UPRISING: Militarization Has Fostered a Police Culture That Sets Up Protesters as ‘The Enemy’

The militarization of police departments has been a feature of U.S. domestic law enforcement since the 9/11 attacks and despite efforts to promote de-escalation as a policy, police culture appears to be stuck in an “us vs. them” mentality, writes former police officer Tom Nolan.

Sheriffs deputies in riot gear move in on protesters in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

By Tom Nolan 
Emmanuel College

The unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd after being pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has left parts of U.S. cities looking like a battle zone.

Night after night, angry protesters have taken to the street. So too have police officers dressed in full riot gear and backed by an arsenal that any small military force would be proud of: armored vehicles, military-grade aircraft, rubber and wooden bullets, stun grenades, sound cannons and tear gas canisters.

The militarization of police departments has been a feature of U.S. domestic law enforcement since the 9/11 attacks. What is clear from the latest round of protest and response, is that despite efforts to promote de-escalation as a policy, police culture appears to be stuck in an “us vs. them” mentality.

Setting Up the Enemy

As a former police officer of 27 years and a scholar who has written on the policing of marginalized communities, I have observed the militarization of the police firsthand, especially in times of confrontation.

I have seen, throughout my decades in law enforcement, that police culture tends to privilege the use of violent tactics and non-negotiable force over compromise, mediation, and peaceful conflict resolution. It reinforces a general acceptance among officers of the use of any and all means of force available when confronted with real or perceived threats to officers.

We have seen this play out during the first week of protests following Floyd’s death in cities from Seattle to Flint to Washington, D.C.

The police have deployed a militarized response to what they accurately or inaccurately believe to be a threat to public order, private property, and their own safety. It is in part due to a policing culture in which protesters are often perceived as the “enemy.” Indeed teaching cops to think like soldiers and learn how to kill has been part of a training program popular among some police officers.

Arming Up

Police militarization, the process in which law enforcement agencies have increased their arsenal of weapons and equipment to be deployed in an array of situations, began in earnest in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the years that followed, domestic law enforcement in the United States began a strategic shift toward tactics and practices that employed militarized responses to even routine police activities.

Much of this was aided by the federal government, through the Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 Program, which allows the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, and the Homeland Security Grant Program, which gives police departments funding to buy military-grade weapons and vehicles.

Critics of this process have suggested that the message sent to police through equipping them with military equipment is that they are in fact at war. This to me implies that there needs to be an “enemy.” In cities and, increasingly, suburban and rural areas, the enemy is often those “others” who are perceived to be criminally inclined.

The consequences of this militarized police mentality can be deadly, especially for black Americans.

A study of police-involved deaths between 2012 and 2018 found that on average, police kill 2.8 men every day in the U.S. The risk of death at the hands of an officer was found to be between 3.2 and 3.5 times higher for black men compared to white men.

And there appears to be a correlation between militarization and police violence. A 2017 study analyzed spending by police departments against police-involved fatalities. Summarizing their results in The Washington Post, the authors of the study wrote:

“Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence (such as household income, overall and black population, violent-crime levels and drug use), more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police. When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.”

And it isn’t just individuals who suffer. Behavioral scientist Denise Herd has studied the community effect of police violence. Writing in the Boston University Law Review earlier this year, she concluded that “violent encounters with police produce a strong ripple effect of diminishing the health and well-being of residents who simply live in areas where their neighbors are killed, hurt, or psychologically traumatized.”

The trauma from the video of George Floyd in clear distress while a uniformed officer knelt on his neck is evident in the reaction it has provoked.

The need to address the escalation of police confrontations – both during protests and in individual encounters – was a focus of the last big push for police reform, after the killing of a unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. As with the case of George Floyd, it led to violent scenes in which protesters confronted militarized officers.

Just months after the Ferguson unrest, President Obama set up his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It recommended the implementation of training and policies that “emphasize de-escalation.” It also called on police to employ tactics during protests “designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.”

By the evidence of the last few days, a number of police departments have failed to heed the message.

Tom Nolan, is a Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology, Emmanuel College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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17 comments for “UPRISING: Militarization Has Fostered a Police Culture That Sets Up Protesters as ‘The Enemy’

  1. June 3, 2020 at 16:11

    The deleterious impact of police violence to a community cannot be overstated. After leaving a memorial to George Floyed and Breonna Taylor erected outside my local library I was waiting at a red light and saw a cop standing near his parked car. My reaction – equal parts fear, rage and loathing – was immediate. I wanted to pull over and start screaming at him. After what I’ve witnessed in video after video this past week – deliberate cruelty, bullying, aggression, violence – I’ll never view the police with trust or respect and I fully support defunding them. I certainly feel traumatized and terrorized by all the images of militarized cops brutalizing citizens in our cities…but I suspect that’s what we’re intended to feel.

  2. James Whitney
    June 3, 2020 at 08:11

    Here in France, it is the same story. Many articles, for example


  3. journey80
    June 3, 2020 at 07:21

    Israeli forces & US police train together
    See: fpif.org/why-we-should-be-alarmed-that-israeli-forces-and-u-s-police-are-training-together/

  4. Sam F
    June 2, 2020 at 20:01

    Without disparaging good law enforcement, it is clear that police culture has been forced toward tyranny of the rich.
    The mass media, elections of politicians, and their appointments of judges, all support violence to control the poor.
    The rich control all of those mechanisms, the tools of democracy without which it cannot be restored democratically.
    Militarized police equipment and culture, and economic control of government, mark the last stages of tyranny.

    The important point is that police abuses are due to corrupt judiciary and politicians, not merely weapons availability.
    Those who know can swear that no one has constitutional rights any more: rights are now a luxury of the rich.
    If you are not sure, try to enforce the constitutional rights of someone you sympathize with, all the way to the top.
    As conflicts worsen in the coming depression, more will discover this, and realize that democracy is no more.

  5. June 2, 2020 at 19:36

    I don’t think the police are the enemy by a long shot. They don’t have an easy job and just like elementary school teachers they are not appreciated as they should be. I’ve encountered police officers who had a good sense of “the situation” and I’ve encountered other ones who didn’t really care. Sheriffs as well. Still, they have a difficult job that has only been harder lately.

    At the end of the day, they are just like you and I. At the end of the day, eventually, it will be evident as to whether the protesters are “The Enemy” or if they actually have a message to send. If they have a message to send, the Police Officers, just like the rest of us, will get it. They are in the same boat as we all are so it just makes sense.

    I know about the injustices of the past. I think some things are suddenly becoming so obvious to so many that there is going to be no stopping justified retribution.

  6. Rev. Darrel Meyers
    June 2, 2020 at 18:44

    And the role of our police departments being trained by Israeli squads…? Those of us who follow closely for decades how the indigenous Palestinians are treated/bruised/beaten/wounded/murdered with regularity have reason to be outraged by this “training.”

    • AnneR
      June 3, 2020 at 07:14

      So true Rev. Myers – and abominable in every aspect: that this training is seen as wholly acceptable by very many if not all po-lice departments and by the federal government; that it surely reveals the fundamental racism of these po-lice departments; that by training in Occupied Palestine (I mean not only the West Bank and Gaza) with the IDF and their so-called police using the Palestinians as the targets is an utterly immoral and unethical barbarity.

    • robert e williamson jr
      June 3, 2020 at 15:22

      You have touched on one of my favorite topics to rail about.

      Few in congress seem to be willing to call out the Israeli government for their authoritarian practices., even fewer in the branches that make up our government. Why? Congress men and women, and other officials fear the Israeli Lobby will work towards defeating them in the next election. or through their connections get them fired. And the lobby does so and they have the track record to prove it. Far too often they literally get away with lying,(murder is taking care of by other means, never any witnesses,) to achieve their goals.

      High ranking government officials know full well that if they cross the Israelis the Israelis will come after them. And they do, much like CIA and their six ways from Sunday to get to someone., do.

      Even fewer are willing to discuss the history of just how the Israeli government came to power and managed to retain power.

      Their story is not a pretty one they made their claims to the area and murdered thousands to take it over and never stopped the killing. U.S. evangelicals allied themselves with these misfits and now we have just delivered to them a memo worth $38 billion dollars. Why?

      U.S. politics that’s why. Repugniklans and democraps like the money they get from supporting the overtly suppressive Israeli government.

      The MIC lives for Israeli money to buy arms, that money , $38 billion or so is tax money, from our taxes. Boycotting Israel should be a federal law requiring everyone boycott Israel until they get some manners and learn humility.

      George Floyd got murdered and Americans took to the streets and what did Trump and his henchmen do, pulled a very Ariel Sharon style , “Hey kiss my ass” Stunt.” Tryump and Bennie” the blade” notinyahoo are two peas in a pod!

      Besides Americans taking a good look at racism in this country they need to demand Israel stop executing Palestinians at will. It is what they do. Right, murder unarmed individuals.

      Those currently in the streets protesting the fake president and his bull shit law and order claim are telling us something and we had better listen.


  7. DW Bartoo
    June 2, 2020 at 17:13

    Several points might justifiably be added to your history, Professor Nolan.

    The more recent perception among police that the public is “the enemy” might relate to the War on Drugs, begun by Nixon to punish both the anti-war protestors and the black populace, according to Haldeman, and the wholesale spying on everyone, in the U$, by U$ intelligence (!) agencies, post 9/11, which alerted the police to clear political “signals” from above, “assurances” that surely helped create an atmosphere of mean suspicion and a sense of “legitimate ” encouragement for police to view and treat the populace not as members of the community to “protect and serve” but as objects of potential threat and insurrection.

    Historically, of course, policing in the U$ had three principal “models”. The slave patrol, as Lee Camp and others have mentioned, the “pacification” of the “savage” native tribes by the U$ Military, and the strike-breaking of early attempts by workers to organize to secure safe working conditions and what we, today, would term “living wages”, Homestead Pennsylvania and the use of the Pinkerton Agency comes to mind, as do the means by which strikes at textile mills in New England were dealt with.

    As well, what was the U$ government to do with all that “beautiful” weaponry which it had stockpiled in anticipation of perpetual war?

    One notes, in passing, that the U$ government could, quite as easily, have stockpiled medical supplies for things like a pandemic or other great medical crisis. Naturally, of course, other priorities demand weaponry with the unending list of potential enemies who hate the U$ for its freedoms, as is also a message from on high.

    Viewing hoi paloi as threat, as rabble, as desiring to “level” the economic field is as ancient among the elite as is the regime, itself, of course.

    Further, it must be considered what sort of person police forces desire to recruit.

    There have actually been court decisions determining that the less intelligent may be preferably chosen over the more intelligent.

    As a former police officer, did you find that the less empathic were preferred over the more empathic? I am quite curious about that as my experience as a mere citizen seems to suggest that, although I have encountered peace officers (I do wish that term might be respected, even embraced within the blue lines) who were empathic, patient, and well-versed at de-escalation in tense or fraught situations, more often I have seen officers quickly resorting to tazing or clubbing, or simply beating those who did or do not immediately comply.

    Frankly, that latter behavior seems much more likely to occur when officers are in groups, even when they only number two.

    Perhaps, we are now approaching the realm of psychology?

    The problem appears to be that hoi paloi actually believe that they do possess rights as codified by the Bill of Rights, even though many of those rights have been greatly curtailed for reasons of, we are told, “state security”.

    But then the problem becomes even more sticky because far too many of the 99% stubbornly imagine that the functional purpose of government is to assure the wellbeing of ALL members of society. Although from the beginning the security, safety, and protection of the property owning class was the desire and intent of the Founding Fathers, who, if they should still have “their” way, voting would still be restricted to white makes owning “sufficient” property to have a vested interest in the status quo.

    Many like to imagine that the founders wished the entire populace to participate in the decision-making process of policy and its application, that government was actually “of, by, and for the people”.

    Beautiful and stirring words.

    But empty and only for show.

    Which brings us to the actual “interests” whom or which the police (and the military, for that matter) actually serve.

    I consider that the answer to that question, now, truly deserves attention, debate, and understanding.

    That answer might go a very long ways to making a great number of things both clear and obvious.

    It is not a idle or peripheral question, it goes quite to the heart of the matter, if such a delicate sentiment might be employed when discussing the body politic, which is bloody, torn, greatly injured and harmed.

    Trust is in the balance.

    Tyranny may beget compliance, but except among sycophants, it gains neither trust nor alliance.

    • AnneR
      June 3, 2020 at 07:27

      DWB – right on. The existence of the Po-Lice is as it always has been in whatever guise (as Sheriffs – formerly Shire-Reeves back in England in the Middle Ages [the Sheriff of Nottingham…], for example) have always been about the Protection of Property, for millennia that meant the property of the rich, the princes, aristos, gentry only. Now it includes that of the bourgeois, the small business owners and whatnot – not the property of the poor. And yes, indeed, the slave “police” were this country’s po-lice progenitors just as the sheriffs back at the time of the westward expansion were, along with the military, the protectors of Euro-American grabbers of yet more Native lands and the property so grabbed.

      What greater property could a person have other than their life, one might ask? But as has been true for the four centuries since the Brits landed on the eastern shores of this land, the lives of the indigenous peoples, those of the African slaves and then their ‘freed’ descendants have never been viewed as worthy of respect, of protection as even those their poorest European descended compatriots (and historically they weren’t considered of much worth but of slightly higher worth than those of non-paleskin).

    • DW Bartoo
      June 3, 2020 at 13:51

      Always much appreciate your comments, AnneR,

      Your mention of the Sheriff of Nottingham caused me to laugh aloud, as it triggered a memory of the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

      I was visiting a friend, discussing what was going on, politically, as even then it was becoming obvious that the DNC was gunning for Sanders, when my friend said, “Well, you know, the Clintons are like modern-day Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”

      Between spasms of laughter, I asked him if he had determined that by his own efforts, or had he heard or read someone else making that claim.

      He admitted that he had heard it said on some Tee Vee program in 2008, when Hillary and Barack were contending, and asked me what I found to be so funny about it.

      “It is simply not true, it is merely inept public relations of the most absurd sort.”

      “But what about the Clinton Foundation?
      Doesn’t it do good things?”

      “For whom?”

      “Well, I don’t know. Maybe for poor people?”

      “Suppose you do some research and then share with me what you discover, how about that?”

      “Well, they wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”

      “Oh, I would suggest that many things which are not true are claimed to be true, especially when it comes to politics”

      “Well then, why don’t YOU give ME an example of something that was not true, it works both ways.”

      “Do you remember when it was claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was implicated in 9/11, or that torture was done by just a few bad apples? All three of those things were lies, even though many still believe that the first two were true.”

      “But, it was Republicans who said those things.”

      “Did you ever hear about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident? Now, I know that you are about ten years younger than I, so perhaps you have not?”

      “No, I don’t know what that was.”

      “It was the reason given to officially start the war against Vietnam, but it was also a lie, one that many people believed to be true for many years. It was not revealed as a lie until many years after that war. That lie was told by President Lyndon Johnson. He was a Democrat.”

      Later, my friend was totally surprised when Trump won.

      I’ve hardly spoken with him for several years. He remains convinced that Russia was behind Trump’s victory.

      He is not at all a bad soul, perhaps just gullible.

      During the last serious conversation we had about politics, he informed me that he watched Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, mixed together what “both sides” had to say, then determined what was “in the middle”, and figured that he then had “a handle” on what was the truth,

      Enjoyed your history lesson on the origins of the term,”sheriff”.


  8. June 2, 2020 at 16:42

    Other articles on this topic are unanimous, simply having militarized equipment available to the police changes their psych, from supportive to combative.

    • Anonymous
      June 4, 2020 at 06:17

      Cops have known that they’ve been expected to be supportive for years. Some have been, others have simply pretended to be while redefining everything to make the most of their authority fetishes. It seems to have always worked out well for the ones who want to pretend.

  9. Dennis Rice
    June 2, 2020 at 16:31

    So, let me get this straight…if we take away some of the weaponry of the police they will become less violent? I do not condone violence of any sort, but it’s just a matter of time before the drug lords of Mexico move into the U.S. and bring their weapons with them. Then what are the police to do? I agree George Floyd should be alive and four officers should have been enough to restrain him. And the officer restraining him did so more out of ego than out of need. A large, hidden part of this rioting is an underlying lack of opportunity to ‘move up’ in the financial area. As MLK said, “We can/could all use some green power.” And poverty is growing in this country even among white people, and those on top had best figure out a way to equalize things a little better if they expect their employees not to steal them blind.

    And this is misleading; “A study of police-involved deaths between 2012 and 2018 found that on average, police kill 2.8 men every day in the U.S. The risk of death at the hands of an officer was found to be between 3.2 and 3.5 times higher for black men compared to white men.” Actually, more white people are killed numerically, but percentage wise of population it is more black people.

    • June 2, 2020 at 23:30

      Dennis drug cartel people and their guns are here but generally speaking drugs flow north guns flow south. If you are looking for stats compare the murder rate in Juarez to El Paso. El Paso is usually in the top 20 of safest cities. But i havent checked recently. And i dont think we should take away local police weapons. But a tank?
      And I’m a fan of negotiating as police almost always have the option of “Bookem Danno. “

    • robert e williamson jr
      June 4, 2020 at 17:51

      Dennis, your first two sentences defy reality everyone interested in obtaining a weapon in this country can get one. No one needs to bring one with them to the U.S.. Police voluntarily take jobs as policemen if one are fearful one are in the wrong business.

      SEE FIRE FIGHTERS – danger is the name of the game and we don’t hear them complain about odds or danger!

      “And the officer restraining him did so more out of ego than need.” Bull shit! Ego? Nope he did it because he doesn’t have the ability to make sound judgements, and he gave not one shit about this mans life which is pretty dog damned obvious. More likely he was driven by showing off for the rookies he was working with. No matter the man did what he did knowing he could kill this individual. If he didn’t he hasn’t been paying attention. Again unfit to serve in law enforcement or as dog catcher.

      “A large, hidden part of this rioting is an underlying lack of opportunity to ‘move up’ in the financial area. Wrong again if that was the case we would have riots every day.

      MLK quote I’ll give you that point.

      Now your last statement , first part to “little better”, you are losing me here. All we need to do to understand all the anger is look to the wall street bail outs. Those guys are robbing all of us blind, but stealing employees stealing employers blind, ever hear pf a guy named Madeoff, as in “made off with all the money”. Come on MAN get a grip on reality. BTW This jerk got a get out jail card recently.

      And last but not least, your last paragraph. Wrong again. This isn’t misleading. If you examine the total number of whites involved in interactions with the police vs the number killed by police and compare those numbers against the total number of blacks involved in interactions with the police ( remember that POLICE ROUTINELY INTERACT WITH BLACKS at a higher percentage per capita than whites,) vs the number killed by police these percentages stand up. More blacks get killed per capita than the number of whites.

      The number of interactions are biased against blacks and so are the number of deaths. Fact!

      2.8 men a day time 365 equals 1022 men a year killed by professional law enforcement and that number is based on what we know of.
      If anything what is misleading is the number of officer induced deaths. George Floyd according to the first autopsy didn’t die as a result of police actions, but that turned out to be in error or a misrepresentation of fact.

      You did request that you wanted to get this straight and I hope I have been of some assistance!

      Thanks to all at CN

  10. June 2, 2020 at 15:58

    In 1970 my SEU (swat) assignment was plain clothes, two cops to an unmarked car. A 38 six shot revolver and one shotgun in the trunk.
    Best weapon
    We TALKED to people.
    In 1984 as a SAU (swat) Sergeant i fought to send my officers to negotiating training but lost to those that preferred killing. And now the guns were big and plenty with lots of sniper training.
    Today its Storm Troopers more aggressive than George Lucas could envision.
    Cal Lash. Retired Phoenix PD 1658
    For Trump to order Martial Law and cancel elections.

Comments are closed.