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June 12, 2021

Militarized police

Fifty years ago this month President Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one” and began the war on drugs. His war altered American institutions, but not for the better. His policies transformed the US criminal justice system, with devastating consequences.

All wars have casualties. The war on drugs is no exception. From the impoverished farmers in Afghanistan who faced the choice of defying either the Taliban or the US military, to those who will die in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses, many have been caught in the crossfire.

The war on drugs has impacted a myriad of domestic institutions within the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than in analyzing the evolution of US domestic policing.

Historically, laws within the United States have attempted to separate the functions of domestic police from those of the military. Police are to protect the rights of citizens – both the victims and perpetrators of crime – and are to use violence only as a last resort. The military, by contrast, is trained for war, to engage and destroy enemies. While events throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century opened the door that separated police and military, the war on drugs blew that door off its hinges.

More traditional wars, like World War II, have a clearly defined external enemy. The war on drugs is different. While the United States engages external enemies as a part of its drug interdiction policies, it also targets domestic ‘enemies’ – drug users, dealers, manufactures, and everyone involved in the illicit drug trade. These domestic adversaries are not readily identifiable.

Police became responsible for rooting out these domestic enemies. Finding themselves on the ‘front lines’ of the federal government’s battle against drugs, they sought to equip themselves with the necessary tools and tactics.

So, they adopted the tools of war.

The development and expansion of ‘Special Weapons and Tactics’ or SWAT teams, is a prime example. Modeled directly after aggressive military units in Vietnam, SWAT teams integrated war tactics into domestic police operations. Los Angeles’ SWAT team became permanent in 1971 and drug policy allowed for the proliferation of these units across the country. By 1982, nearly 60 percent of police departments had a SWAT team. By 1995, this number had climbed to 89 percent. SWAT teams are deployed an estimated 50,000-80,000 times per year.

Excerpted: ‘Militarized Police: A Consequence of the War on Drugs’

Counterpunch.org