By Kimberly Rolle


In the summer of 2020, from Minnesota to London, a global protest movement erupted in response to incidents of racial profiling and police brutality against Black Americans. As illustrated by Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama in 1965, the Kent State Massacre in 1970, the MOVE Bombing in Philadelphia in 1985, Ferguson in 2014, and the many more countless deaths of Black people at the hands of police, this form of violence and discrimination is not new to the United States. But what has steadily evolved over time is the militarization of both federal and local law enforcement, from the increasing use of military-grade equipment in police raids and protest response to the use of tactics borrowed from military operations abroad. This blog outlines some of the key programs and dynamics contributing to the militarization of US law enforcement and its impact on civilian harm.


Police Militarization Defined

In this post, we define police militarization as the influence of military equipment, tactics, and mindset on domestic law enforcement. This phenomenon exists in at least three distinct areas:

  1. Transfer of military equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies;
  2. Regular flow of personnel from the military to local law enforcement agencies; and
  3. Adoption of military tactics by law enforcement.

A recent paper published by Brown University scholar Jessica Katzenstein notes that while militarization has always been a feature of US law enforcement – starting as early as militarized slave patrols and colonial militias – the US response to 9/11 has significantly exacerbated police militarization. Although certain military attributes like discipline and a clear chain of command may contribute to improved accountability and professionalism in law enforcement, militarization also blurs the lines between military and law enforcement in ways that can increase the risk of civilian harm.


Key Factors Contributing to the Police Militarization Pipeline and Impacts on Civilians


Law enforcement agencies can purchase military grade equipment directly from private companies, a costly route for most departments whose funding comes from local taxes. As an alternative, several federal government programs allow the free transfer of military equipment to local agencies. These include:


Department of Defense 1033 Program: Created to support “War on Drugs” counter-drug and counter-terrorism policies in the 1990s, the 1033 Program allows federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to loan or purchase excess or obsolete military equipment and weaponry as well as office supplies. The program, administered by the Defense Logistics Agency in the Department of Defense, has provided equipment free of charge to 8,200 agencies throughout the United States in 49 states and 4 territories valued at approximately $7.4 billion.

The 1033 Program recently made headlines, as scenes of police in riot gear and tanks quelling protests during the 2020 George Floyd demonstrations led many to wonder why police appeared equipped for war and not protest, and how locally-funded agencies could afford military grade equipment. The 1033 Program is the most heavily criticized of the three equipment transfer programs. During a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into the 1033 Program in 2017, a fake law enforcement agency was able to obtain $1.2 million in equipment, including simulated rifles and simulated pipe bombs. Senator Brian Schatz proposed a failed amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to scrap the 1033 Program entirely; however, the Senate instead approved an amendment to codify the Obama administration’s policy of restricting the resale of tracked, armored vehicles and drones. Critics of the program suggest this measure is more symbolic than impactful, as the Department of Defense says it does not actually supply these particular items to local police agencies.


Department of Defense 1122 Program: Established by section 1122 of the 2014 NDAA, the 1122 Program allows local enforcement agencies to purchase new military equipment at the same discounted price enjoyed by federal agencies for the purposes of counter-drug, emergency response, and homeland security activities. Because the 1122 Program is not a grant or transfer program, it is not monitored for compliance.


Homeland Security Grant Program: This program consists of three grants administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program, intended to help local agencies prepare for and prevent terrorism incidents, can be used to purchase advanced equipment like helicopters, but not weapons. Funds from this program can also be used to transport 1033 Program equipment. The program provides $1 billion to law enforcement agencies annually.

Proponents of these equipment transfer programs often cite natural disasters or terrorism to justify the programs’ utility. However, these programs also militarize domestic law enforcement and have been shown to contribute to civilian harm. For example, a 2017 study found that, “when controlling for civilian demographics, violent crime rates, and rates of drug use, 1033 Program transfers correlated with increased police killings of civilians.” Military equipment has also played a prominent role in the excessive use of force by law enforcement in responses to civilian protests, as seen in Ferguson in 2014, Standing Rock in 2016, and the many racial justice protests of 2020; and has been used by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), contributing to the militarization of the US border and facilitating harsh immigration enforcement.



A significant number of military service members go on to domestic law enforcement upon leaving the military, a phenomenon that may contribute to police militarization through mindset, background, and training. For example, research by Jessica Katzenstein notes that approximately 19 to 28 percent of law enforcement officers are military veterans, while only about 7 percent of the general population in the United States has served in the military. CBP reports about one third of its force as military veterans. Oftentimes, law enforcement is seen as an attractive option for military veterans due to its familiar organizational structure and emphasis on discipline, which allows them to apply certain skills gained in the military. Law enforcement also actively recruits from the veteran population; for example, CBP’s website cites a “military community culture.”

The disproportionate number of former military service members in law enforcement can contribute to a militarized culture and mindset and present unique challenges to citizen-officer relations, in large part because the police and the military play different roles in American society. The military is tasked with using force to protect the homeland from foreign threats, while police are meant to serve as a civil force tasked with keeping communities safe. As a result, this personnel transfer may contribute to increased use of force and resulting harm by law enforcement. For example, a case study by the Marshall Project suggests that veterans working as law enforcement officers are more likely to discharge their weapons than non-veteran officers.


Mindset, Tactics, & Training

Militarized law enforcement responses are often characterized by a war mindset: to galvanize the public, political leaders often use war as a metaphor for the need to act on a domestic problem or issue, as seen in terms like “War on Drugs” and “Global War on Terror” – both of which coincided with policies that contributed significantly to the militarization of domestic law enforcement. Most recently, in calls with governors regarding responses to the 2020 George Floyd protests, then-acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper said governors must “dominate the battlespace” to quell protests, while the media compared the streets of DC to scenes from US counterinsurgency operations in places like Kabul and Baghdad.

Beyond militarized rhetoric, the adoption of military tactics and training by law enforcement agencies also contributes to increased militarization and civilian harm. These include:


Counterinsurgency Tactics: Dating back to the 19th century, modern counterinsurgency tactics were developed to combat guerilla warfare during the US occupation of the Philippines by dispatching small elite units, normally at night, to surround, search, and destroy combatants. Sociology Professor at The University of Chicago, Julian Go, details how search and destroy tactics from this period were adapted on indigenous populations, specifically the Sioux in the Great Plains region during the 1800s. Common tactics also included the surveillance of targeted communities and recruitment of informants.

Many modern police tactics have been adapted from foreign wars for domestic use. For example, former service members like Orlando Wilson, known as the father of law enforcement ethics, returned from enforcing martial law in Germany after World War II and wrote the most widely-used police administration textbook. After Wilson revolutionized the Chicago Police Department in the 1960s, his tactics played a key role in the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther and labor rights activist, by the Chicago police. Drugged by a police informant, Hampton was asleep with his pregnant girlfriend when the police raided his home and fired into the home 99 times, initially killing one person, before fatally shooting an already wounded Hampton inside his home. These continued to be common tactics utilized to dismantle civil rights and Black resistance organizations.

The adoption of counterinsurgency tactics in the form of small elite units, community surveillance, and confidential informants has resulted in a militarized approach, facilitated civilian harm by law enforcement, and contributed to the significant degradation of police-community relations.


SWAT Teams & No-Knock Raids: Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) police units, adapted from small unit tactics discussed above, have often been deployed to combat the “War on Drugs.” According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 62 percent of SWAT raids between 2011 to 2012 were drug raids, and 72 percent involved executing a search warrant. A component of these raids is often no-knock warrants, which allow law enforcement to enter a property without immediate notification of residents, for example by knocking. During such raids, units generally arrive heavily-armed (often through the 1033 and other programs discussed above) in armored personnel carriers – colloquially known as tanks – and enter homes using flash grenades to disorient occupants. As the ACLU notes, these raids are particularly dangerous because half of households in the United States own a gun. New York Times reporter Kevin Sacks estimates that, at minimum, 94 people, including two police officers, were killed in SWAT raids from 2010-2016. The actual number is unknowable since there is no national database for excessive use of force incidents.

The dangers of these raids made headlines most recently in the killing of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police gunfire during the execution of a botched SWAT search warrant. In another case in 2014, police in Cornelia, Georgia were searching for a suspect accused of buying $50 worth of drugs. In the resulting no-knock raid – executed in a home where the suspect did not live – the flash grenade set off by police landed in the crib of 19-month old Bounkham ‘Bou Bou’ Phonesavanh, creating a hole in the baby’s chest and injuring his face. Critics of no-knock raids also cite fourth amendment rights to be secure against unlawful search and seizure, which such raids may violate.


K-9 Units: Today, law enforcement uses canine (K-9) units for drug and bomb searches, captures of fleeing suspects, evidence location, and public relations initiatives. As Tyler D. Parry outlines in The Washington Post, the use of K-9s was first introduced in the American context to track, capture, and kill indigenous people in the Americas as early as the 1490s by Spanish colonizers, and later by “slave patrols” to track, capture, and sometimes kill people escaping enslavement throughout the American continents. K-9s were later used by the British military during World War II to search and find survivors in debris from German air raids, and by Nazi Germany to patrol Nazi concentration camps. The modern use of K-9 units for law enforcement was brought to the United States in 1954 by an ex-marine dog trainer in Dearborn Michigan and first deployed in Baltimore City in 1956.

Since canines cannot exercise judgement and are trained for maximum aggression, their use can endanger civilians and expose police departments to excessive use of force claims. A 2006 study by general surgeon Dr. Peter C. Meade found that police dog bites resulted in higher rates of hospitalization and surgery than domestic dog bites, and that the majority of police dog bite victims are Black and Hispanic. K-9 units have been involved in a number of recent incidents of excessive use of force and civilian harm, including attacks on Black protesters in California’s Bay Area this past summer, the 2019 killing by police of Elijah McClain in Colorado, and the August 2020 use of a K-9 against Jeffrey Ryans in an incident that led the Salt Lake City police to suspend its K-9 program.


Militarized Law Enforcement at the Federal Level

The law enforcement response to the racial justice protests of 2020 demonstrated the significant militarization of federal law enforcement responses in addition to the militarization of local police units. Notable examples include:

Use of the National Guard

During the summer of 2020, President Trump repeatedly threatened to send in the military to quell racial justice protests in some cities. During this time, 17,000 National Guard members were deployed in 24 jurisdictions to support local law enforcement responding to protests. The National Guard was involved in at least one lethal use of force incident and used to violently remove protests from Lafayette Square in Washington, DC using tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and batons. In a particularly egregious example of militarized law enforcement, the Guard also used a low-flying military helicopter to intimidate and disperse protesters, a technique borrowed from overseas counterinsurgency operations. Read CIVIC’s brief on the use of the National Guard in domestic public order management here.

Deputization of Federal Agents

Expanding on a 2002 authority initially used to help increase security on federal property (40 U.S.C. § 1315), then-acting DHS Secretary Wolf deputized federal law enforcement agents to patrol federal property in Portland, Oregon, where unidentifiable federal agents without name badges or insignia were accused of using excessive force and unlawfully detaining protesters. Wearing camouflage, gas masks, and tactical gear, and armed with flash and chemical smoke grenades, acoustic weapons, and other military-grade equipment, the agents’ response had the appearance of a military intervention. These agents were later identified as ICE, CBP, and US Federal Marshal Services agents. When asked, Secretary Wolf stated that DHS has the authority to pursue and arrest individuals that commit crimes on federal property even if suspects are no longer on federal grounds. However, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper expressed concerns that the militarized response may be confused with a military crackdown, and Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman noted in a press conference that “we want a system where people can tell the difference.”


CIVIC has condemned the US government’s militarized response to demonstrations and urged security forces responding to protests to protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, limit the use of force, and comply with international human rights standards. As CIVIC’s Executive Director Federico Borello has said, “Terms such as ‘battlespace’, ‘urban warfare’, and ‘insurrection’ have no place in a government’s policy for managing public safety during protests and demonstrations… The public is not an armed opposition group.” As an alternative, CIVIC calls on state and federal authorities to de-escalate and de-militarize law enforcement responses and engage with communities on their concerns and needs to ensure they receive the accountability and protection they deserve.

Image courtesy of Geoff Livingston