Main Menu
Who Are We
Contact Us
The Militarization of the Police PDF Print E-mail

The Militarization of the Police

by Frank Morales

[police; military; Diallo; MOVE; NYPD; FATS]

In the early morning of February 5, 1999, Amadou Diallo, 22, was killed in a hail of bullets in the vestibule of his apartment in the Bronx. He was shot by four white officers of the New York City Police Department's plainclothes Street Crime Unit, who later claimed they were searching for a suspect in the vicinity, and they feared Diallo had a weapon. He did not. Diallo, who had come to New York from Guinea two years before, was struck by 19 of the 41 shots fired at him and died on the way to the hospital.

      Within two days of the shooting, a thousand people gathered in front of his apartment house, the first of a stream of protest gatherings. After nearly two months of demonstrations, including the arrest of 1,166 people in nearly daily incidents of civil disobedience in front of police headquarters at One Police Plaza, the officers were all indicted by a Bronx Grand Jury on charges including a count of second degree murder, which alleges that the officers intended to kill Mr. Diallo. If convicted, they could face 25 years to life. 

      Other investigations of the shooting have begun, including a federal Justice Department civil rights inquiry involving the Street Crime Unit. In the aftermath of Diallo killing, the Unit has come under vigorous media scrutiny. Reports have documented the Street Crime Unit's violations of the rights of innocent, mostly non-white, people, particularly by unjustified searches. While the press covered the protests,1 most media voices, generally friendly to the administration, have supported the Mayor's "right or wrong" defense of the police, stressing the overall drop in crime along with a purported decrease in police shootings. These reports concede merely an over-reaction, and justify the shooting, despite the 41 shots. The implication is that "aggressive policing" is a price worth paying for a better "quality of life." But is it? A number of reports confirm that across America police killings are up. In 1990, 62 people died at the hands of the police, while in the first nine months of 1998 the number had grown to 205, an annual increase of more than 230 percent.2

Police Killings on the Rise

There is little record-keeping of police homicides, like the nameless graves at Potters Field. According to Amnesty International, "since 1994, the federal government has been legally required to collect national data on police use of excessive force, but Congress has failed to provide the funding necessary for it to do so.... Disturbingly, there are no accurate, national data on the number of people fatally shot or injured by police officers."3 Those who insist that police killings have decreased over the last twenty years rely upon Deadly Force: What We Know, a 1992 publication of the Police Executive Research Foundation, which is not only biased, but sorely out of date. In fact, Amnesty International reports that after a low of 14 police killings in 1987, "the number of police shootings in NYC started to rise again from the late 1980s onward, a trend seen also in some other major cities. In 1990, 41 civilians were shot dead by NYC police officers, the highest number since the mid-1970s." There has been no letup since then. Amnesty also noted that "a disproportionate number of people shot in apparently non-threatening or questionable circumstances in New York City are racial minorities."4 Concurrently, since 1980, there has been a 500 percent growth in the activities of police paramilitary SWAT-type units across the country.5

The Commandos of the NYPD

What some laud as aggressive police work, and others call police brutality, has become a major political issue, not only in New York City, where it is threatening to undo Mayor Giuliani's bid for higher office. What both critics and defenders of the police fail to probe is the background of the Street Crime Unit. Is it a peculiarly New York City phenomenon, or is it typical of urban policing nationwide? The Street Crime Unit has operational, political, and ideological roots that need to be understood if all the pious talk about better police-community relations is to have any meaning. The concepts of "aggressive policing" and "quality of life," and the relationship between them, must be subjected to a more probing analysis than it has received.

      Members of the NYPD's Street Crime Unit are known as "the commandos of the NYPD."6 In existence since 1971, the unit has undergone a 300 percent build-up since 1997. Former NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton encouraged the men to "become far more aggressive."7 Currently made up of roughly 400 mostly white officers, this unit, along with the 7,000 strong Narcotics Unit, represent the front line in Mayor Giuliani's "quality of life" crackdown on-and criminalization of-people of color, especially young, poor, and homeless people. They wear (and peddle) tee shirts that say: "Certainly There Is No Hunting Like the Hunting of Men." And their slogan is, "We own the night."

      According to police data, the unit's activity "has in the last two years resulted in 45,000 street searches to net fewer than 10,000 arrests."8 Nearly all of those stopped by police were people of color. But New York State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, who has launched a civil rights investigation into the "stop and frisk" practices of the Street Crime Unit, "said the unit may have searched hundreds of thousands of people in the last two years without finding any basis for arresting them."9 In fact, the New York Times reported, "half the gun arrests made by the Street Crime Unit in the last two years were thrown out of court."10

Federal Aid

Meanwhile, federal government efforts are now aiming to provide the unit with the latest in "hunting" technology. The Clinton administration extended the police/military connection by mandating that the Department of Defense and its associated private industries form a partnership with the Department of Justice to "engage the crime war with the same resolve they fought the Cold War." The program, entitled, "Technology Transfer From Defense: Concealed Weapons Detection,"11 calls for the transfer of military technology to domestic police organizations to better fight "crime." Previously, direct "transfers" of this sort were made only to friendly foreign governments.12 This latest directive from the Clinton administration ensures the formalization of direct militarization of the police.

      Speaking to members of the defense, intelligence, and industrial communities in November 1993, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno contrasted the victory over the Soviet Union to the "war against crime." "So let me welcome you," she informed her guests, "to the kind of war our police fight every day. And let me challenge you to turn your skills that served us so well in the Cold War to helping us with the war we're now fighting daily in the streets of our towns and cities across the nation."13

      Shortly after this challenge was issued, the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense entered a five-year partnership to formalize joint technology sharing and development efforts for law enforcement and those military operations unrelated to war.14 Stated areas of "shared" law enforcement technology include "devices to detect concealed weapons," including unobtrusive scanners,15 to avoid "Fourth Amendment limitations" against unreasonable searches. Another shared technology is in the area of "virtual reality training, simulation, and mission planning.16

A History of Brutality

Historical instances of collaboration between the police and the military reveal not only the operational aspects of such "transfers," but political and ideological ones as well. The current NYPD Street Crime Unit, along with the former Civic Affairs Unit in Philadelphia, active in the targeting of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal for his spirited and informed defense of MOVE (see sidebar), grew out of the anti-radical "red squads" of the sixties. These police units, laden with the most dedicated and brutal white supremacists, adapted, over time and changing circumstances, their hatred of radicals to a hatred of "druggies and criminal perpetrators."

      This change coincided with the broader criminalization of protest, the boom in drug busts, and the ideological and practical dehumanization of certain people, especially Blacks (as in the promotion of books like The Bell Curve, the move to "workfare" neo-slavery, the depiction of Black and Latino youth as born into a violent "underclass," etc.). Thus, by the 1980s, "the police were confronted with charges of brutality in the treatment of Blacks, but not in a context of racial or political protest."17 Organizations like the Street Crime and Narcotics Units are the spearhead of politicized police departments and carry on the strategies of yesterday's "red squad" war on radicals. In addition, these police units have become, and remain, the chief beneficiaries of generous military largesse. Throughout the seventies, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration facilitated these military "transfers" through the creation of entities like Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units which were modeled on the U.S. military's Special Forces.

      In the 1970s, the NYPD's Bureau of Special Services (BOSS) functioned in this role. It "bore a distinction akin to that of the Green Berets."18 Seeing themselves in a "war for survival," BOSS targeted the Black and Latino liberation movements in NYC as "part of a trade-off to appease elements in the police that threatened self-help and vigilantism unless punitive courtroom measures were taken against the ghetto militants"19 Hardline police factions like the Law Enforcement Group orchestrated a 1968 mob attack on a Brooklyn courtroom demanding the removal of the judge hearing a case involving three members of the Black Panther Party. When Mayor Giuliani told a rally of police officers on the steps of City Hall some years ago during the Dinkins administration, "I love the New York City Police Department," Black and Latino politicians were roughed up.

      In December 1997, two former NYPD undercover detectives told the story of one of the most secretive units within the Police Department. The unit, which functioned as a "Black Desk" beginning in the mid-1980s, "aimed at investigating dissident Black groups and their leaders." The unit worked out of the Protective Research Unit, which was in the Public Security Section of the NYPD's Intelligence Division, headed at the time by Deputy Chief Robert Burke. Black groups that were targeted included the Patrice Lumumba Coalition and the December 12th Coalition, then known as the New York 8. "Historically, the department's political surveillance unit has held some of the NYPD's most closely guarded secrets. It was nicknamed the Red Squad, because it had investigated supposed Communists and political activists in the McCarthy era. In the 1960s, the unit, known as the Bureau of Special Investigations, turned its attention to Malcolm X and later to the Black Panthers...."  These units were, and continue to be, outfitted with the latest in surveillance ("stealth") and weapons technology.20

      The recent upsurge in popular resistance to incidents like the Diallo shooting has spawned much debate on the problem of a runaway militarized police. Soon after the shooting, NYC Police Commissioner Howard Safir ordered the commander of the Street Crime Unit to have daily discussions with his officers about the use of firearms. Patrick E. Kelleher, first deputy commissioner, said at a news conference that "what we are doing is taking a close look at our training procedures and ways police officers communicate among each other in enforcement situations."21 Mayor Giuliani, for his part, "set aside $15 million for sensitivity training for officers.22 The Mayor and his Police Commissioner popped into Harlem's 32nd Precinct one recent morning touting their wallet-sized politeness cue cards. "The police officers listened politely, in a way that members of paramilitary organizations are obliged to listen."23

      One often hears of the need to "sensitize" the police, presumably by making them feel at home in the ghetto. Discussion of issues regarding police training usually assume some form of humanistic behavior modification. The assumption is that the few bad apples need only to read a manual or two and talk to a counselor. In fact, the police have been trained to kill. The only role psychiatric behavior modification is playing is to assist in the brainwashing required to create a killer through conditioning, cultivating in the officer a near instinctual reaction to a programmed stimulus, and a "manufactured contempt" for the "perp." Ron Hampton, a retired police officer and executive director of the National Black Police Association, told Amnesty International in 1988 that "in a training video, every criminal portrayed is Black."24


One of the most interesting illustrations of the evolution of local police forces toward "paramilitarization" is the success of Firearms Training Systems, Inc. (FATS), which, since 1984, has specialized in customized firearms training and psychological conditioning of police forces in the U.S. and foreign military organizations, including the armies of Singapore and Italy, the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, and the BATF, FBI, and LAPD.25

      The military's involvement in domestic law enforcement is subsumed under doctrines entitled Operations Other Than War (OOTW) and Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), along with divisions known as Military Support to Law Enforcement Agencies (MSLEA) and Military Support to Civil Authorities (MSCA) divisions. In addition, there is much overlap within current U.S. military doctrine and planning for domestic "civil disturbance." For example, a 1994 DoD directive states that "military resources may be employed in support of civilian law enforcement operations in the 50 States, the District of Columbia,  the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories and possessions only in the parameters of the Constitution and laws of the United States and the authority of the President and the Secretary of Defense, including delegations of that authority through this Directive or other means."26

      A recent scholarly journal notes:

The military and the police comprise the state's primary use-of-force entities, the foundation of its coercive power. A close ideological and operational alliance between these two entities in handling domestic social problems usually is associated with repressive governments. Although such an alliance is not normally associated with countries like the United States, reacting to certain social problems by blurring the distinction between the military and the police may be a key feature of the post-cold war United States. With the threat of communism no longer a national preoccupation, crime has become a more inviting target for state activity, both internationally and in the United States.27

      Nearly half of the hundreds of para-military police units in the U.S. have "trained with active duty military experts in special operations,"28 while another 30 percent trained with "police officers with special operations experience in the military."29 A "special operations" trainer had this to say: "We've had special forces folks who have come right out of the jungles of Central America. These guys get into the real shit. All branches of military service are involved in providing training to law enforcement."30 In New York City, ground zero for the "quality of life" police crackdown, these units target "disorderly" areas, in other words, poor communities of color involved in a war for survival.

Simulated Paramilitary Policing

"You've got him in your sights. Drawing a gun, he turns, you fire. A life and death situation? Not if it's a simulation system from Firearms Training Systems (FATS).... FATS is the leading worldwide producer of interactive simulation systems designed to provide training in the handling and use of small and supporting arms."31

      In 1985 FATS developed its first video simulation system for police and military application. Since that time they have sold more than 2,200 systems in over 30 countries. FATS simulation systems, according to its manufacturer, "enable users in law enforcement agencies and the military the ability to train in highly realistic scenarios through the integration of video and digitalized projected imagery and modified, laser emitting firearms that retain the fit, function and feel of the original weapon.... The FATS simulator evaluates each officer on a series of judgment, accuracy and reaction time exercises.... Using video or computer images projected onto a screen, the simulator's easy to use menu guides the user through a series of training exercises, which include appropriate use of deadly force."32

      The company believes that it "has been an integral training tool for federal, state and local enforcement agencies honing their judgment skill in shoot/don't shoot situations." And should these "shoot situations" generate public controversy, "FATS systems used by law enforcement agencies are a viable defense tool against liability lawsuits relating to alleged uses of excessive force. The reason: officers training on FATS systems receive the most realistic training available to law enforcement personnel."33

      The President and CEO of FATS is Peter A. Marino, who was formerly the Director of the Office of Technical Services of the Central Intelligence Agency.34

Military Counterparts

In order to improve the realism and increase the effectiveness of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team training, the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) has developed the Weapons Team Engagement Trainer (WTET) prototype. This system provides realistic tactical engagements for team members of military special forces, SWAT teams and other law enforcement personnel...in close quarter combat."35

      Recently, FATS Inc. contracted with the Office of Naval Research. They will be producing a commercial version of the Weapons Team Engagement Trainer (WTET) and will be working directly with potential military and law enforcement customers to develop a commercial version of the system.

      The WTET police/combat training simulators, which "link large, video projection and digital audio technology, infrared (IR) location sensors, and realistic, multi-room training experience,"36 have replaced traditional marksmanship exercises. According to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and paratrooper, and author of On Killing,37 "modern training uses what are essentially B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning techniques to develop a firing behavior in the soldier. This training comes as close to simulating actual combat conditions as possible." Grossman asserts that operant conditioning is "the single most powerful and reliable behavior modification process yet discovered in the field of psychology, and now applied to the field of warfare." Grossman points out that "soldiers who have conducted this kind of simulator training often report, after they have met a real life emergency, that they just carried out the correct drill and completed it before they realized that they were not in the simulator."

      Grossman explains that behavioral engineering geared to producing better killers is relatively recent. Citing a veritable "technological revolution on the battlefield," he states that "boot-camp deification of killing was unheard of during World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam." According to Grossman, it has been demonstrated that "in World War II, 75 to 80 percent of riflemen did not fire their weapons at an exposed enemy, even to save their lives and the lives of their friends." The problem was evidently addressed before the Vietnam War, where "the non-firing rate was close to 5 percent." This was accomplished through a process of desensitization, denial and conditioning. "The method used to train today's U.S. Army and USMC soldiers is nothing more than an application of conditioning techniques to develop a reflexive quick-shoot ability."

      This is not to suggest that the officers who killed Amadou Diallo were programmed to kill. But police training which is geared toward the cultivation of a reflexive, quick-shoot ability, reinforced by a violent and racist police culture, and founded upon an authoritarian municipal governmental system, needs to be thoroughly overhauled, or the killings and brutality will continue. Psychological conditioning will remain implicated in the rising rate of police killings. It is time to demilitarize our police.


Frank Morales is an Episcopal priest and independent researcher and pamphleteer who is active on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

1. See, for example, the New York Times for April 14, 1999.

2. See Stolen Lives, published by the National Lawyers Guild; and the reports of the Anthony Baez Foundation and the October 22nd Coalition.

3. Rights for All, Amnesty International U.S.A., 1998, pp. 18, 21.

4. Police Brutality and Excessive Force in the New York City Police Department, Amnesty International U.S.A., 1996, pp. 38, 39.

5. Peter B. Kraska and Victor E. Kappeler, "Militarizing American Police: The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units," Social Problems, Vol. 44, No. 1, Feb. 1997, p. 7. See also "Soldiers of the Drug War Remain on Duty," New York Times, Mar. 1, 1999, p. A1.

6. New York Times, Feb. 15, 1999.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., Feb. 19, 1999.

9. Ibid., Mar. 23, 1999.

10. Ibid., Mar. 22, 1999.

11. "Technology Transfer From Defense: Concealed Weapons Detection," National Institute of Justice Journal, No. 229, Aug. 1995, pp. 42-43.

12. Usually those with rampant death squads. "The United States gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed acts of genocide." New York Times, Feb. 26, 1999.

13. Op. cit., n. 11, p. 42.

14. Ibid., p. 42.

15. Ibid., p. 45.

16. Ibid., p. 42.

17. Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 242-43.

18. Ibid., p. 155.

19. Ibid., p.194; see also, Leonard Ruchelman, Who Rules the Police (New York: NYU Press, 1973).

20. Leonard Levitt, "Secret Cop Squad," New York Newsday, Apr. 29, 1999, p. A42.

21. New York Times, Feb. 11, 1999.

22. Ibid.

23. New York Times, Apr. 8, 1999.

24. Op. cit., n. 3, p. 27.

25. The New York Times, in a Feb. 16, 1999 article focusing on the issue of police officer training referred to FATS as "a company that provides training programs to 450 law enforcement agencies, including the New York department." The success of this firm testifies not only to the pervasive militarization of civilian law enforcement but also to the Pentagon's increasing "police" and "peacekeeping" missions abroad. FATS was involved in preparing U.S. units for service in the Gulf War and in Bosnia.

26. Department of Defense Directive 3025.12, "Military Assistance for Civil Disturbances (MACDIS)," Feb. 4, 1994, pp. 1-3.

27. Kraska and Kappeler, op. cit., n. 5, p. 2.

28. Ibid., p. 11.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p. 12. The militarization of law enforcement has a long history. See Joan M. Jensen, Army Surveillance in America, 1775-1980 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1991); and Ron Ridenhour with Arthur Lubow, "Bringing the War Home," New Times, 1975.

31. Report of Firearms Training Systems, Inc., 7340 McGinnis Ferry Road, Suwanee, Georgia, 30024-1247.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. FATS 1998 Annual Report, p. 13.

35. U.S. Navy, Technology Spotlight, Weapons Team Engagement Trainer, October 1998, www.ntsc.navy. mil/tech/wtet/wtet.htm.

36. Ibid.

37. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1996), pp. 177-78, 252, 255.


The Attack on MOVE


Under the Memorandum of Understanding between the DoJ and the DoD, the "systematic transfer of existing technologies into the law enforcement and criminal justice communities is permitted for the first time."1 An odd statement, since what the Memorandum describes as "nonwar-related research and development work on producing better tools for law enforcement"2 has been going on for quite some time. Many documented instances exist of previous police-military "technology transfers."

      One of the most notorious and brutal involves MOVE, the Black activist self-help organization in Philadelphia. On May 13, 1985, "the police dropped a bomb on MOVE's fortified headquarters in an assault launched to serve arrest warrants on four members of the group barricaded with their associates inside their row house. The resulting fire killed 11 individuals, including five children, destroyed 61 homes, and left 250 men, women and children homeless."3 According to MOVE, the full-scale military assault on their house, which came about after a decade of Philadelphia police repression, was carried out using "tear gas, water cannons, shot guns, Uzis, M-16s, silenced weapons, Browning Automatic Rifles, M-60 machine guns, a 20mm anti-tank gun, and a 50 caliber machine gun."4 "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms provided both permission and special tax waivers for the police to obtain such weaponry...specifically for the purpose of confronting MOVE."5 Significantly, "in January, 1985, the FBI provided 37.5 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive-four months before the attack."6 Composition C-4, as it is known "is a restricted military explosive, of extreme power. Its main ingredient, RDX, is second only to atomic fission in its destructive potential. C-4 has no legitimate civilian uses, and is not commercially available in the U.S."7 A police officer, Lt. Frank Powell John, dropped the bomb on the MOVE house from a police helicopter. Following the assault, a commission meant to "correct the wrongs" concluded that the "firing of over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in under 90 minutes at a row house containing children was clearly excessive and unreasonable."8

Excessive, yes, like 41 shots. Recently, six Marines were charged with selling stolen C-4 explosives. Kenneth Bacon, a Pentagon spokesman, stated that "it's very worrisome that such an event was able to take place...C-4 was taken, which is highly dangerous and used by terrorists."9



1. "Technology Transfer From Defense: Concealed Weapons Detection," National Institute of Justice Journal, Issue #229, Aug. 1995, pp. 42-43.

2. Ibid.

3. Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 242-43.

4. "25 Years on the Move," published by MOVE, P.O. Box 19709, Philadelphia, PA 19143, p. 49.

5. Richard Poe, "Preemptive Strike: A New Kind of Policing," East Village Eye, June 1986, p. 12.

6. Ibid., p. 12.

7. Ibid.

8. Op. cit., n. 3, p. 243.

9. New York Times, Oct. 17, 1998.

< Prev   Next >


This site powered by Mambo Open Source, customized by CNPT