• U.S.

War Comes Home: The Militarization of U.S. Police Forces

2 minute read

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., occurred off camera. But the reaction of local police forces, in their efforts to calm the civil unrest following his Aug. 9 shooting by a Ferguson cop, has been documented by hundreds of them. Many Americans were surprised by the martial response, which had the St. Louis suburb looking more like Baghdad or Cairo. Some veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq noted that the cops appeared better-armed and outfitted in middle America than the GIs had been in the war zones. Most of the gear has come from the Pentagon, which has ended up with enormous surpluses of guns, radios, and armored vehicles following the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of the conflict in Afghanistan. Since 1997, some $4.3 billion has been given to the nation’s police forces.

The U.S. military has long tried to reduce the number of troops it needs to send to war by giving them better and more powerful weapons than potential foes. While that logic makes sense on the battlefield, where the goal is to kill the enemy, it doesn’t translate particularly well on American streets, where the goal is to preserve order. The photographs above show how police forces have girded for battle over the past half-century.

Arresting A Rioter
Three policemen taking away a civil rights protester during race riots in Newark, N.J., 1967.Evans/Getty Images
Police officers at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August, 1968. Maury Englander—FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Police arrest a protestor during an Earth Day demonstration at Boston's Logan Airport, August, 1970. Spencer Grant—Getty Images
Anti-Klan Protest Police
A police officer with a tear gas gun during an anti-Ku Klux Klan protest in Washington D.C., November, 1982. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
Police chase demonstrator who smashed a watermelon in the st
Police chase a demonstrator involved in a protest over the death of a black teen-ager killed by a white assailant in Brooklyn, N.Y., 1989.Gerald Herbert—New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Houston police officers arrest 18 August 1992 a de
Houston police officers arrest a pro-immigration demonstrator in Houston for protesting in the wrong place, August, 1992.Walt Freck—AFP/Getty Images
Washington police officers in riot gear stand watc
Washington D.C. police officers gather outside the World Bank as protesters mass, April, 2000.Luke Frazze—AFP/Getty Images
Anti-war Protestors In Chicago
Police in riot gear and armed with pepper spray at an anti-war protest in Chicago, March, 2003. Scott Olson—Getty Images
A Washington, D.C., police officer pepper sprays demonstrators after a barricade along Pennsylvania Avenue was pulled down during the inaugural parade, January 20, 2005.Emile Wamsteker—Bloomberg News
Pittsburgh G-20 Summit 2009
A police officer stands guard during the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, September, 2009. Jason Andrew—Getty Images
A man backs away as law enforcement officials close in on him and eventually detain him during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a police officer, in Ferguson, Mo.
A man backs away as police close in on him during unrest in Ferguson, Mo. following Michael Brown's death, Aug. 11, 2014.Whitney Curtis—The New York Times
Police fire tear gas in the direction of where bottles were thrown from crowds gathered near the QuikTrip on W. Florissant Avenue on Aug. 18, 2014.
Police fire tear gas after protesters threw bottles in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 18, 2014.David Carson—St Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

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