To Protect and Serve: The Militarization of Police

Police militarization—the adoption of military practices by civilian police—is charged with breeding hostility and distrust between police and communities, as well as enabling the violation of individual rights. This panel examined the effects of increasingly militarized police tactics, gear, and mindset on public safety, the rule of law, and the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police.

Kara Dansky, founder of One Thousand Arms and former senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Justice began by breaking down police militarization into weapons, tactics, and culture. She noted the federal government’s provision of U.S. military weapons once used to fight terrorism abroad to local police departments through its 1033 program, and pointed to grants by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that enable law enforcement to purchase military equipment from private manufacturers. The result, she said, has been deep mistrust between police and communities.

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, noted the increasing prevalence of SWAT teams, which he says are now present in small-town America and are often called on for routine activities, like executing search warrants. He also pointed to the overall increased militarization of local departments. Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, argued that police militarization in local departments is highly situational and dependent on the culture of particular departments.

Peter Kraska, chair of graduate studies and research at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, explained the “synergy” that occurs between civilian police and the military, noting that a large percentage of local departments train with active-duty Navy SEALs and Army Ranger units. He also addressed the monetary incentive that helped make police militarization so prevalent: namely, civil asset forfeiture.

The Charles Koch Institute’s vice president of research Will Ruger moderated the panel and closed the session by considering the importance of having philosophers and political scientists contribute to the conversation.

The panel also identified one of the primary obstacles to achieving policing reform: collecting data from resistant law enforcement agencies and ensuring that local governing bodies have the ability to reject the flow of military weapons to their communities. To learn more about supporting these research needs, please visit the Charles Koch Foundation’s Request for Proposals page.

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