The militarization of the police in the United States was arguably jump-started by the declaration of the war on drugs, and the funding streams and statutes that came with it. But as we regularly document on this website, the government’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 further catalyzed and entrenched police militarization in this country. Suddenly 'homeland security' was the most important government directive, and agencies at all levels wasted no time in radically reshaping their relationships to one another and to the public at large.
The effects of this transformation are increasingly well known, as Americans confront institutions like so-called 'fusion centers' and the explosion of FBI-police cooperation through Joint Terrorism Task Forces nationwide. But lesser known is that the directive to militarize and federalize state and local police departments came from the very top of the military itself.
A July 2002 Defense.gov news article describes then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s involvement with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which would go on to coordinate and fund police militarization and federalization efforts across the country:
The Defense Department welcomes the creation of a Homeland Security Department "as a partner that can bring together critical functions in a new and needed way," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Capitol Hill today.
The United States must respond to terrorism by employing all the instruments of national power — diplomatic, economic, military, financial, law enforcement, intelligence, and overt as well as covert activities, Rumsfeld told representatives. Defending America requires a two-pronged approach, he said.
The first is to combat terrorism abroad by attacking and destroying terrorist organizations with global reach and pressuring countries that harbor them.
"We all know it's not possible to defend in every place at every time against every conceivable method of attack," Rumsfeld said. Therefore, he continued, the United States "has no choice but to take the effort to the enemy."
The second approach is to establish the new department as President Bush has proposed. Rumsfeld said the new department would coordinate the efforts of federal, state and local agencies to provide for security at home.
The Defense Department's role in both crucial efforts, the defense secretary noted, differs in important ways.
"With respect to the war abroad," he said, "U.S. military forces, at the direction of the president, are charged with engaging enemy forces and governments that harbor them." The Defense Department often takes the lead in these types of operations while working closely with the State, Treasury and Justice and other departments as well as the intelligence community in these types of operations.
There are three circumstances under which the Defense Department would be involved in improving security at home.
In extraordinary circumstances, Rumsfeld said, the Defense Department would conduct such military missions as combat air patrols or maritime defense operations. " DoD would take the lead in defending people and the territory of our country, supported by other agencies. Plans for such contingencies would be coordinated as appropriate with the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security."
Eleven years later, it’s clear as day that Secretary Rumsfeld’s efforts to streamline military-civilian cooperation succeeded to great effect. But what has success meant for the relationship between the government and the governed? Now that we are more than a decade into his experiment, we need to grapple with the results.
Author Stephen Graham describes the shift:
[T]here’s been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards paramilitarized policing, using helicopter-style systems, using infrared sensing, using really, really heavy militarized weaponry. That’s been longstanding, fueled by the war on drugs and other sort of explicit campaigns. But more recently, there’s been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT companies to sell things like video surveillance systems, things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems, that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and elsewhere, as sort of a domestic policing technology. It’s basically a really big, booming market, particularly in a world where surveillance and security is being integrated into buildings, into cities, into transport systems, on the back of the war on terror.
Are enhanced military-law enforcement coordination and police militarization good for democracy? Are we better off as a nation because police departments have closer ties to the military and the federal law enforcement bureaucracies?
Graham doesn't think so:
[T]here’s a whole variety of corporations linked to university research departments, linked to large-scale data-mining companies, linked to companies like Raytheon, who most people know of as making missile systems. Increasingly, they run border surveillance systems for things like the airline security and so on, which is a big thing in Europe and North America. But the key point really here is that surveillance is being used to try and track activist groups, permanently sort of monitoring them, using video systems, using database systems, and to allow infiltration. These are very much seen as movements that need to be infiltrated.
Besides the dedication of resources and technological capacity for the monitoring of dissent at all levels of government, one byproduct of the trickle-down of state secrecy and security doctrine from the federal to the local level has been a loss of local control over police departments broadly speaking.
Donald Rumsfeld would probably say that this centralized control and augmented technical capacity at local departments — executed through funding and information sharing agreements — has a net positive effect on public safety, but that's far from certain. On the other hand, the dangers to democracy are real and growing.