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Policing Empire

The call to demilitarize police overlooks the longstanding link between policing and empire.

Herbert A. French / Library of Congress

For now, a modicum of peace, if not justice, has returned to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. National Guard troops have withdrawn, and cops have returned their Kevlar vests, semi-automatic rifles, and landmine-resistant trucks to storage.

On the ground, activists are continuing to mobilize against police violence. Internationally, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Amnesty International have spoken out against the police shooting of Michael Brown, as well as the aggressive response to protests. In Washington, calls for investigations into the police militarization may finally occasion action. Even within the ranks of the police, some have begun to question whether the kind of martial technologies deployed in Ferguson, designed for warzones, provoke more than keep the peace.

Yet we should be skeptical of calls for police reform, particularly when accompanied by cries that this (militarization) should not happen here. A close look at the history of US policing reveals that the line between foreign and domestic has long been blurry. Shipping home tactics and technologies from overseas theaters of imperial engagement has been a typical mode of police reform in the United States. When policing on American streets comes into crisis, law-enforcement leaders look overseas for answers. What transpired in Ferguson is itself a manifestation of reform.

From the Philippines to Guatemala to Afghanistan, the history of US empire is the history of policing experts teaching indigenous cops how to patrol and investigate like Americans. As a journalist observed in the late 1950s, “Americans in Viet-Nam very sincerely believe that in transplanting their institutions, they will immunize South Viet-Nam against Communist propaganda.” But the flow is not one-way: these institutions also return home transformed.


Police reformers walk a thin line. Increased levels of in-service training, higher educational requirements for recruits, and the introduction of strict protocols should rein in some abuses. Yet doing so shrinks the radius of officer discretion, which cops of course hate. Architects of a plan to professionalize and legitimize, reformers are left with an incoherent result that does neither, granting too much autonomy to police and very little to the communities they patrol.

This muddled futility can be seen from the very first attempts to reform US policing. The grandfather of professionalized policing is August Vollmer, a man who participated in brutally violent counterinsurgency in the Philippines as a constabulary. Inspired, he soon sought to modernize policing in post-World War I, Palmer Raids-era America.

Vollmer aimed to upend the era’s dominant, arbitrary mode of policing, captured in the reputed motto of the NYPD’s Alexander “Clubber” Williams, “There is more law at the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court.” Yet the ambition to professionalize the force would not eradicate the nightstick itself.

Vollmer’s protégé was O. W. Wilson, author of the twentieth century’s most widely read policing textbook. Among his approaches to reform was the institution of strict, military-like hierarchies and standards of discipline. He was inspired by his experience as an officer in an occupying army, reorganizing the police in Germany after World War II.

Elite reformers often condemn the use of authoritarian police forces as political tools, seeing it as the antithesis of liberal democratic governance. Police are supposed to enforce the law from a position of neutrality, goes the argument. Professionalization, in turn, should thwart such interference.

The result of this professionalizing tendency, however, has been to protect the police from any criticism. Just as no person on the street should have a say in how a brain surgeon performs her task, the professionalizers argue, no police officer should have to answer to anyone but himself and his protocols. The reform program of imposing rigorous standards of behavior, divisions of labor, and doctrinal guidelines does not subject the police to public scrutiny or oversight but instead insulates them, further enabling rule by discretion.

This aversion to democratic accountability is no surprise. Because reformers tend to travel so widely to test their theories, the imperial mode of experimentation has no responsibility to its test subjects. And the application of its lessons is most visible when protesters are contesting the legitimacy of state violence.


With such protests occurring across the United States, the most dramatic effort to modernize policing at home occurred with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime. The 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which provided funding, developed guidelines, and helped with coordination among federal, state, and municipal law-enforcement agencies, while also offering research grants to test experimental tactics and technologies. A decade before the beginning of the incarceration boom, a federally backed revamping of law enforcement set the stage.

The original idea for new federal anticrime infrastructure had emerged a few years earlier, in early autumn 1964. Summer unrest had shown police forces to be underprepared and insufficiently trained to handle urban riots or apparently increasing crime levels. As a result, Johnson administration officials launched a program to assist domestic law enforcement modeled on an ongoing program to assist foreign police.

Counterinsurgent foreign police assistance was not new in the 1960s, but it gained a robust, centralized leadership and a budgetary line of its own in 1962. The program consisted of three areas: technical assistance, such as help setting up crime laboratories, surveillance units, or prisons; material aid, what some skeptics derided as “running guns to cops”; and training. Advisers aimed to help indigenous forces fight ordinary crime, control unrest, and keep tabs on radicals. No great distinctions were drawn between these tasks, and the means for their accomplishment overlapped.

In December 1963, the Office of Public Safety (OPS), housed within the Agency for International Development, opened its International Police Academy in Washington, DC. High- and mid-ranking police officials from over seventy-five countries attended classes there for a decade. They learned state-of-the-art police techniques, including logistics, riot control, marksmanship, and record-keeping. The academy’s raison d’etre was one of “training trainers,” so lessons imparted there were sure to be replicated in other countries.

One OPS executive argued,

Regardless of what color policemen are, the suits they wear, what they call themselves, they are all the same. They are the same for the simple reason that a policeman exists in society as a behavior control mechanism. The basic principles of what is done, how it is done, and why it is done are the same.

If this projection was not yet true, OPS’s mission was to make it a reality.

Culled from agencies around the country, OPS’s advisers represented the best and most versatile experts US law enforcement had to offer. In addition to prior police work at home, most also had experience in counterinsurgency and special-warfare operations overseas.

Although Congress eventually shuttered OPS amid accusations that it taught and condoned torture and bomb-making, most of its work was utterly pedestrian — and that underpins today’s problem. OPS’s version of counterinsurgency did not try to institute highly militarized police forces so much as attempt to create standards of discipline, specialized units, benchmarks for training, facility with up-to-date technologies, and autonomy from external influences. Its lessons were based on the idea that adept police forces are essential for capitalist democracy.

Even today, we live with the legacies of OPS. Its program of total surveillance of South Vietnamese citizens using tamper-proof national ID cards might make today’s electronic spies jealous, but the means of checking those IDs — stop-and-frisk — would be recognizable to any beat cop in New York or Chicago. In 1964, an OPS training manual advised, “These methods — checks, searches, passes — are tolerated only in situations of national emergency in which they are necessary to combat the enemy. Viet Nam today is in the midst of such an emergency.” But today, on US streets with continually declining crime rates, these “reformed” actions of the police constitute the emergency.


The repatriation of overseas counterinsurgency techniques became explicit in 1967, after Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the destructive rebellions in Detroit and Newark. It invited dozens of experts to testify, and it gathered mountains of data. The most salient testimony concerning policing, however, came from Byron Engle, the head of OPS. He was an anticommunist in every fiber of his being, but the lessons he brought from overseas to the Kerner Commission were far from crude.

Torture, railroading, “the third degree” — by 1967, these were nowhere to be found in his playbook. What he offered, however, was a border-transcending liberal science of policing: “We have found there are many principles and concepts which apply, whether it is Asia, Africa, or South America. Perhaps those same principles would apply in the United States.”

Engle informed the commission that the best way to deal with unrest was to avoid what the NYPD had done in Harlem in 1964, the LAPD in Watts in 1965, or the National Guard in Detroit in 1967. In each case, after incidents of police brutality, black protesters encountered still more police violence. Engle noted that firing pistols wildly into crowds or buildings was bound to worsen unrest. He couched his advice for redeeming policing in terms of the Communist threat: Cold War counterinsurgency had taught him that in tense situations, with inflamed crowds, what subversives desired above all was to “get a martyr,” to bolster their cause.

Police overreaction, he argued, was the surest way to give the Communists what they wanted and to discredit the forces of law and order. In powder-keg crowd-control situations, “nonlethal riot control,” using “chemical munitions,” rather than guns, was “most effective.” Moreover, prevention of unrest was key, and the way to do it was with intensive police training, gathering of intelligence, and creation of specialized tactical units.

Although the Kerner Commission dispensed with his conspiracy theories about Communists, it adopted Engle’s tactical recommendations — many self-consciously tested by OPS in Southeast Asia or Latin America — almost verbatim. The LEAA soon opened its doors and catalyzed a massive refortification of policing.

The effect was to remake the image of police, warding off more thorough, systemic change. New nationwide training programs began, inspired by OPS’s own successes with foreign police (though these would be replaced by more localized versions, initially developed by Ronald Reagan’s people while he was California’s governor). Properly trained, US cops would now act as disciplined, competent professionals, not bumbling or violent thugs.

The St. Louis County Police may have besmirched Engle’s de-escalatory vision last month, with their lack of discipline and disregard for the optics of martyrdom. But Ferguson sits in the shadow of the War on Crime’s attempts to upgrade and modernize policing on the imperial model.

Like the LEAA’s blank-check block grants to states, today unrestricted federal grants in the name of Homeland Security allow local police to purchase military-grade hardware. In the 1960s, one of the LEAA’s initial actions was to lubricate complicated, highly regulated transfers of surplus matériel — such as the tear gas that the Kerner Commision recommended at Engle’s urging — from the military to domestic police forces. Today, these exchanges are routine, and the Pentagon need not even be involved.

Another Kerner-recommended tool was the wooden bullet. Via Engle and his colleagues, the commission learned about expert riot control in Hong Kong, where constabulary forces in the British colonial mold used these supposedly less-than-lethal weapons. Intended to be shot at the ground and skipped toward protesters’ knees, these were less likely to create martyrs, even if they broke apart and flung wooden shrapnel at crowds. In Ferguson, witnesses reported seeing these rounds fired directly at crowds.

The list goes on.


After a policeman killed a black teenager on a city street in broad daylight, residents responded with outrage, anger, and despondency. They organized vigils and rallies. Community leaders spoke out. Demands that the police officer responsible be brought to justice, however, encountered intransigence. The police would admit no wrongdoing and would accede to no public pressure. Instead they intimidated and threatened residents, attacking them as a dispersal technique.

Protesters hurled rocks and trash at hostile cops, who answered lethally, firing back with pistols. The police response was of a piece with the original killing: violent, wanton, and racially exacting. When black protesters seemed unwilling to disperse, an exasperated cop exclaimed through a bullhorn, “Why don’t you go home?” Now feeling besieged on their own blocks, with nowhere else to go, they replied, “We are home, baby!”

Ferguson? Not quite. This scene played out fifty years ago in Harlem, when NYPD lieutenant Thomas Gilligan shot and killed James Powell. When US policing comes under criticism for snuffing out black life, as occurred in 1951, the 1960s, 1992, and countless other times before Ferguson, it draws on a reservoir of imperial expertise in social control. These incidents led to expert-guided efforts to rein in police excesses, through the repatriation of overseas tactics. Yet these reforms have made US police look and behave like they are waging counterinsurgency.

Even the most progressive reforms of policing cannot, and do not aspire to, undo everyday alignments of empire, racism, and capital accumulation. In the face of demands for social transformation, police reformers answer with technologies and tactics, rooted in the transnational transfer of expertise from warzones abroad to American streets, that continue to protect and serve the existing social order.

The solution to the problem — Mike Brown’s killing, the armed-to-the-teeth prevention of protest — will not be found by “improving” policing. It will be found only in the dismantling of US empire, at home and abroad.