Skip to main content

Militarizing the U.S. Police

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Is it the Army? Nope, it's the Cops!

North Penn Tactical Response Team of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, practicing Cellular Team Tactics

North Penn Tactical Response Team of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, practicing Cellular Team Tactics

Shifting Revenue

Combine Homeland Security with the military-industrial complex and wars winding down and one result is the increased militarization of U.S police departments. As defense budget belt-tightening puts the squeeze on military contractors' profits, they are looking elsewhere for additional revenue. The Department of Homeland Security earmarks funds for local police departments that have plenty of strings attached-- basically, the funds must primarily be used to fight terrorism. Funds for ordinary police work have to come from somewhere else.

Use it or Lose it

Metropolitan Nashville Police Department vehicles.

Metropolitan Nashville Police Department vehicles.


The latest “must-haves” for police departments are drones. More than 250 applications have been approved for police to use drones in aerial surveillance, utilizing high-powered zoom lenses, infrared and ultra-violet imaging and other capabilities. This raises questions of privacy, which has been under continuous assault since 9/11. Even explanations of why the drones are being used or who is controlling them is withheld by the Department of Transportation.

The drones are just the latest addition to local police forces. Helmets, body armor, assault rifles, grenade launchers, bazookas, armored cars and trucks, tracked armored personnel carriers, helicopters mounted with 50-caliber machine guns and other military equipment have been added to police inventories. Most of this has occurred since 9/11, but it basically started with a 1991 law pushed by Reagan to allow the military to train and equip police departments in the so-called “War Against Drugs”.

Paul Craig Roberts, author, columnist and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Reagan said, “All of this is conscious and intentional. They are putting in place a method of controlling a population that may be unemployed, hungry or very angry and I think the state and local police are not just militarized, but they are being federalized.”

Some Are Gunships Now

NYPD helicopter patrolling New York City. 29 May 2008. Barretta .50 caliber machine guns have been mounted on some NYPD helicopters to shoot down terrorist aircraft.

NYPD helicopter patrolling New York City. 29 May 2008. Barretta .50 caliber machine guns have been mounted on some NYPD helicopters to shoot down terrorist aircraft.


Few would deny the police the ability to defend themselves or the tools to do their job but there are several problems with all this militarization. Police are not primarily trained in military tactics. Policing and military actions are two entirely different disciplines. To address this, police are now receiving that military training. There has been an explosion in SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams. Today, even towns with populations of 25,000 might have a SWAT team. Their original mandate was to handle special situations like hostage-taking and gun battles but they are now routinely used for drug busts and even just serving warrants. In some cases, officers walk their beat with assault rifles and black, full battle uniforms. While all this equipment is to fight terrorist attacks, it is being incorporated into more routine police work in what is termed “weapon inflation”. Hand in glove with the “weapon inflation” are the new powers granted by the PATRIOT act. From 2006 to 2009, delayed-notice search warrants-- “sneak-and-peaks”-- were used 15 times in terror investigations; they were used more than 1,600 times for drug investigations.

Ready for a Riot

Police in riot gear blocking a checkpoint into the parade route at Bush's 2nd inauguration, Washington DC. 20 January 2005

Police in riot gear blocking a checkpoint into the parade route at Bush's 2nd inauguration, Washington DC. 20 January 2005

Biggest Problem

The biggest problem arises when the police start acting more like soldiers, which all this equipment and training is facilitating. The military's job is to kill the enemy; police are charged with keeping the peace and protecting the rights of citizens. Other countries have different histories, but this distinction is why, more than 130 years ago, in 1878, the Posse Comitatus Act explicitly forbade the use of military in domestic policing. The law still stands but it doesn't address a police force that acts like a military force. As former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb said, "Soldiers are trained to vaporize, not Mirandize." An acting military force present in every village, town and city is a standing army and, George Mason, known as one of the fathers of the Bill of Rights, once said, “When once a standing army is established, in any country, the people lose their liberty.”

It will too late when, instead of “Protect and Serve” being emblazoned on the sides of cop cars, we see “Search and Destroy” on police armored assault vehicles.

Demo of Flying Robot Swarm

© 2012 David Hunt


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 11, 2012:

Thanks very much for commenting, suzette. I try to keep my articles uptodate as the news items break. Several others have been updated to reflect events: UK's Police Privatization, Texas Sherrif and use of drones, TSA searching people on buses and trains, etc. It doesn't look good for our freedoms-- so many people already take it as given that we can be spied on by our own government.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on August 11, 2012:

This is very interesting and informative. This militarization of the police forces here in the U.S. doesn't surprise me. We have slowly been losing our privacy rights since 9/11 - you are so correct about that. I've heard about the increasing use of drones by police forces over the years - I believe I heard it on NPR. We are probably going to wake up one day and find America is a police state - that would not surprise me a bit. Thanks for a relevant piece!

Scroll to Continue

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 14, 2012:

Thanks for your input LHwritings. If I haven't already, I'll check out your hub-- but I am sadly aware that any American in the US can now legally be whisked away and held indefinitely and without contact merely for being declared a terrorist suspect and the fact that Obama has said his administration wouldn't use this power has not one iota of meaning.

Lyndon Henry from Central Texas on April 14, 2012:


UnnamedHarald writes


...BOTH parties are part of the problem. I used to think the possibility of a police state in the US was the stuff of science fiction. I think we're well on our way.


I think the USA has actually already arrived. Irregular, authoritarian policies and procedures have now become routine and commonplace. Today, any one of us could be labeled a "terrorist" (under new, sweeping definitions) and confined indefinitely, with little judicial intervention or access to an attorney.

The renowned "progressive" civil liberties authority and law professor Jonathan Turley now labels the USA an "authoritarian" society:

The militarization of police forces (and I'd include in this the now widespread and routine use of "benign" weapons such as pepper sprays and tasers) clearly is an essential component of this pattern. For a broader political perspective, see my article:

HR 347, NDAA, SOPA — More "creep" toward a U.S. "police state"?

This provides links to additional articles corroborating and further examining this development.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 13, 2012:

Thanks for the comment GoGreenTips. I hope the Internet remains free, but that may be naïve of me.

Greg Johnson from Indianapolis on April 13, 2012:

Great article and people are starting to believe what many years ago was considered to be simply the rantings of a few conspiracy cooks. Unfortunately, it is too late. We're already in the snare.

Sooner28 on April 13, 2012:

NDAA and the Patriot Act were passed with bipartisan support! I honestly was fooled into believing that Obama would be different from Bush on the wars. Boy was I wrong!

Democrats are slightly better on domestic issues, but I am off track. Why doesn't the Supreme Court step in and say Guantanamo Bay is illegal? Or major portions of the Patriot Act? These bills are not even passed in private! They are in front of our own eyes, yet we do nothing to hold the politicians accountable.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 13, 2012:

Sooner28, I agree-- BOTH parties are part of the problem. I used to think the possibility of a police state in the US was the stuff of science fiction. I think we're well on our way. Thanks for reading and commenting.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 13, 2012:

Au fait, thank you very much for your comment and vote up. It's as if any kind of protest is being considered an attack anymore. It's scary what can happen when a vastly outnumbered, well-armed force is confronted by a mob of unarmed protesters.

Sooner28 on April 13, 2012:

The systematic installation of a police state is on it's way. Do you honestly believe that if a charismatic leader were to arouse the populace and awaken them from their slumber that they would last very long?

The Democrats and the Republicans both agree on one thing: keeping out third and fourth party challengers. The corporate state is attempting to control every aspect of society,from the government to the police. It's only a matter of time before the process is complete.

C E Clark from North Texas on April 13, 2012:

There have been cases here in Texas where (IMO) police over reacted. I don't think 3 burly huge police officers should require a stun gun to deal with a traffic ticket to a 68 year old grandmother who is only arguing with them, not threatening any kind of physical violence. What you're writing here suggests things are getting much worse and will continue to do so. Seems to me police already have an us versus them mindset.

Voting you UP and interesting.

Stinger13 from Texas on February 03, 2012:

There's an old saw "Give an infantryman a problem, he'll give you an infantry solution." If we continue to militarize the police (and I believe Harald to be correct in his perceptions) they will increasingly respond to situation in a military manner. Whether it's justified or not.

Lyndon Henry from Central Texas on February 03, 2012:

Perspycacious, I think it's important to understand that, by the logic of the new Newspeak that prevails in certain elevated circles, you can "support and defend" the Constitution by suspending it. They will merely argue that, to defend and "protect" it, they had to suspend it "temporarily" (I'm being generous here). For at least the past several decades now, what has emerged in some high enclaves, mainly within the government (although it's also favored by some corporate PR professionals too), is a process of PARSING language, including laws and Constitutional provisions, in a way to re-interpret the previously assumed meaning and basically turn it all upside down. And the judicial system, for one reason or another, is tending more and more to acquiesce to this.

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on February 03, 2012:

You mentioned Oliver North who never should have served on the committee considering suspension of the Constitution in times of national emergencies. Why? He took this oath as a military officer:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God." (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

Lyndon Henry from Central Texas on February 03, 2012:

Thanks for bringing attention to this alarming issue. I've voted this Up and Interesting.

I don't think the U.S. public in general realize how quickly this nation is becoming a police state (as you know, I raise this issue too in my article with a focus on the skyrocketing growth of America's prison population).

American police forces are stocking up on military hardware at a sickening rate — and this includes the formidable new "Star Wars" weaponry such as shotgun tasers, microwave energy blasters, blinding laser beam cannons, and deafening sonic blasters. Another excellent article I'd recommend can be found here:

This weaponry seems primarily intended for "crowd control" — which includes trying to suppress actions from labor strikes to mass protests to mass uprisings. These, I think, will begin occurring more frequently as the economic system continues to deteriorate, and the wealthy elite at the top seek to safeguard their assets and "maintain order" (all for our own "protection", of course).

I think these police measures will be aimed primarily at working people, the poor, and "progressive" groups, and I believe it's important to be aware of these weapons and to figure out effective countermeasures. Your article certainly helps in spreading awareness.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 01, 2012:

thejeffriestube, I guess it's a matter of finding a balance between giving the police the tools to do the job without turning them into a local military force. Thanks for your comment.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 01, 2012:

I appreciate your comment and your perspective, Perspycacious. It is a nasty place out there and it is tragic when a policeman's wife is turned into a widow. There are also mistakes made like the man who was mistaken for someone else and had 60 bullets pumped into him. Police work is tough-- and dangerous-- but I don't think it's a good idea to turn the police into soldiers.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 01, 2012:

Thanks, ThoughtSandwiches. Glad you liked it. I seem to remember something about a plan involving martial law. I'll have to look into REX-84.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 01, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, phdast7. I didn't know about the drones either until I started doing some research.

Dave from United States on February 01, 2012:

It's probably better to have police go up against well-armed terrorists with just a sidearm or tazer, right? Or better yet, let the Cessna full of explosives crash into a retirement home or city power plant, when a police helicopter could identify and neutralize the threat. I'm not saying that some ideas are a bit overboard, like the use of drones, but I DO NOT advocate sending hard-working cops in harm's way without the tools to do the job. This isn't Utopia; it's reality.

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on February 01, 2012:

We just had 1 officer killed and 5 officers badly wounded serving a single search warrant here in Utah. It is a war on the streets, and that widow and her children, and those families facing major medical bills are every bit the heroes our military veterans' families are. Drug gang members out practicing with bazookas shooting up cacti...get the picture?

ThoughtSandwiches from Reno, Nevada on February 01, 2012:

I was recalling the plan that emerged from the Iran-Contra Hearings of something called Readiness Exercise 84 (REX-84) that called for suspending the Constitution, martial law, and relocation of citizenry as needed. It was actually authored by Oliver North.

Your mention of the Reagan Administration's early role in this integration and militarization of police forces makes me think for something like REX-84 to work...they would need a militarized police force.

Excellent Article!


Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on February 01, 2012:

Very informative Hub. I knew things had changed substantially since 911, but I did not realize that some of these disturbing changes began in 1991 under President Reagan. I remember talk of his "War on Drugs" but I never thought about all the possible long-term ramifications.

I was aware that more and more communities were receiving SWAT training, but I had no idea that drones were being purchased. This is all quit disturbing. Good Hub. Thanks for keeping us informed. Will be sharing this others.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 22, 2012:

Thanks for the info, richfsr. I'll check it out.

richfsr on January 21, 2012:

I forget where the info was. It was way near the end of the Healthcare Bill. By that time (page 1300)I was getting delirious.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 21, 2012:

Interesting thought, richfsr. I'm not (yet) familiar with that reference. It's hard to separate the wheat from the chaffe in all the machinations going on.

richfsr on January 21, 2012:

There is an article in the new Obamacare bill that refers to a special domestic defense force better armed and trained than the United States Military. Wonder if this is the beginning of that program.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 21, 2012:

Hxprof, I agree completely. The police have a hard job but the trend bodes ill. The NDA bill regarding, basically, arrest and detention on the suspicion (or accusation?) that someone is involved with terrorism is chilling, regardless of reassurances that the administration won't do that. If that's the case, why have the law? And what about the next administration? Thanks for the comment.

Hxprof on January 21, 2012:

You're right on target questioning the militarizing of American police. Though I've no problem with a greater number of SWAT teams and their use, I do see a problem with the overall trend towards militarization.

Join that with the fusion centers, the overly powerful FEMA, the Patriot Act and the recent NDA bill and it's very clear that our government now has the power to arrest anyone it pleases under almost any pretense. We've lost our freedoms; we just don't know it yet.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 21, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, maxoxam41. My main concern is how this situation fits in with the constant erosion of freedoms and the Bill of Rights.

Deforest from USA on January 21, 2012:

Nice hub! It is rational to question the legitimacy in militarizing the police. It makes sense when we think of our future. They already know where we are heading, unemployment, hunger, anger. It means that the U.S. society won't recover and as a result we will arm ourselves!

Related Articles