The Militarization of American Police Has Long Historical Roots

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Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of "The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs" (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) and the forthcoming, "Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century" (Massachusetts).

The images of militarized police units organized in platoon formation pepper spraying and beating peaceful demonstrators at UC Davis and at the Occupy encampments across the country have been disturbing to witness, though they provide a potent symbol of the times.  While staffed with people from working-class backgrounds, the police in American society have long served as “protectors of privilege,” as Frank Donner put it in a 1990 book, upholding the power of the wealthy 1% by frequently crushing labor protest, spying on and harassing civil rights and antiwar activists, and enforcing the War on Drugs primarily in ghetto communities.

As much as racial profiling and brutality have been deeply rooted in the history of American police institutions, so has their militarization, owing in part to the influence of overseas police training programs.  Many police captains dating back to the Gilded Age and Progressive eras have been military veterans, ensuring that departments have been organized along hierarchical and military lines.  August Vollmer, the “father of modern law enforcement” who pioneered innovations such as fingerprinting, lie detector tests, and patrol cars as head of the Berkeley police force from 1905-1931, was himself a veteran of the Spanish-American/Philippines War.  Vollmer was liberal, allowing communists the right of assembly and prohibiting “third degree” methods of torture; however most of his contemporaries were not.  As Alfred W. McCoy documents in Policing America’s Empire, many police officials from the era served in the Philippines constabulary, which pioneered novel techniques of surveillance and social control that were reapplied domestically.  Lt. Col Harry Bandholz, who built up the Filipino secret service, was involved in crushing a coal miners’ strike in West Virginia, while Jesse Garwood, who offered bounties for cutting off enemy ears, helped set up the Pennsylvania state constabulary, known for suppressing strikes and “beating down foreigners.”  Ralph Van Deman, the “father of U.S. military intelligence” and of the “American blacklist,” meanwhile compiled thousands of dossiers on radical activists for the FBI.  According to McCoy, the constabulary veteran was “one of the giants of anticommunism, a super-hawk….a phobic nativist red-hunter” whose “undercover network penetrated not only the Communist Party but a whole spectrum of liberal targets, including religious, civil rights and labor organizations.”

The 1924 appointment of General Smedley Butler as chief of police in Philadelphia epitomized the militarization of American police institutions during the Progressive era.  Known for turning the Haitian Gendarmerie into a powerful colonial instrument, Butler cracked down on corruption, promoted use of high-speed cars and new radio technology, set up an iron ring of semi-military posts around the city, and followed what he called a “pound policy”–ordering his men, armed with sawed-off shotguns, to raid speakeasies and suspected bootlegging institutions suddenly and repeatedly if necessary.  During his tenure, police closed 2,566 speakeasies compared with only 220 in the preceding year.  Claiming the best way to stop crime was to shoot criminals and make jails unbearable, Butler was replaced after he stormed the Ritz-Carleton, shutting down a debutante ball.  One angry citizen compared him to a military dictator while another wrote that “military tactics which might do in Mexico and other places has no place in the administration of civil affairs.”

During the 1950s, the top policing textbook in the United States was written by Colonel Orlando W. Wilson, a protégé of August Vollmer who trained police in Germany to stabilize the post-World War II occupation.  The central argumentof his book was that police efficiency could be maximized through use of up-to date tactical equipment, scientific deployment of mobile, well-trained troops organized along a hierarchical military model, the installation of an advanced communications system, comprehensive record keeping and an ongoing public relations program.  Wilson applied these methods not only in Germany but also in Chicago, where he retired as head of the police just before the notorious beating of student demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

One of Wilson’s chief assistants in Germany, Willie Parker, ran the Los Angeles Police Department from 1950-1966, dying of a heart attack shortly after the brutal suppression of the Watts riots.  Subscribing to J. Edgar’s Hoover’s brand of theological anticommunism, Parker instilled boot camp style training in the LAPD’s academies, which were headed in the 1950s by Frank Walton, an intelligence officer with the Black Sheep Aviation Squadron in the Solomon Islands in World War II and a Marine Corps staff officer in Korea.  In the 1960s, Walton served as a police advisor for the Office of Public Safety (OPS) in South Vietnam, helping to run the Con Son island penitentiary where ‘Vietcong’ prisoners were abused in the infamous “Tiger Cages.”  He sanctioned a report stating that “reds who keep preaching the commie line” were “isolated in their cells for months” and “bolted to the floor or handcuffed to leg-irons,” causing many to become paralyzed.

Worldwide in scope, the OPS programs proved to be a watershed in spawning a formidable police-industrial complex.  A 1970 Pentagon report noted that the OPS was instrumental in “stimulating U.S. industry to develop new and improved police equipment” such as tear gas, munitions with a nine-year shelf life, a police baton with a marking dye feature, a riot helmet with a built in radio receiver, light-weight body armor that floats and communication devices operating on solar cells.  OPS Director Byron Engle testified before the Kerner commission on civilian disorders that “in working with the police in various countries we have acquired a great deal of experience in dealing with violence ranging from demonstrations and riots to guerrilla warfare.  Much of this experience may be useful in the U.S.”

These remarks demonstrate how the fighting of “subversives” overseas provided a model for police institutions to be applied domestically, with often terrible consequence.  In August 1969, after demonstrators for People’s Park in Berkeley, California were subjected to beatings and torture, the Sheriff in Alameda County tellingly stated:  “We have a bunch of young deputies back from Vietnam who tend to treat prisoners like Vietcong.”  The continuity in pattern is evident today, with many police officers still coming from military backgrounds, being trained along paramilitary lines in the use of advanced military technologies and developing what former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper characterized as a SWAT mentality, where all demonstrators are treated as enemies of the state.  Deeply at odds with democratic principles, this latter mentality has a long historical precedent that will be difficult though not impossible to transcend, particularly if vast numbers continue to come out and challenge the elite thrust for wealth and global power which lies at the root of society’s over-militarization.

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