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A long, powerful history: How we militarized the police

Policing in America has been shaped from its early days by a military structure, a war mentality and a cloud of racism that continues to repeat itself over time.

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raises many troubling questions, among them: How did we come to militarize the police? The answer reveals a powerful history that ties race, class, policing and the military together.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

The shared history goes back to the Reconstruction era. After the Civil War, federal troops were used to enforce civil rights and the Reconstruction in the South. But as a result of the disputed presidential election of 1876 between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden, Democrats conceded the electoral votes to Rutherford if federal troops were withdrawn from South.

Passage of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act ended Reconstruction and barred federal military personnel from enforcing the laws. The Act does not apply to the National Guard, and over time they have been deployed repeatedly to keep the peace. A couple of examples: The 1894 Pullman strike saw 12,000 federal troops deployed to break up a workers’ strike. In 1957 Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard to enforce integration in Little Rock.

Prior to the Civil War, only a few American cities had police. Post Civil War, policing grew along several fronts. There were the Pinkertons, who were created as private police to bust unions. In the South, police departments emerged to maintain order against the freed slaves. In the North, they grew to check immigrants and unions.

Early 20th-century reforms

Reformers such as August Vollmer in the beginning of the 20th century sought to professionalize the police by reforming its structure and organization along a military model of authority and hierarchy, creating uniforms and command structures that exist to this day.

Yet the modern militarization of police in America owes it origins to several events. First, reaction to the urban riots of the 1960s led to President Lyndon B. Johnson signing into law the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The Act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which made available grants to local governments to develop and purchase military-type resources to suppress the riots. The money facilitated the development of SWAT and other heavily armored police forces which had developed in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities to counteract so-called black insurgency.

Second, President Richard M. Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs and its reemphasis by President Ronald Reagan further enhanced the militarization of the police. It did so in its rhetoric — the war metaphor — sanctioning that a military-style response was needed to address drugs. But also underlying the war against drugs was a racial overtone — the urban riots of the 1960s and drug usage were often associated with blacks. This was seen later as punishment differentials between drugs such as crack and cocaine more heavily punished racial minorities than whites. American prisons and jails incarcerate far more people of color than whites for drugs.

Civil forfeitures

Third, the war on drugs encouraged the police use of civil forfeitures. This was the confiscating of property of convicted and sometimes suspected drug dealers. The theory was it would take the profit out of crime and prevent drug dealers from using their money to enrich their businesses. Civil forfeiture was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1996; it gave local police departments the money to be able to purchase even more military equipment from the Pentagon.

Finally, the events of 9-11 and reaction to it led to the collapse of the distinction between criminal policing, intelligence gathering and protection of national security. Laws such as the Patriot Act effectively turned the police into agents in the war against terror, again providing both a war metaphor to support aggressive policing and, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, new resources and funds to fight that fight with military-style weapons.

Thus, policing in America has been shaped from its early days by a military structure, a war mentality and a cloud of racism that continues to repeat itself over time with racial profiling, the death penalty and shootings like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The only surprise is the degree of press and visibility it has received. Hundreds if not more Michael Browns have existed, and the question now is what America will learn from this latest tragedy.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by richard owens on 08/27/2014 - 10:04 am.

    Thank you for the history lesson!

    I think your story ends without a nod to the latest and potentially most powerful enhancement of local police power.

    Internet enabled policing can not only run a license plate, but yield huge amounts of quasi-private data on anyone, without much check or balance for probably cause or even a record of the “data” surveillance.

    IT at the police car level empowers LE officers at a whole new level, as do GPS and cell-phone tools.

    After seeing the events in Ferguson and a glimpse of some of the less-than-perfect officers on the beat, one wonders if we can expect individuals to “use the force only for good…”

    Private databases have been built by departments around the country, and in some cases are illegal. But somebody needs to enforce that “legality” too.

    I think we are just scraping the surface of what powers may be deployed in the name of Law Enforcement.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 08/27/2014 - 10:21 am.

    and then again…

    I would only add to your fine historical chronology that a duo military was called out at Little Rock Arkansas 1957…the 101st Airborne, 327th was called out to control expected riots. All black soldiers of the 327th were not allowed to enforce crowd control and left in the tent camp outside the city limits; by whose order we never knew.

    …and it was the great journalist Eric Sevareid, son of North Dakota prairies who was once asked about his European tour, “Was that the first time you saw the face of fascism?’
    “No”, said Sevareid, “I first saw the face of fascism on the streets of Minneapolis in 1934 when workers were striking for better working conditions…and the heads of those companies hired thugs to beat up and shoot workers and the Minneapolis finest boys-in-blue stood by and cheered.”

    Add another at the Republican convention before the last elections…twas St Paul’s finest and a few small town imports who created a swat team atmosphere with militarism its bedfellow, yes indeed.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/27/2014 - 12:40 pm.

    In 1967, National Guard troops were stationed on Plymouth…

    …Avenue on the North side, having been ordered in by Gov. LeVander at the request of Mpls Mayor Art Naftalin, in hopes of quelling disturbances in a “long, hot summer”. I think there were 200 – 300 troops, approximately, and then extra police, too. It was quite a show of force at Plymouth and Penn.

    I drove taxicab and took customers past the dozens of troops, so I saw it with my own eyes. It was scary, but…

    This was nothing compared with the jack-booted, black-garbed, automated-weapons-toting “security” force in St. Paul during the Republican Convention, mentioned above. You know, they might need to gun down all those terrorists hiding around every corner and under every bed.

    Add to that the buzzing of security force helicopters through our two downtowns in the last couple weeks, lights off. You know, in case massive force is needed to be applied to the civilians.

    Now, THESE are a clear declaration: “You now live in a police state. Get used to it.” This is a far cry from what happened in 1967, a completely different dynamic.

    The Merchants of Fear are winning. No one has the power to stop them.

  4. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 08/27/2014 - 07:48 pm.


    The public continues to sleep through the militarization of the police and the loss of individual rights. Most recently the Patriot Act and National Defense Authorization Act. It has been open season on the freedoms and liberty that many have thought they have.

    The Michael Brown incident is in fact not symptomatic of racial inequality but the use of deadly force far too often. In the Brown case we have no clear evidence of what provoked the use of deadly force, but in many cases we do. Often it is far too easy to justify.

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