Militarised policing: People’s rights under siege

In this fourth instalment in a series on police violence, New Frame looks at how the redesigning of civil policing has unleashed unbridled violence, especially on vulnerable groups.

The death of George Floyd in police hands has shed fresh light on policing culture, which globally is being styled on military doctrines and methods, often at the expense of civil rights and safety. The deadly “knee-to-neck” or “chokehold” manoeuvre that led to Floyd’s killing is a tactic right out of military handbooks and is, for instance, frequently used by Israeli soldiers on Palestinians.

Floyd was killed on 25 May after he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer, who knelt on the 46-year-old’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he lay gasping for air, repeatedly pleading, “I can’t breathe.” The fatal incident, which sparked widespread protests across the United States, had an eerie similarity with the killing of another African American, Byron Lee Williams, in August 2019. The 50-year-old died under similar circumstances after being held on the ground by two officers who knelt on his back before dragging him away. Williams also repeatedly told officers, “I can’t breathe.”

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The desperate cries of Floyd and Williams had echoed five years earlier when another African American, Eric Garner, was killed in a similar manner in New York City. Garner died after a police officer placed a chokehold on his neck. Garner also kept repeating, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” The use of the chokehold had been banned by the New York City Police Department since 1993, after it was deemed potentially lethal and unnecessary for restraining people. But following Garner’s death, the department revealed that between 2006 and 2010 it had received more than 200 chokehold complaints every year, despite the ban. Of these, about 63% were filed by black complainants and about 25% registered by people from a Hispanic background.

Cracking down hard

As thousands of protesters descended on different US cities in the wake of Floyd’s killing, marching against police violence and the institutional racism faced by the African-American community, US law enforcement agencies unleashed an aggressive response to the crackdown on demonstrations. They resorted to using rubber bullets, tear gas, flash bangs, stun grenades and beanbag rounds against protesters and Black Lives Matter activists. To intimidate campaigners, police officers donned military-style riot gear and brandished shields, batons and sophisticated guns. In some places, the police deployed military-grade heavy armoured vehicles for domination on the streets. Many cities looked like war zones as police violence and brutality towards protesters led to clashes.

This militarised police response in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests was neither surprising nor done for the first time. During the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, American law enforcement agencies patrolled in heavily armoured cars, especially in the black community neighbourhood, while wearing bulletproof vests and carrying automatic weapons. This is precisely what noted novelist and activist James Baldwin had elucidated decades earlier about the urban police functioning as “occupying forces” in black communities in his essay titled “A Report from Occupied Territory”.

23 October 2015: South African police officers move in a military formation as they open fire on students who were protesting against fee increases at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
23 October 2015: South African police officers move in a military formation as they open fire on students who were protesting against fee increases at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

Critical race and policing scholars have long argued that, for decades, the police’s militarisation has been a feature of US law enforcement through which the state exercises social control over racial minorities. According to collaborative research project Mapping Police Violence, officers in the US killed 1 098 people in 2019. Black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by the police, despite being 1.3 times less likely to be armed.

The militarisation of the police in the US has been done primarily by arming police forces to the teeth with military-grade weapons, technology and training. This militarised policing culture always prioritises the use of violent tactics and non-negotiable force over mediation and peaceful conflict resolution, according to Peter B Kraska, a leading scholar on police and criminal justice militarisation at the school of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Police militarisation, he says, is the process in which law enforcement agencies adopt and apply the central elements of the military model to organise and increase their arsenal of weapons and equipment to be deployed in an array of situations.

Scholars have also attributed the militarisation trend to a response to the “neoliberal” restructuring of law enforcement that included the promotion of new management styles, privatisation, deregulation, outsourcing of operations, reliance on information technology and data analysis. This privatisation and deregulation, when combined with increased criminal violence or terrorism, encouraged militarisation and a “warfare mentality” among the police force.

A violent history

Police militarisation in the US dates back to the 1960s, when then president Lyndon B Johnson declared a “war on crime” under which the government began funding police departments to buy military equipment to combat crime. Using a similar battle cry, president Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the 1970s, asserting that drugs were “public enemy number one”.

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Under this campaign, the Nixon administration increased funding for drug-control agencies, proposed strict measures such as mandatory prison sentencing and created a special police force – the Drug Enforcement Administration – to target illegal drug use and smuggling. But the American establishment later acknowledged using this campaign to target the “anti-war” Left activists and the black community, many of whom were either killed or incarcerated. 

US President Donald Trump has attempted to use similar language to discredit the ongoing protests. “The violence and vandalism is being led by Antifa [anti-fascist activists] and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorising the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings,” Trump retorted.

In 1989, the US Congress authorised the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments in what eventually became known as the “1033 programme”. As per the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency, equipment worth an estimated $7.2 billion has been given away over the past couple of decades under this programme, including military-grade equipment ranging from semi-automatic assault rifles to 40-ton, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles built for American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

2 June 2020: Rana Hallak holds a photograph of her autistic son Iyad Hallak, 32, who was shot and killed by Israeli police in East Jerusalem's Old City on 30 May. (Photograph by Mostafa Alkharouf/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
2 June 2020: Rana Hallak holds a photograph of her autistic son Iyad Hallak, 32, who was shot and killed by Israeli police in East Jerusalem’s Old City on 30 May. (Photograph by Mostafa Alkharouf/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, this police militarisation expanded further as the US government poured billions of dollars in funding and equipment into police departments under president George Bush’s “war on terror” campaign, turning the police forces from law enforcement agencies into frontline shock troops. Barack Obama, the first black president in US history, had restricted the 1033 programme in 2015, following criticism that police forces had been too heavy-handed in their response to the Ferguson protests. But in 2017, Trump issued an executive order reversing the restrictions.

A 2017 study revealed that the receipt of military equipment by law enforcement agencies leads to an increase in the number of civilians killed by their officers. In August 2016, the US Department of Justice published a report that documented “widespread constitutional violations, discriminatory enforcement and culture of retaliation” within the Baltimore Police Department. It also revealed that the police received training on crowd control, use of force and surveillance from Israel’s national police, military and intelligence services.

A global trend

The normalisation of militarised policing in the US has raised concerns that a new, heavy-handed policing strategy is being used in similar ways elsewhere in the world and that it is eroding public opinion towards law enforcement. Over the years, many countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America have increasingly sought to redesign their law enforcement agencies in the military culture and adopt the weapons, attire, tactics and organisational structures developed for theatres of war.

Many nations are increasingly perceiving their internal and external security as being interlinked. They are increasing the role of the military in internal security and are training the police to take on external threats. For instance, Sweden created a civil security directorate at the Ministry of Defence, while Denmark moved its crisis management agency from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Defence.

18 August 2014: Officers on a militarised police vehicle in Ferguson, Missouri, as protests continued over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Photograph by Bilgin Sasmaz/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)
18 August 2014: Officers on a militarised police vehicle in Ferguson, Missouri, as protests continued over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Photograph by Bilgin Sasmaz/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)

Countries such as the Netherlands, Britain and Italy have expanded their use of stun guns, which have resulted in deaths. According to British government statistics, police officers in the UK discharged tasers 2 700 times between April 2018 and March 2019. The data also showed that black people were more likely than white people to have stun guns used on them.

France recently announced it would test stun guns for wider use in crowd control, adding to the ranks of other European law enforcement agencies that have adopted the weapon. French police have been accused of unleashing brutal violence against protesters. “The militarisation of French policing strategy is not a new phenomenon; it was on full display during the 2005 banlieus riots and Muslims and other marginalised groups have long received disproportionate harassment by authorities,” notes Peter Matjašič, a senior programme officer for the Open Society Initiative for Europe, a group that promotes civic discourse.

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Mexico has for years used both its paramilitary and federal police forces to crack down on drug cartels and illegal drug smuggling, which has blurred the lines between the police and army. Brazil has followed suit and been held up as an example of a military police that went too far to crack down on gang violence. In South Asian states such as India, Kashmir and Pakistan, police forces have been actively involved in counterinsurgency operations or trained as rapid-action forces – therefore trained and nurtured along the lines of militaries, most often functioning under legal impunity from persecution.

Despite the militarisation of the police being a global phenomenon, much of the focus has largely remained on US law enforcement for its scale and impact. “Compared to some Middle Eastern countries, China, Russia, Turkey, our police are hopefully not as aggressive towards citizens,” Jennifer Earl, who studies police and protests at the University of Arizona, told The Washington Post, adding that the US police are much more militarised than other Western countries and follow a more aggressive policing style.

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