Features | Security

How America’s Wars in Asia Militarized the Police at Home

American empire and wars in the Far East contributed to the militarization of the U.S. police force.

By Alireza Ahmadi for
How America’s Wars in Asia Militarized the Police at Home

The troops of the First Regiment, the Philippine Constabulary, swear allegiance to the U.S. Flag

Credit: National Museum of the US Navy

The protests in the United States have sparked a debate about the militarization of American police forces. Much attention has been paid to the literal usage of military hardware because it is the most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. But there is a much deeper history that goes beyond just American police choosing to take on military garb and ride Armored Personnel Carriers: American military adventures abroad have long fueled a broader militarization that shapes norms, processes, mentalities, and the relationship between the local police and the citizenry.

There was a significant amount of concern in early America and up to the late 1800s about the prospect of the U.S. military being used as a means of controlling the public. The founding fathers were suspicious of the idea of a standing army, in part, for this reason. A number of laws including the Militia Acts passed in the decades following American independence and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 tried to limit the ability of the president to use the military in domestic circumstances.

That being said, scholars have been mapping the relationship between wars and the evolution of domestic policing for some time. Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall’s work on the matter is particularly informative. They posit that a “boomerang effect” contributes to the incorporation of intrusive and aggressive means used to subdue foreign populations in domestic civilian settings. Other scholars have looked at the impact of specific conflicts or the mindsets that govern police conduct.

The Domestic Legacy of the Philippines War

Despite the formal end of the Philippine War in 1902, American colonial rule faced an aggressive insurgency seeking independence. The insurgency in the Philippines against the U.S. occupation authority provided the opportunity to experiment with new concepts involving the use of military entities to pacify a civilian population. The U.S. military formed a constabulary manned primarily by sympathetic locals that blurred the line between police and military. Rather than having two distinct forces, one protecting the country from foreign threats and the other providing security services to the populace, the Philippine Constabulary (PC) was a hybrid of both, with a comfortable revolving door between it and various other military and policing structures.

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Many U.S. veterans who had been at the forefront of establishing these social control systems in the Philippines returned the United States after the war, where they sought work in local law enforcement and changed the structure of police departments, unleashing a torrent of militarization. These veterans, many of whom were involved with the PC, initially used the techniques they had mastered abroad to target out-groups like foreign workers or prostitutes. Over time, the success of these measures would open the door to a more widespread militarization of the police and a shift in organizational and cultural norms within police departments and public opinion shifted to accommodate it. As historian Alfred McCoy notes:

[T]he U.S. military, thrust into these crucibles of counterinsurgency, developed innovative methods of social control that had a decidedly negative impact on civil liberties back home. As the military plunged into a fifteen-year pacification campaign in the Philippines, its colonial security agencies fused domestic data management with foreign police techniques to forge a new weapon—a powerful intelligence apparatus that first contained and then crushed Filipino resistance. In the aftermath of this successful pacification, some of these clandestine innovations migrated homeward, silently and invisibly, to change the face of American internal security. … Empire thus proved mutually transformative in ways that have arguably damaged democracy in both the Philippines and the United States.

The notion that returning servicemen would seek employment in the civilian policing sector is not inherently harmful, but as Coyne and Hall explain, rather than these servicemen being mentored to adapt their skills for civilian service, they became agents of importation for military tactics — especially as they climbed the ranks of their respective departments:

[T]hese veterans significantly influenced the evolution of America’s police forces. August Vollmer, for example, incorporated military structure, technology, and techniques into the police departments of Berkeley and Los Angeles, California; worked as the head of national police organizations; and served as a consultant to a number of other police groups. Others like Jesse Garwood, known for their brutal tactics in the Philippines, returned to the United States and established constabularies modeled after the one created in the islands. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Bandholtz employed the psychological techniques he learned in the war against miners in West Virginia. Major General Smedley Butler used his wartime training in the battle against alcohol during national Prohibition, leading his team on an estimated five thousand raids.

“The Vietnam Special”

After World War II, these methods garnered new support because of the Soviet threat. In particular, the U.S. government sought “clean” torture techniques that leave no physical marks and the Vietnam War provided yet another laboratory for innovation. Much like after the Philippines War, returning soldiers joined local police departments and used the methods they had mastered in Vietnam, especially psychological abuse and electric shock, which, at least in one infamous case, was allegedly even called the “Vietnam special” by the perpetrators. The Cold War gave the U.S. government and local law enforcement a new impetus for militarization. It was not a war against a foreign army and involved many communist “enemies within” that could only be thwarted through a new kind of policing. During this time, the first SWAT team was founded by the Los Angeles Police Department with military veterans and based on counterinsurgency tactics refined in Vietnam and Korea. The SWAT concept then spread through the United States thanks to the War on Drugs.

Scholar Stuart Schrader argues that in the 1960s, ever-increasing police militarization at home against Black protesters was born out of America’s Cold War military expansion around the world. Stuart points as an example to the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, which was established in 1967 to prevent the kind of race-based riots that had plagued America during much of the preceding decade. It made a number of recommendations about socioeconomic investment into minority communities that fell on deaf ears. The part of the Commission’s final report that was converted into policy involved new federal investments in policing and prisons as well as bringing home American military policing lessons.

The Commission specifically referenced the wars being fought in newly freed colonies that had become the battlefield of the Cold War and said that “[w]e have found there are many principles and concepts which apply, whether it is [in] Asia, Africa, or South America. Perhaps those same principles would apply in the United States.” A direct ramification of this seems to have been the standardization of U.S. counterinsurgency methods in local police training. The constant conflation of civil rights protesters of the era with communist plots exacerbated this dynamic. As Schrader states:

New endowments for police training and equipment were the product of U.S. imperial governance, which during the Cold War conferred purpose, coherence, and political acumen on law-enforcement actors to expand their power and prestige back home. Racism, movements to counter it, and their repression have, of course, existed throughout U.S. history. … By the 1960s, professional policing did not possess two repertoires, one for deployment at home and one for deployment abroad. Rather, it possessed a single repertoire, which experts vigorously attempted to institute wherever they could.

War On …

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The War on Drugs also helped forge a permanent linkage connecting local law enforcement to the federal government. As localities relied heavily on federal funds for its drug- interdiction efforts, their law enforcement entities became increasingly enmeshed with the federal government and the military. The War on Terror created a new push for police militarization as the concept of sleeper cells in local communities provided the impetus for more aggressive policing. The PATRIOT Act created a new information-sharing program further bonding the local agencies to the federal government, and military-to-police arms and equipment transfers reached record highs. The result was the integration of police forces into a network topped by intelligence agencies and the Pentagon as well as the acquisition of military rifles, armored personnel carriers, and military surveillance systems by even small towns and rural counties for regular police work with the assistance of Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism grants.

Challenges like narcotics and terrorism create fertile ground for police militarization, especially as they include an “enemy within” component and are likely to continue in perpetuity. In these circumstances, the American people quickly turn to the “war on …” framing, built on the idea that civil institutions, like the police, which are restrained by the legal and constitutional accountability mechanism of a Madisonian Republic simply don’t suffice, and the far less accountable and far more lethal instruments of American global power projection must be utilized to control domestic “others.”

As far back as 2007, scholars warned that the “war on terrorism is accelerating dramatically the blurring distinction between the police and military, between internal and external security, and between war and law enforcement. Any broad-based academic analysis that relies heavily on these traditional demarcations will soon seem misplaced and obsolete.” In 2008, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism proudly announced, as a triumph, that “[w]e have broken old orthodoxies that once confined our counterterrorism efforts primarily to the criminal justice domain” and seem to speak of local law enforcement as junior partners of America’s military and intelligence organizations.

“A Higher Authority”

The escalating integration of local police with a military and security complex carries with it important ramifications that seem undervalued in the public discourse. The local police lost much of their autonomy and began framing their work through the priorities of the federal government rather than their own local communities. It helped to foster a “warrior cop” mindset in which the police are both at war within the communities they serve and autonomous from them. The words of Edward D. Mullen, president of a powerful New York Police Department union, on June 3, amid the protests, were a somewhat perfect encapsulation of this mentality. He told his union members that “we will soon win the war on New York City” and offered the Orwellian notion that they, as New York City police, “work for a higher authority.”

Exacerbating the lack of proper accountability is the American romanticization of its “warrior class” and what Arthur Schlesinger described as a fundamental lack of confidence when it comes to foreign affairs by the Congress, the media, and the general public being clearly observable on matters of domestic policing. Taken together, the result is inept oversight, where what oversight exists seems controlled or crafted by those being overseen. In 2015, then-FBI Director James Comey, in testimony before Congress, stated that police departments around the country simply do not report officer-involved shootings in any systemic way and even he could not inform Congress as to how many such shootings occurred.

This transformation has taken over a century to take hold and almost none of it necessarily requires wanton sinister intentions. Success in war, especially ones involving nation-building or subduing a local population, inherently requires a certain skill-set and a mentality to succeed that in time are viewed as best practices. Since the viewpoint of the invading country toward the occupied people is almost always framed as being positive, and the war effort itself is often publicly rationalized as being for their freedom and welfare, then bringing those skills home becomes somewhat natural.

Alireza Ahmadi is a scholar of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. His work has been published by the National Interest, The Hill and Al-Monitor. Follow Ahmadi on Twitter @AliAhmadi_Iran.