization of police relates to the use of military equipment and tactics by law enforcement officers. The equipment may include assault rifles, armored vehicles, submachine guns, flashbang grenades, sniper rifles, tear gas, and items from the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) weapons list.

Police militarization uses information gathering techniques used by intelligence agencies. Law enforcement will often focus on certain members of the public. Peter Kraska, professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, defines the militarization of police as “the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.”

1033 Program

In 1997, the National Defense Authorization Act created the 1033 Program. The program permits the transfer of military surplus to law enforcement agencies.  Since 1990, 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have received $6 billion in military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Civilians, law enforcement agencies, and advocacy groups have strong opinions on giving police weapons of war. Agencies like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Cato Institute speak out against the practice stating it causes violence. The Fraternal Order of Police supports the law. They saying that the equipment increases the safety of officers. It also helps them to protect the public and first responders.

However, a 2017 study reported that police forces using military equipment were more likely to have violent encounters with the public.

Banned and Restricted Items

In 2015, President Barack Obama reviewed the 1033 Program with the aim of restricting certain items from being transferred to non-military agencies. Obama’s team drafted a “prohibited equipment list,” outlining items that could no longer be transferred to law enforcement agencies because there is “substantial risk of misusing or overusing these items, which are seen as militaristic in nature.”

The banned list includes:

  • Bayonets
  • Firearms and ammo .50 caliber or higher
  • Grenade launchers
  • Tracked armored vehicles
  • Weaponized aircraft, vessels, and vehicles

The team also created a “controlled equipment list,” restricting specific items. Police departments can obtain the items on the list, but they have to show the need and that they had been properly trained.

The restricted list includes:

  • Explosives
  • Riot shields and helmets
  • Specialized firearms and ammunition
  • Wheeled armored vehicles

Pros and Cons

The pros and cons of having a militarized police force may lie in the eye of the beholder. Records show that riots and other acts of civil unrest have been stopped sooner due to the presence of a heavily armed police force. If the police hadn’t been well armed, more people may have been injured or fatally wounded. Other reports show incidents wherein police have used excessive force, injuring or killing people when it wasn’t necessary.

War on Police

Some say that police militarization is necessary to fight a “war on police.” Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton have all said that there is a war on cops, and that police must be able to defend themselves.

Examples of Police Militarization

MOVE Bombing

In 1985, Philadelphia police tried to serve arrest warrants at a house used by MOVE black liberation activists. Police said that the group members shot at them, starting a gunfight. Police Commissioner Sambor gave orders to bomb the house. Philadelphia Police Lt. Frank Powell dropped two one-pound bombs on the building, causing a several explosions. A fire started and spread to nearby buildings. The fire destroyed 65 houses and killed eleven people including five children.

Ruby Ridge

In 1992, an eleven-day siege took place at Ruby Ridge Naples, Idaho. Randy Weaver, his family and friend Kevin Harris hid from government agents. Weaver resisted arrest by agents from the United States Marshals Service (USMS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team (FBI HRT). Weaver was wanted on a bench warrant for failing to appear in court on weapons charges. A shootout took place between the Weaver clan and six U.S. Marshals. Deaths included Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan, age 42, Sammy Weaver, age 14, and Weaver’s family dog, Striker. A second siege was led by the HRT, killing Weaver’s wife Vicki, age 43. Negotiators ended the standoff.

Branch Davidian Siege

The siege at the Branch Davidian compound took place near Waco, Texas from February 28 to April 19, 1993. Law enforcement suspected the Branch Davidians of having illegal weapons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) went to the house with a search warrant and arrest warrants for Koresh and some of the group’s members. A gunfight started between the two groups when ATF officers tried to serve the warrants. The fight killed four agents and six members of the group. The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) stepped in and a 51-day standoff began. The HRT threw tear gas into the compound. A fire broke out and 76 people died, including leader David Koresh.

Current Policy

The 1033 Program is active, limiting items that police are allowed to have under law. In 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced removing the restrictions stating that the Trump Administration would not “put superficial concerns above public safety.”