Domestic Militarization: How Paramilitary Policing is Subverting the Citizenship of Black Americans by Hayden Abene

Following is the text of a paper one of the students in my Sociology of Guns seminar wrote last semester. His thoughts on guns as a “Southern Pacifist and Vegetarian” were also posted here last September.

Although not about guns in the first place, the issue of police militarization is one I have learned about myself in the course of learning about gun culture, as gun culture is also becoming increasingly militarized with the rising emphasis on self-defense (see here and here and here).

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

By Hayden Abene

Across the country, police departments are now commonly equipped with armored personnel carriers once found only in the battlefield. Some have tanks, Humvees, even helicopters, and most are stocked like an armory of military-grade weapons. Their training is militaristic. Their approach is militaristic. They are at war; the enemy: U.S. citizens, particularly those of color. The very concept of police militarization is contentiously and discursively defined, as it carries clear negative connotations antithetical to the mythic freedom of American democracy. At its root, the militarization of police is simply the use of military equipment and tactics by local law enforcement officers. To move from neutrality to critical analysis, the intensive militarization of American police forces over the past half century represents a blurring of the once clear distinctions between the military and the police, between war and law enforcement. This domestic militarization was birthed out of the War on Drugs, along with a policing platform that perpetuated the insidious legitimation of police brutality targeting Black communities. Ultimately, the War on Drugs has been a catastrophic failure on almost all accounts, and it has ushered in an era of paramilitary policing that has provided yet another outlet for state-backed violence against already disenfranchised communities of color that simultaneously reflects and reinforces the incomplete citizenship of African Americans.

Though the U.S.’s legacy of systemically racist legislation and policing dates back to the very origins of the nation-state, the history of police militarization is much fresher, perhaps in its adolescence. Its history is to the point that it is unanimously recognized (Bailey 1995; Bittner 1970; Enloe 1980; Fogelson 1977; Manning 1977) but still a new enough phenomenon that its significance is highly contested (Kraska and Cubellis 2006; Heyer 2013; Kappeler and Kraska 2013). Before progressing into an analysis on how the current state of police militarization is targeting Black communities and inhibiting many Black Americans from realizing full citizenship, it is useful to wade through some of the scholarship here to historically frame the shift in policing and to understand the modern characteristics of it. First, the militarization of American police is unequivocally linked to the War on Drugs—one of America’s most blatantly racist federal initiatives of the Twentieth century. This served not only to expand the authority of police departments, but led to the aggressive policing, prosecution, and punishment of young Black men disproportionately more so than any other demographic. The shocking statistics often cited—that the U.S. is 5 percent of the world population yet has 25 percent of its prisoners, that African Americans and Hispanics only make of one quarter of the total U.S. population yet comprise 58 percent of the 2.3 million incarcerated population, or that there are more Blacks implicated in the criminal justice system now than the number of enslaved Blacks at any point during slavery—demonstrate the enormity of this neoliberal system of social control. The second part to the militarization of police came in 1996 under the Clinton administration with the authorization of the Department of Defense to provide excess military equipment to U.S. law enforcement. The program, known today as “1033,” was greatly expanded after the attack of 9/11, such that the paramilitary equipment and the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams that were previously concentrated to metropolitan cities became accessible to rural towns and even college campuses.

The first SWAT team was formed in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s with the aim of taking down the radical Black Panthers, and since their 1969 success, SWAT teams have spread across the U.S., maintaining a focus on controlling Black citizens. As of the late 1990s, about 89 percent of police department in the U.S. serving populations of 50,000 people or more had a police paramilitary unit (PPU), e.g. SWAT team, double what existed in the mid-1980s; in that same 15 year period in jurisdictions with less than 50,000 people, the percentage of departments with a PPU went from 20 percent to 80 percent. This sort of militarization is obviously characterized through the tactical equipment that local law enforcement are using, such as assault rifles, breaching shotguns, riot control shields, stun grenades, heavy body armor, etc., but there is also a shift in the tactical and equipment training as well as a cultural shift in this type of policing. This is evident in the shift in police training academies, which are increasingly being outsourced to private agencies and pedagogically informed by military officers. There has also been a surge of distinct techno-warrior gear, heavy weaponry, sophisticated technology, and for-profit training that bolsters a hyper-masculine ‘military special operations’ culture, which is of course a shift away from a traditional community-based model of policing, away from ‘Mayberry,’ as scholars facetiously call it. But the War on Drugs that sparked much of this development is ostensibly over. Instead, as the foremost journalist on the subject, Radley Balko, wrote, “Aggressive, SWAT-style tactics are now used to raid neighborhood poker games, doctors’ offices, and bars…despite the fact that the targets of these raids pose little threat to anyone.”

The racial profiling, police harassment and brutality, the overpolicing (and underpolicing) of Black communities, and even the unreprimanded police murders of African Americans are made to be acceptable by our hegemonic cultural framing of Black males as inherently violent criminals threatening to white society. There is a gendered racism at work here that is leveraged to both “validate inequality and to contrast Black masculinity with white masculinity as a hegemonic ideal.” Angela Stroud (2012) explores this as part of ethnographic work on hegemonic masculinity and gun carriers. She notes how the [white] men she interviews that carry concealed weapons all employ racist constructions of threat; the respondents perception of danger were integrally linked to racialized notions of criminality and vulnerability. White men, thus, construct their sense of masculinity in contrast to Black masculinity. To quote from Stroud at length: “[White men] presume the [Black] men they see are criminals, thus they are armed in defense. They imagine the men they see will be violent; thus they are prepared to respond. Whiteness is critical to these dynamics not because these men see it as an evident marker of status, but because (to them) whiteness signifies nothing at all.” This ultimately is an example that elucidates the larger phenomenon at work in American society, which is that dominant discourses work to discursively control images of Black masculinity in a way that frame Black men as criminals that should be seen as and policed as threats to [white] society.

Domestic militarization and the growing dependency on PPUs has not so much created new motives of systematic racism or police brutality, but rather has created new, more aggressive means of enforcing racially charged ordinances and enacting police harassment. Unwanted police attention and the overpolicing/underpolicing paradox sit within the long-standing, broader context of racist police practices in the U.S. that have long targeted men of color. To this regard, many of the “tough on crime” laws that haven been passed in the second half on the Twentieth century and into the Twenty-first century have had a bifurcated impact on Americans, divided across lines of race.

In the most severe implications, militarized police enact deadly force against citizens. It is well established that lethal force is enacted against people of color at a far higher rate than against Whites. But often any racist discrepancies on the officer’s part is explained away by arguments of economic inequality or holding that Blacks commit more crimes than Whites. This has been repeatedly challenged, perhaps most monumentally by David Jacobs (1998). Using advanced statistical modeling and macro-level data of 170 cities, Jacobs found that racial inequality was the greatest explanatory variable for police killings, that police killings of Blacks show that cities with more Blacks have higher police killing rates of Blacks, and that a lack of racial and gender diversity within a police department is correlated with higher uses of lethal force against Black men. The increasing murders of unarmed black people since Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO in August of 2014 represents the rising tide of state-backed police-enacted terrorism in a growing number of urban communities—particularly Ferguson, Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. The militarized presence exists to “protect the city” from any possible violence of Black protestors; in reality, however, as Johns Hopkins University professor Floyd Hayes writes, “the militarized cop presence in the city of Ferguson only served to exacerbate community anger, outrage, and resentment.”

For African Americans, experiences of facing a hyper-militarized police on the front lines of protesting for anti-racist reform, of investigatory police stops, and of perpetually encountering narratives of Black criminality convey a powerful message about citizenship, or the lack thereof, and erode the perceived legitimacy of police, leading to decreased trust in the police and less willingness to solicit police assistance. Overall, the issue here is racist policing, thus linking together the phenomenon of racial profiling and a militarized police force that is disproportionately deployed to encounter African Americans. The statistics in this regard are clear: African Americans are twice as likely to be stopped for an “investigatory stop,” which, unlike traffic-safety stops, where there is an obvious violation, an officer has the authority to detain a person for a minor violations (e.g., a broken license-plate light), marginally suspicious activities (e.g., parking in the shade), or for no stated reason at all. Moreover, policies such as “stop-and-frisk” are continuations of thinly veiled racist legislation that equip police officers to subversively control the racial “other.” Since the implementation of the stop-and-frisk policy in 2002, NYPD has stopped over six million New Yorkers, although only six percent of these stops have resulted in arrest, and only two percent in a weapon recovery. According to the NYC Bar Association (2013), 85 percent of those stopped have been Black or Latino, a disparity that cannot be accounted for by neighborhood crime rates or demographics. While “stop-and-frisk” is the most overtly sanctioned investigatory stop, less conspicuous versions of these policies have become widespread across U.S. law enforcement agencies. In a democratic system in which citizenship is meant to be protected under a system of checks and balances there is no refuge for African Americans considering that racial profiling has been upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. As Morrison (2007) has highlighted, the Court wrote: “we never held…that an officer’s [racist] motives invalidates objectively justifiable behavior under the Fourth Amendment; but we have repeatedly held and asserted the contrary.” Thus, the Court’s ruling serves to nullify any racist intentions by which a police officer enforces the law.

The militarization of our domestic police forces has been among the most consequential yet most overlooked vital trends in modern American society. The War on Drugs and subsequent reliance on PPUs resulted in heightened, unwanted police attention, harassment, and abuse for communities of color. Such equipment, tactics, culture, and organization structures that accompanied the militarization of domestic police departments have directly led to the drastically disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color—what is no doubt one of the gravest injustices of the present day. It has also perpetuated the means and normalization of police abuse against African Americans, and a deep distrust of public law enforcement across the most disenfranchised groups of America, who, tragically, are most in need of police protection given their exposure to violent crime. Furthermore, because people of color are policed far more stringently, they are far more likely to have negative experiences with police through policies directly linked to police militarization, and to thus rightfully feel as if their citizenship is being encroached upon. Guns represent power and have been used both symbolically and physically to control people since their very origins. The rise of militarized forms of policing is escalating the way state-backed violence is deleteriously enacted against Black and Brown people, and indeed demands new strategies of political protest, popular resistance, and perhaps even, armed self-defense.

Selected Bibliography
Balko, Radley. Rise of the Warrior Cop: Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York: Public Affairs. 2013.

Balko, Radley. “How did America’s Police become a Military Force on the Streets?” American Bar Association Journal (2013).

Carlson, Jennifer. “Ch. 5 Policing Guns, Profiling People” From Citizen-Protector New York: Oxford University Press. 2015.

Davenport, Christian, Sarah A. Soule and David A. Armstrong II. “Protesting While Black? The Differential Policing of American Activism, 1960 to 1990.” American Sociological Review Vol. 76, No. 1 (February 2011), pp. 152-178

Epp, Charles, Steven Maynard-Moody, Donald Haider-Markel. Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Gau, Jacinta, and Rod Brunson. “Procedural Justice and Order Maintenance Policing: A Study of Inner-City Young Men’s Perceptions of Police Legitimacy.” Justice Quarterly, 27 (2010): 255-279.

Harvey-Wingfield, Adia. “The Modern Mammy and the Angry Black Man: African American Professionals’ experience with Gendered Racism in the Workplace.” Race Gender, and Class 14 (2007).

Hayes III, Floyd. “War Against the People: Killer Cops and Community Terrorism.” Critical Sociology (2015).

Heyer, Garth. “Mayberry revisited: a review of the influence of police paramilitary units on policing.” Policing and Society (2014): 346-361.

Jacobs, David. “The Determinants of Deadly Force: A Structural Analysis of Police Violence.” American Journal of Sociology 103:4 (1998).

Kappeler, Victor and Peter Kraska. “Normalizing Police Militarization, Living in Denial.” Policing and Society (2013).

Kraska, Peter B., Louis Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and beyond: Making sense of American paramilitary policing.” Justice Quarterly (18 Aug 2006): 607-629.

Kraska, Peter B., “Militarization and Policing—Its Relevance to 21st Century Police.” Policing A journal of policy and practice 4 (2007): 501-513.

Morrison, Steven. “Will to Power, will to reality, and racial profiling: how the white male dominant power structure creates itself as law abiding citizen through the creation of black as criminal” (2007; Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy).

Stroud, Angela. “Good Guys with Guns: Hegemonic Masculinity and Concealed Handguns.” Gender and Society 26:2 (2012): 233.



  1. Good article and well cited but on the other hand the devolution into racial politics and the reason for white men to carry concealed to protect oneself against the black man is where you lost me. 80 to 90% of crime is perpetrated within ones own ethnic group. So therefore I carry to protect myself against the white meth head down the block. Just as a concealed carry person who is black should carry to protect oneself against the corner boys down the block. I feel no empowerment or racial superiority while carrying. I carry because I realize that a threat is a threat no matter what it’s color, gender or age. To add political correctness to an article exposing institutional racism is a sign of fuzzy thinking and faulty logic.


  2. A big event that lead to increased armament in law enforcement was the increased armament of organized crime. This is most exemplified event the fire fight between FBI agents who just had revolvers and the criminals who had automatic weapons in Miami in 1988.


    • The Mini-14 used by the bank robbers in the Miami Shootout was a semiautomatic rifle, not automatic. Also, I’m pretty sure those guys weren’t part of an organized crime group.


    • Not to forget the infamous bank heist in L.A. where the guys actually did have automatics plus body armor. Yet what is different now than in the earlier part of the last century when the Chicago Typewriter came into our vernacular? And didnt Bonnie and Clyde prefer to use BAR’s, stolen from natl guard armory? I may be confusing with other criminals, organized or not, but suffice to say heavy firepower isnt exactly an only recently encountered phenomenon for law enforcement.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent work! That being said, even the best data points and most rigorous analyses are still downstream observations of human behavior. Police militarization is a very grave concern, but in an occupation where ‘routine’ processes can be anything but, you can understand a certain desire to stack the odds in your favor for getting home safely.

    Racist outcomes perhaps may not all arise out of racist motivations. That being said, a disturbing amount of government actions disproportionately harm minorities, especially blacks. The majority of these can be attributed to democrats, whose racist history against blacks is easily traced back to the early days of the party. Blue laws, civil litigation (including Dred Scott), union laws, eugenics, gun control (Dred Scott appears again here), War on Poverty, etc., are clearly racist in outcome and in many instances demonstrably racist in intent. Minorities are always going to suffer at the hands of the majoriy, its just the nature of the beast. But America is supposed to be different; as Bill Clinton put it so succinctly: “majority rule, minority rights.” We can all take a step towards reducing institutional racism by shrinking the institution every time we vote against big government.

    As regards analyses of CCW holders being racist, how many males from the wrong side of the tracks were interviewed who ‘constitutional carry’ by sticking a pistol in their pocket? Seems to me theres a bit of inherent bias in that particular analysis.


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