This work examines the blurring distinctions between the police and military institutions and between war and law enforcement. In this article, the author asserts that understanding this blur, and the associated organizing concepts militarization and militarism, are essential for accurately analyzing the changing nature of security, and the activity of policing, in the late-modern era of the 21st century.
Simplicity is comforting. Modernity's basic dichotomies such as fact/value, private/public, and national/international simplify our thinking and lull us into intellectual complacency. Police academics in the United States, with only a few exceptions, have been quite comfortable with the military/police dichotomy. The US military handles external security through the threat and practice of war. The civilian police handle internal security through the enforcement of federal and local laws. Most assume that studying the police and military is a mutually exclusive undertaking. Taking this dichotomy for granted is understandable given that the clear demarcation between the police and military has been considered a preeminent feature of the modern nation-state (Giddens, 1985). The failure of a government to clearly demarcate the two is usually seen as an indicator of repressiveness and lack of democracy.
My research and writing has been challenging this dichotomy since the late 1980s. Its central thesis has remained steadfast, and may be viewed at this point in history as an obvious point to the keenly observant: we have been witnesses to a little noticed but nonetheless momentous historical change–the traditional distinctions between military/police, war/law enforcement, and internal/external security are rapidly blurring. Over the past 15 years, I have researched and traced the evolution of two interrelated trends that embody this blur: the militarization of US police and crime control, and the police-ization of the US military. Empirical indicators of these converging trends include the following:
the significant erosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act by the United States, which previous to the early 1980s prohibited the military involvement in internal security or police matters, except under the most extreme circumstances, leading to an unprecedented level of US armed forces' involvement in internal security matters;
the advent of an unprecedented cooperative relationship between the US military and US civilian police at both the highest and lowest level of organization, including technology transfers, massive military weapons transfers, information sharing between the military and police targeted at domestic security, a close operational relationship in both drug control and terrorism control efforts, and a high level of cross-training in the area of special weapons and tactics team (SWAT) and counter-civil disturbance, counterinsurgency, and antiterrorism exercises;
the steep growth and normalization of police special operations units (e.g. SWAT teams) that are modelled after (not identical to) elite military special operations groups;
a growing tendency by the police and other segments of the criminal justice system to rely on the military/war model for formulating crime/drug/terrorism control rationale and operations; and
a redefining of criminality to ‘insurgency,’ and crime control to ‘low-intensity conflict’—requiring counter-insurgency measures carried out by both the US military and civilian police.
This article submits that understanding this blur, and the associated organizing concepts militarization and militarism, are essential for accurately analyzing the changing nature of security, and the activity of policing, in the late-modern era of the 21st century. Police leaders, in particular, will have to be increasingly cognizant and wary of the implications and potential consequences of this convergence, and the attendant social forces of militarism and militarization. The aim of this article, then, is to expose and sensitize the reader to what we might call a martial theoretical orientation. The idea here is to employ this orientation as a type of conceptual lens, or interpretive construct, which when peered through, will help us assess and accurately make sense of current trends in the police institution, the activity of policing, crime control, and warfare.
The militarism/militarization conceptual lens applied to the police
The concepts in which I have centered the bulk of my work are ‘militarization’ and ‘militarism.’ Despite these terms' pejorative undertones for some, they are most often used in academe as rigorous organizing concepts that help us to think more clearly about the influence war and the military model have on different aspects of society.
Assessing whether a civilian police force, for example, is becoming ‘militarized’ should not be viewed as an antipolice or an antimilitary pursuit. Evaluating police militarization is a credible and important endeavor, and it can be accomplished through empirical evidence and rigorous scholarship. Of course, the integrity of this endeavor hinges on the clarity of our concepts.
Militarism, in its most basic sense, is an ideology focused on the best means to solve problems. It is a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions that stress the use of force and threat of violence as the most appropriate and efficacious means to solve problems. It emphasizes the exercise of military power, hardware, organization, operations, and technology as its primary problem-solving tools. Militarization is the implementation of the ideology, militarism. It is the process of arming, organizing, planning, training for, threatening, and sometimes implementing violent conflict. To militarize means adopting and applying the central elements of the military model to an organization or particular situation.
Police militarization, therefore, is simply the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model. As seen in Figure 1, four dimensions of the military model provide us with tangible indicators of police militarization:
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 war-making/restoration (e.g. weed and seed).
It should be obvious that the police since their inception have been to some extent ‘militarized.’ After all, the foundation of military and police power is the same—the state sanctioned capacity to use physical force to accomplish their respective objectives (external and internal security) (discussed further in Kraska, 1994). Therefore, the real concern when discerning police militarization is one of degree—or put differently, the extent to which a civilian police body is militarized.
Police militarization, in all countries and across any time in history, must be conceived of as the degree or extent of militarization. Any assertion that the police are or are not militarized is simply misguided. This is a nuance easily overlooked by police analysts who react defensively to using these organizing concepts (Kraska, 1999). They reason that because a police paramilitary squad such as a US SWAT team retains key attributes of civilian police—for example not being allowed to indiscriminately kill—the concepts of ‘militarization’ or ‘militarism’ do not apply. This encourages a one-dimensional conceptual lens which sees police as either being militarized or not. The point here is that any analysis of militarization among civilian police has to focus on where the civilian police fall on the continuum—culturally, organizationally, operationally, and materially—and in what direction they are currently headed (Kraska, 1999).
It is worth noting that beyond the police, militarism and militarization can operate as powerful theoretical lenses to make sense of many issues and trends in society—particularly those societies such as the United States that place a premium on military superiority. In fact, many analysts see these as dominant influences in foreign policy and increasingly domestic policies when it comes to issues of security.
For example, the US government has been rapidly redefining what constitutes a threat to national security by turning its gaze inward, thereby militarizing to a significant degree its domestic security efforts (referred to as the ‘national security syndrome’) (Sherry, 1985; Klare, 1980). Scholars such as Tonry (2004); Christie (2000) and Ericson and Carriere (1994) have illuminated the role that martial rhetoric has major role in this process—focusing specifically on the militarization of US domestic crime-control initiatives (and increasingly in other countries as well). Metaphors such as the war on drugs, crime, and terrorism play a powerful role in the construction of reality: they shape discursive practices, clarify values and understanding, and guide problem-solving processes. Framing the crime, terrorism, and drug problems using militaristic language, thus, will likely result in thoughts and actions which correspond with the war/military paradigm (Kraska, 2001).
Another useful insight came from Dwight D. Eisenhower's (retired US Army general and former US President) thinking about the growing influence of the military paradigm. He dedicated his farewell speech to warning against the growing influence of militarism in US society. He coined the phrase, ‘military-industrial-complex’ (M.I.C.) in an attempt to raise the public consciousness about the undue influence of militarization in US society. Contemporary militarization in his view benefited not the public good, but politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations; a charge often heard today from those critical of the US-led war against Iraq. Similarly, several academics have argued that the crime-control enterprise operates as an analogous industrial complex—complete with political, governmental, and private-growth pressures (Christie, 2000; others found in Kraska, 2004). This essay raises the distinct possibility that we are witnesses to a growing overlap between military and criminal justice complexes.
Detailing the police/military blur
A large body of literature documents the extent to which US police agencies have recently relied more heavily on the military model for various functions (Kraska, 2001; Maguire and King, 2004). A less well-developed literature has attempted to extend this thesis internationally (Lutterbeck, 2004; McCulloch, 2004). Likewise, both academic scholars and leading military analysts recognize the growing law-enforcement role and function of the US armed forces (Dunlap, 2001; Haggerty and Ericson, 2001; Dunn, 2001; Kraska, 2001; Zimmerman, 2005). The following, therefore, is a brief review of some of this work and its thinking.
Militarizing American police
I began inquiring into the contemporary role the military model has on the US police when conducting a 2-year long ethnography of multijurisdictional SWAT teams (Kraska, 1996). Spending hundreds of hours training and going on actual deployments, I learned a great deal about police paramilitary units (PPUs) at the ground level, and especially police paramilitary culture. I first learned that PPUs derive their appearance, tactics, operations, weaponry, and culture to a significant extent from military special operations units (e.g. Navy Seals). (It is important to reiterate that PPUs are only closely modeled after these teams—clearly there are also key differences between a PPU and a military special operations unit—this is why they are referred to as police para military.)
With BDUs, heavy weaponry, training in hostage rescue, dynamic entries into fortified buildings, and some of the latest military technology, it became clear that these squads of officers fall significantly further down the militarization continuum—culturally, organizationally, operationally, and materially—than the traditional, lone cop-on-the-beat or road-patrol officer.
I also learned that the paramilitary culture associated with SWAT teams is highly appealing to a certain segment of civilian police (certainly not all civilian police). As with special operations soldiers in the military, members of these units saw themselves as the elite police involved in real crime fighting and danger. A large network of for-profit training, weapons, and equipment suppliers heavily promotes paramilitary culture at police shows, in police magazine advertisements, and in training programs sponsored by gun manufacturers such as Smith and Wesson and Heckler and Koch. The ‘military special operations’ culture—characterized by a distinct techno-warrior garb, heavy weaponry, sophisticated technology, hypermasculinity, and dangerous function—was nothing less than intoxicating for its participants.
I most importantly learned that my micro-level experience might have been indicative of a much larger phenomenon. I decided to test empirically my ground-level observations by conducting two independently funded national-level surveys. These surveys of both large and small police agencies yielded definitive data documenting the militarization of a significant component of the US police (Kraska and Kappeler, 1997; Kraska and Cubellis, 1997). This militarization was evidenced by a precipitous rise and mainstreaming of PPUs. As of the late 1990s, about 89% of police departments in the United States serving populations of 50,000 people or more had a PPU, almost double of what existed in the mid-1980s. Their growth in smaller jurisdictions (agencies serving between 25 and 50,000 people) was even more pronounced. Currently, about 80% of small town agencies have a PPU; in the mid-1980s only 20% had them.
While formation of teams is an important indicator of growth, these trends would mean little if these teams were relatively inactive. This was not the case. There has been more than a 1,400 increase in the total number of police paramilitary deployments, or callouts, between 1980 and 2000. Today, an estimated 45,000 SWAT-team deployments are conducted yearly among those departments surveyed; in the early 1980s there was an average of about 3,000 (Kraska, 2001). The trend-line demonstrated that this growth began during the drug war of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These figures would mean little if this increase in teams and deployments was due to an increase in PPUs traditional and essential function—a reactive deployment of high-risk specialists for particularly dangerous events already in progress, such as hostage, sniper, or terrorist situations. Instead, more than 80% of these deployments were for proactive drug raids, specifically no-knock and quick-knock dynamic entries into private residences, searching for contraband (drugs, guns, and money). This pattern of SWAT teams primarily engaged in surprise contraband raids held true for the largest as well as the smallest communities. PPUs had changed from being a periphery and strictly reactive component of police departments to a proactive force actively engaged in fighting the drug war.
As further evidence, a surprisingly high percentage of police agencies also deployed their teams to do routine patrol work in crime ‘hot spots;’ a strong indicator of PPU normalization. In fact, a number of US police departments are currently purchasing, through homeland security funding, military armored personnel carriers (APCs), some of which are being used for aggressive, proactive patrol work. The Pittsburg police department, for example, purchased a $250,000 APC using homeland security grant money (Deitch, 2007). It is being used to conduct ‘street sweeps’ in high-crime neighborhoods. The personnel involved are SWAT officers outfitted with full police paramilitary garb and weaponry.
No-knock/quick-knock SWAT raids
What exactly is a no-knock or quick-knock raid? In essence, they constitute a proactive contraband raid. The purpose of these raids is generally to collect evidence (usually, drugs, guns, and/or money) from inside a private residence. This means that they are essentially a crude form of drug investigation.
A surprise ‘dynamic entry’ into a private residence creates conditions that place the citizens and police in an extremely volatile position necessitating extraordinary measures. These include conducting searches often during the predawn hours, usually in black military BDUs, hoods, and military helmets; a rapid entry into the residence using specialized battering rams or entry explosives; the occasional use of flash-bang grenades designed to temporarily disorient the occupants; a frantic room-by-room search of the entire residence where all occupants are expected to immediately comply with officers' urgent demands to get into the prone position; and handcuffing all occupants. If a citizen does not comply immediately more extreme measures are taken—these situations may involve nonlethal and lethal weaponry. Finally, the police aggressively search the entire residence for contraband.
I receive at least two phone calls per week from journalists, lawyers, or police departments reporting a new botched raid, generally where a citizen has been killed under highly questionable circumstances. I have recorded more than 275 instances of seriously botched SWAT raids on private residences. Botched PPU raids often devastate the communities and police departments involved, sometimes resulting in disbanded SWAT teams, laws being passed prohibiting or curtailing no-knock deployments, and expensive litigation judgments (Balko, 2006).
I received a call while writing this article that involved a US Army Green Beret soldier—suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and despondent because he had just heard he was being redeployed to Iraq for the third time—who had been killed by a SWAT team under highly questionable circumstances. The state attorney general's investigation of this botched raid concluded,
The tactics adopted by the Maryland State Police EST [SWAT team] can be best considered as progressively assaultive and militaristic in nature …. This office is not unaware of the mounting criticism throughout our nation over the use of paramilitary units employing overly aggressive tactics against our civilian population. As State's Attorney, I can think of no greater threat to the good relations existing in out community as it relates to police/citizen relations than to witness the unbridled use of overly aggressive tactics by a faceless and shadowy paramilitary police unit …. (Fritz, 2007:12,15)
Only 20 years ago, forced investigative searches of private residences, using the military special operations model employed during hostage rescues, were almost unheard of and would have been considered an extreme and unacceptable police tactic. It is critical to recognize that these are not forced reaction situations necessitating use of force specialists; instead they are the result of police departments choosing to use an extreme and highly dangerous tactic, not for terrorists or hostage-takers, but for small-time drug possessors and dealers. Attempting to control the crime problem by conducting tens of thousands of paramilitary style raids on private residences is strong evidence that the US police, and the ‘war on crime’ in general, have moved significantly down the militarization continuum.
Of course, a militarized response is sometimes necessary and even unavoidable if done in self-defense or to protect lives in imminent danger. The crisis situation at Columbine High School is a solid example of the necessity of having a professional, paramilitarized response to a preexisting crisis. The bulk of US SWAT activity (no-knock/quick-knock raids and aggressive patrol work), however, constitutes a proactive approach. Numerous departments are choosing, based on political pressures, to generate on their own initiative high-risk events.
A central critique of this trend, therefore, does not focus on SWAT's traditional and vital reactive function. It instead concentrates on the inappropriate manner in which its function has been essentially turned on its head—normalizing itself into a range of proactive and mainstream police functions such as contraband raids. This is a strong example of the potentiality of the misplaced application of the military model in civilian policing.
Militarized policing versus community policing?
Interestingly the rise and normalization of PPUs occurred simultaneously with the community policing (CP) ‘revolution.’ These two trends—one representing militarization and the other democratization—seem to contradict one another. One obvious explanation for this incongruity might be that militarization flourished as a backstage phenomenon, operating as a form of resistance, or corrective, to the immense political pressures put on the American police to adopt CP reforms. This view would be consistent with criminal justice theories put forward by academics such as Garland (2001) and O'Malley (1999). They posit that in our late-modern era of declining state sovereignty and conflicting ideologies, we can expect to see these types of incongruities and incoherence in police rationales and policies. The militarization/democratization paradox is a sign of the late-modern state attempting to regain its legitimacy and power in a confused and incoherent manner.
While plausible, this explanation does not hold up to ground-level research evidence (DeMichelle and Kraska, 2001). Survey research and in-depth interviews with US police administrators revealed little incoherence between the expanding role and function of SWAT teams and CP reform efforts. When asked about the relationship, the following comment from a SWAT commander was typical:
We conduct a lot of saturation patrol. We do terry stops and aggressive field interviews. These tactics are successful as long as the pressure stays on relentlessly. The key to our success is that we're an elite crime fighting team that's not bogged down in the regular bureaucracy. We focus on quality of life issues like illegal parking, loud music, bums, troubles. We have the freedom to stay in a hot area and clean it up—particularly gangs. Our tactical team works nicely with our department's emphasis on community policing
Another quote from a police chief of a self-proclaimed CP department parroted the strategic mission of the US federal CP program known as ‘Weed and Seed.’
The only people that are going to be able to deal with these problems (drugs, guns, gangs, and community disorder) are highly trained tactical teams with the proper equipment to go into a neighborhood and clear the neighborhood and hold it; allowing community policing and problem oriented policing officers to come in and start turning the neighborhood around.
For these comments to make sense, we must remember that two competing strands of CP were evident within this reform movement. Police reformers such as Louis Radelet and Robert Trojanowicz promoted the first strand. It emphasized community empowerment, cultivating constructive relationships with disenfranchised minority groups, and establishing partnerships between the public and police. In this strand of CP, the end goal was for the community to police their own communities.
The second strand was touted by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. It focused on creating a climate of order in the community through highly proactive police work. The police were to aggressively police the neighborhoods they took ownership and pride in—eliminating those signs of disorder (broken windows), which acted to breakdown community controls. This strand of CP has in many instances transformed into a zero-tolerance policing model, where the police strictly enforce all infractions of law and order using an array of aggressive tactics such as street sweeps, proactive enforcement of not just the law but community order, and a proliferation of drug raids on private residences.
Police administrators using SWAT teams to aggressively patrol hotspots and conduct investigatory drug raids viewed this as wholly consistent with Wilson and Kelling's vision. These police agencies are integrating a military-model approach—occupy, suppress through force, and restore the affected territory—with second strand CP ideology, which emphasizes taking back the neighborhood, creating a climate of order, and aggressively enforcing minor law and order infractions; all in an effort to cultivate healthier communities. Consistent with the quote from the chief of police above, militarized police units and tactics do the weeding, thereby providing the opportunity for other programs to seed the community. (This of course is similar to the tact taken by the US military in the Iraq conflict).
Viewing these developments through the lenses of militarism and militarization demonstrates that despite efforts to do away with the military-professional approach of the mid-1900s, the specter of the military model still haunts the real world of contemporary policing. Militarism is obviously an enduring and flexible presence that can adapt to changing external forces. We should also note the remarkable ability of police practitioners to maneuver through the tensions and pressures of external influences. It is not uncommon for them to have to amalgamate seemingly contradictory messages so that their real-world thinking and practice exhibit a level of coherence and harmony that makes sense to them.
Police-icizing the American military
That the US military is currently operating more as a police force than a military one should be obvious to those familiar with the postinvasion conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulk of its security work involves routine patrol operations, house-to-house searches (including no-knock contraband raids), and arresting law breakers. Its ‘rules of engagement’ (use of force policies) are more similar to police work than they are for warfare. Serious questions have been raised about the extent to which military soldiers trained for traditional warfare are capable of effectively enforcing domestic peace in a foreign land. As many security analysts predicted (and some strongly advocated for), the line between war and law enforcement efforts has blurred considerably. In conducting operations known in military circles as ‘low-intensity conflict,’ distinctions between police and military mean little.
What is less known is the long history—predating the terrorist event of 9/11—of the US military's mission of creeping into functions traditionally viewed as the purview of police (Dunlap, 2001). Elsewhere I have documented the history of the US military's high level of involvement, both abroad and domestically, in drug control efforts beginning in the mid-to-late 1980s (Kraska, 1993). This was an unprecedented shift in the role and function of the US military—an attempt to make the military more ‘socially useful’ by engaging in drug control efforts. Military officials initially resisted this change until it was clear that the post-Cold War era would provide few justifications for continued funding.
By 11 September 2001, then, the stage was thoroughly prepared for a rapid acceleration of the military-police blur. The mission sprint of the US military into law-enforcement functions involved entirely new levels of cooperation and collaboration between civilian police and the armed forces, and the military has become a central player in a host of homeland security and war-on-terror initiatives. With little objection or discussion, the US Congress passed legislation that established the military as a central feature of homeland security known as Northcom. Its most controversial role, besides establishing close operational and training ties with civilian police, is a surveillance and information program that is currently the largest federal domestic surveillance initiative outside of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Pincus, 2005).
Conclusion: martial trends and issues
The purpose of this article is to use the concepts of militarism and militarization to illuminate and make more accurate theoretical sense of some disquieting trends in contemporary police and policing. Before I conclude with some final observations, I want to concede upfront that the positive virtues the military model brings to the policing table have not been discussed. As I have written elsewhere:
The debate on paramilitary policing in the British literature illustrates clearly that normative concerns play a central role in assessing its desirability (Jefferson, 1990; Reiner, 1992). This issue involves heartfelt beliefs, values, and morals. To many people, even among academics, the military model represents constraint, discipline, honor, control, competence, and a type of patriotism. To others it stands for tyranny, state violence, human rights abuses, war, and an ideology which sees social problems as being best-handled through state force (Kraska and Cubellis, 1997:627).
Please note that my analysis does leave room for the military model in policing (e.g. the original and essential reactive function of SWAT teams). This is unavoidable given that the foundation of police and military power is the same—the ability to threaten and use force, lethal if necessary, to accomplish State objectives. It would be foolish to take an either-or position. However, the cautionary tone is justified if we keep in mind the importance of what has been and should be a central tenet of democratic policing: strive to keep the police as far left on the militarization continuum as possible.
Whether these two converging trends outlined—the militarization of police and the police-ization of the military—are alarming to the reader or encouraging, they are real. We are in the midst of a historic transformation—one that both police practitioners and academics should acknowledge and remain cognizant of. Attempting to control the crime problem by routinely conducting police special operations raids on people's private residences is strong evidence that the US police, and crime control efforts in general, have moved significantly down the militarization continuum. Moreover, the normalization of PPUs into routine police work, the patrol function, and in so-called ‘order enforcement campaigns,’ points to an enduring internal militarization not likely to recede anytime in the near future.
Of course, these developments were occurring previous to the 9/11 tragedy. Two recent wars, and the security crisis in Iraq, signal the dawn of a new era of serious armed conflict. The eerie stability provided by the Cold War and the specter of the Vietnam War has vanished. The on-going war on terrorism is accelerating dramatically the blurring distinction between the police and military, between internal and external security, and between war and law enforcement. Any broad-based academic analysis that relies heavily on these traditional demarcations will soon seem misplaced and obsolete.
In the midst of this perpetual war-footing, I think it is also plausible to assume that government officials entrusted to keep us secure from terrorism, will more readily gravitate toward the ideology of militarism—both for internal and external security threats—when problem-solving and administering justice. Processing crime, drug, and terrorism control through the filter of militarism will undoubtedly render a militarized response more appealing and likely.
A poignant example of this is the recent Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in the United States. The government's response to this disaster was far different than has been the norm for the past 50 years. Symbolic of the decline of the social welfare paradigm, and the ascendance of a militarized, governance model that revolves around crime and security, the central focus of the Department of Homeland Security (and its newly subsumed Federal Emergency Management Agency) was not humanitarian relief, but instead a massive security operation that included police paramilitary squads, Blackwater-incorporated private soldiers, and the US National Guard. By all accounts, the fixation on crime and insecurity and the militarized deployment delayed and complicated the humanitarian relief effort considerably.
What impact will this have on the future of US police militarization? It could be that the war on terrorism provides such strong justification for the existence of PPUs that they may cut back on proactive functions, returning to their original status: reactive units that primarily train for the rare terrorist or hostage incident. While I would welcome this development, I think we will still be left with the problem of the regular police—operating in the context of a society that places a high level of emphasis on militarism—being increasingly seduced by the trappings of paramilitary subculture. Paramilitarism could exert even a stronger influence on what the regular police decide on for uniforms (e.g. military BDUs), how they think, the weaponry and technology they employ, the organizational models they adopt (e.g. COMPSTAT), and the crime control solutions they devise. The CP reform movement's call for democratization may be increasingly drowned out by the drumbeats of high-technology militarization.
Whatever trajectory the future takes, keeping track of the movement of civilian police on the militarization continuum, and the extent to which the military becomes more enmeshed in police functions, will be increasingly important for our understanding of ‘policing’ in contemporary society.