New Video on History of Police Militarization

Several years ago, my coauthor Chris Coyne and I wrote a paper titled, “The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing.” Although we’ve since written on a variety of other topics, I frequently field questions on this paper and its themes.

It’s hardly a mystery why. Over the past three decades, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams or Police Paramilitary Units (PPUs) units have become prevalent throughout U.S. in cities and towns of all sizes. It’s estimated that about 20 percent of small town police departments employed a SWAT team or PPU in the mid-1980s. By the year 2000, almost 90 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more people had some kind of PPU. Now, around 80 percent of small town police departments have a SWAT team. Criminologist Peter Kraska estimates that approximately 3,000 SWAT deployments occurred annually in 1980. By the early 2000s, SWAT teams were deployed about 45,000 times a year. Current estimates place the number of SWAT deployments as high as 80,000 annually.

Although prominent, SWAT raids are hardly the only example of police behaving more like an occupying military force instead of peacekeepers. Back in the late 1990s, the Seattle police shot protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas outside a WTO Conference. Police used similar methods to disperse protestors in Oakland, California during the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations in 2011. Most recently following the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, and Eric Garner, protests were all met with tear gas, smoke bombs, curfews, armored personnel carriers, and police with high-powered weapons.

How is it that police have become militarized? What’s caused us to go from “protect and serve” to “comply or die?”

In a new video with Learn Liberty, I try to provide the answers to some of these questions and provide a framework for thinking about police militarization. Are there solutions to this problem? If so, where do we begin?

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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