Yes, American Police Act Like Occupying Armies. They Literally Studied Their TacticsRoundup
tags: imperialism, military, policing
Stuart Schrader is the author of "Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing" (University of California Press, 2019).
To be sure, police departments are more heavily armed than ever, in part because of post-9/11 fears of terrorism. But the transfer of military surplus gear long predates the War on Terror. It results from both demand on the part of police and oversupply in the military, particularly as wars wind down.
Every overseas war has reshaped policing in the United States, including by filling the ranks of police departments with veterans and pushing surplus materials into their hands. But many campaigns abroad have also entailed policing civilian populations, with US experts advising other governments while also learning lessons to repatriate in the process.
When the US started to occupy the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, its military forces were met by an anti-colonial guerrilla campaign. In response, army soldiers engaged in grueling search missions, hoping to ferret out insurgents, who were difficult to distinguish from innocent bystanders. The army also established a constabulary of native Filipinos to help pacify the US colony. Though nobody used the term at the time, this was counterinsurgency.
Many of this campaign’s veterans rose to prominence as police administrators in the US in the early 20th century, as documented by the sociologist Julian Go. These ex-soldiers applied the lessons of their Philippines search-and-destroy missions to the US: mobile patrols, horses, bicycles and then motorized vehicles. Field communications in unfamiliar terrain informed how police built their telecommunications networks. And the type of rigorous training, including in marksmanship, that defined soldiering would be adopted by police too. The era’s most famous police leader, August Vollmer, got his start in the infantry in the Philippines and constantly referred to that experience as he reshaped the profession.
Later, after the second world war, the American forces occupied Germany and Japan for several years. While regular police at home received notice from the FBI that they could now obtain surplus machine guns and leg irons from the War Assets Administration, US police trendsetters like Vollmer, his protege Orlando W Wilson, and future Los Angeles police chief William Parker were working to “democratize” the German police, while also making sure to keep tabs on communists. Similarly, in Japan, a young policeman from Kansas City named Byron Engle helped to reorganize the police there, introducing US-style uniforms, handcuffs and teargas.
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