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An Empire of Patrolmen

Stuart Schrader

During the Cold War, the US trained cops in more than fifty countries to suppress dissent. This “police professionalization” helped produce death squads in countries like El Salvador and mass incarceration in the United States.

US Army Staff Sgt. Roberto Santini, Puerto Rico National Guard Security Forces Training (SFT) instructor, demonstrates weapon-handling techniques to a group Honduran soldiers during the SFT course June 8, 2019, at the 1st Artillery Battalion in Zambrano, Honduras. Eric Summers Jr / US Southern Command

Interview by
Jonah Walters

When we think of liberal cosmopolitans, we don’t usually think of beat cops. But during the Cold War, US police professionalizers trotted the globe, offering technical assistance to local police forces in more than fifty countries as part of a global campaign to stem the spread of communism.

After World War II, the United States became the guarantor of the global capitalist system. As European powers like France and Great Britain withdrew from many of their former colonial holdings, the United States assumed responsibility for suppressing anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics in the Third World. Soon, people around the world came to understand the North American superpower as the world’s policeman.

But as scholar Stuart Schrader shows in Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, the link between policemen and US empire is more than just a metaphor. One of the most important aspects of US imperial policy is overseas police assistance, which began in earnest after World War II and continues to this day.

The expertise American “police professionalizers” exported during the Cold War helped create a transnational vernacular of police repression. The United States delegated the everyday work of social regulation to local police forces throughout the world, which operated on the American model to suppress the twin menace of criminality and communism. When cops brought those same practices to bear on US communities, particularly through Lyndon Johnson’s War on Crime, they helped produce the dystopian carceral state we live with today.

Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with Stuart Schrader about the “seedy underbelly of liberal internationalism” and what the history of overseas police assistance can teach the Left in the era of Black Lives Matter and the War on Terror.


JW

Badges Without Borders opens with a visual metaphor — an invitation to picture an American penitentiary, and then to look beyond it, at the blurry background too often left unexamined by scholars and activists. The purpose of your book is to bring that background into focus. What do you see looming behind the US carceral state?

SS

I appreciate that you used the term “invitation” because the book is meant to complement existing work about the US carceral state. Starting generally in the 1960s, the United States began a massive campaign to enhance its capacities of social control. It did this through expanding policing and incarceration at local and state levels, leading to the situation we have today: 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and another 3 million or more under other types of correctional control.

Thanks to scholars and activists, we’ve learned that story quite well over the past couple decades. But oftentimes, I’ve felt it was incomplete. In my book Badges Without Borders, I try to shine a light on the deep connections between the work of increasing state capacity through policing and the prison system, on the one hand, and US empire on the other.

If you were to make a roster of people whose professional expertise went into creating the carceral state in its important early moments, you would find that these same experts were constantly traveling all around the world, trying to enhance social control in countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And they were doing that in service of US foreign policy.

Once you’re alerted to the fact that these people were living quite peripatetic lives — traveling around sharing their expertise globally — you start to get a different perspective on how they understood social order, and what kinds of institutions they were building to solve what they saw as social problems. What they were building, of course, turned out to be the carceral state.

JW

These people built up repressive state capacity around the world specifically to suppress communism, right? It was part of a larger project of counterinsurgency.

SS

Yes. This history demands thinking about US empire in slightly different terms from how the Left has approached it historically.

There’s a lot of righteous condemnation of the more spectacular elements of US imperialism — the wars, the invasions, the coups. But there are also more subtle effects of US empire to take into account, like the existence of a shared vocabulary among police forces around the world. This isn’t something that rises to the level of righteous condemnation very often, but it does indicate how US empire works.

How we define US empire is important, because it takes peculiar and specific forms. I conceptualize US empire as discretionary and devolutionary. “Discretionary” means that the United States reserves the right to intervene directly when and where it wants to. After World War II, the United States constructed a global apparatus of military bases, which to this day allows it to credibly wield the threat of intervention constantly, against basically any country.

But then there’s the devolutionary type of intervention, which is what I focus on. The United States is actually somewhat chaste, despite the massive powers at its disposal, in that it is relatively restrained when it comes to putting its own soldiers on the ground to fight battles. There are brutal examples where it does, of course — Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. But there are many other countries where the United States instead uses its technical expertise and training capabilities to build up the capacity of local forces.

The responsibility to enact security at the local level is devolved to local forces that are trained, equipped, and assisted by the United States. This happens in many, many countries around the globe. The United States uses local security forces as proxies to attain its own goals and objectives.

Focusing on the devolutionary aspect of US empire can give us a better sense of how imperialism is connected organically to domestic law-enforcement systems. By describing a discretionary and devolutionary empire, of course, I’m invoking words that many would use to describe policing in the United States.

When I started doing this research, I was just taken aback at how easily these US law-enforcement experts — police professionalizers — took up the mantle of counterrevolution in the Third World. They really saw their duty to be preventing communist revolution. And their professional expertise led them to think that, to prevent revolution, all they needed to create was a regular old police force, like in US cities.

JW

Your book narrates the story of how professional policing on the American model was exported to the Third World, beginning after World War II. There were (and are) whole government agencies in the United States for the purpose of exporting that kind of expertise. How did police professionalization become the United States’ secret weapon in the Cold War?

SS

The grandfather of professional policing was a guy named August Vollmer. Before he was a police officer, he was an army soldier, engaged in counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines. When he came back to the United States, he soon rose to the top of an echelon of people who were trying to professionalize policing in American cities.

These police professionalizers were largely inspired by what they had done already in places like the Philippines. Colonial expeditions in the first part of the century taught them lessons like how to organize patrol, how to think spatially about cities or territories, how to effectively use technology, and so on. They wedded this experience to already existing knowledge of strike control and labor repression.

In the United States, one of the key goals of these professionalizers was to sever the links between local political machines and urban police forces, which in most cities were extremely strong. By the 1940s, professionalization had succeeded in weakening those linkages substantially. This was a dramatic change in American policing. Then, when the United States emerged out of World War II as the victor and gave itself the responsibility to manage the global capitalist system, it sent these professionalizers to other parts of the globe, starting with the vanquished Axis powers. Vollmer went to Germany briefly, as did many of the next generation of professionalizers who studied under him, including Orlando W. Wilson, perhaps the most prominent twentieth-century police leader.

Their philosophy was that professionalizing the police would remove the capability of local political figures to wield their power through the police force. They felt that, in order to prevent the rise of another Hitler, they needed to go to Germany and create a politically independent police force. It was an idealistic form of liberal thinking, actually.

Armed with the conclusion that police reform could prevent “totalitarianism,” these professionalizers went out into the world, where they drew on their experience dealing with the corrupt city governments of the United States to undermine what they saw as despotism in other countries. But they never had the ability or the desire to eradicate the fundamental despotism at the core of every police street stop.

These policing internationalists did institutionalize a set of managerial reforms among police agencies abroad. They changed the requirements for who could be hired, introduced new technologies and scientific investigatory practices, raised the pay grade, and so on. Crucially, they also gave local police a bit more autonomy, by dismantling centralized national policing systems. Professionalizers wanted to introduce reforms like these in other countries, too, but it was easiest in Germany and Japan because those were defeated enemies.

Then the Cold War set in. It raised the urgency for the United States of reforming police in other countries — both to prevent the possibility of left-leaning leaders from controlling the police to their own ends and, more broadly, to endow police with the ability to stamp out any inkling of communist subversion or insurgency. The CIA oversaw this process at first, and it became formalized in a directive in late 1954, relying on a number of these very same police professionalizers, like Orlando Wilson and his colleagues. They and their students then came to be employed by the Office of Public Safety, or OPS, founded by the US government in 1962 to give the program stability and direct oversight by the National Security Council.

In the 1960s, OPS introduced similar types of professional policing to more than fifty countries around the globe.

JW

To what extent was OPS a response to the collapse of European colonialism? An anticolonial wave was cresting all over the world at the time. It’s striking that the US government developed a whole new approach, rather than replicating the practices of the receding European powers, like Great Britain or France.

SS

The United States was trying to avoid appearing like a new colonial power. Everyone was consumed with that question, to a certain extent, from national security thinkers and intelligence analysts to these police professionalizers we’re talking about.

US officials looked at the former colonies of Britain, the former colonies of France, and knew that they absolutely could not allow them to go communist. But they also knew that they couldn’t simply replicate the security apparatus that was already in place, because that could stoke renewed anti-colonial revolutions. So they were caught between two challenges. They had to find a middle road, and that middle road ultimately led them to offer technical assistance to the police forces of newly independent countries.

Now of course, at the same time, actors in the US national security apparatus used other countries’ police agencies for the United States’ own purposes, including by paying attention to the intelligence they gathered. But it wasn’t as though the United States was the one effecting arrests, doing the day-to-day work of repression. That responsibility was devolved to local police forces.

JW

It’s striking how the politics of this endeavor was so submerged. Police reformers even denied what they were doing was political at all! It’s almost like, for the professionalizers, police are like dentists — they use a discrete set of skills to do a clearly defined job, which is more or less the same in every society. For dentists, that job is filling teeth. For the police, that job is repression.

SS

It’s important to keep in mind just how anti-democratic the idea of professionalization is, especially when you apply it to the police. To continue with the dentist analogy, if you and I went to a meeting of the American Dental Association and said, “Let us, the people, tell you how you should give somebody a crown,” they would laugh at us. They would remind us that they’re experts, that they have specialized training, and so they’re not actually answerable to us.

That’s the kind of relationship the police professionalizers of mid-century wanted to develop with the public. They don’t want to be accountable to an untrained public of voters, or even lawmakers. They want to only be answerable to themselves. They want the respect and protection that comes along with specific types of training. That is what professionalization means in a nutshell. An aid in developing this type of rhetoric was anti-communism: denounce anyone who insists on public oversight or review of police activity as a commie.

JW

At its heart, Badges Without Borders is a book about how the US carceral state formed and hardened. The process you describe in the book is like a pendulum: American policing swings into the Third World during the Cold War, and then later we watch it make its return. How did the practices OPS developed swing back home, to American cities?

SS

US policing is an institution that changes over time. Policing is actually quite capable of responding to new problems and challenges, but it also has certain limitations. Overseas police assistance actually revealed a fundamental contradiction of American-style policing, in a sense: if policing is decentralized and devolutionary, with power vested at the most local level and not centrally controlled, how on earth are you going to institute reforms that can touch every precinct house?

Overseas, this often meant the United States faced great challenges getting the police to adopt the reforms that it wanted. OPS officials were consistently irked that police in recipient countries were quite happy to accept tear gas grenades, handcuffs, motorcycles, and other technologies, without taking any of the expert advice that was supposed to come along with them.

On the other hand, the United States could absolve itself of responsibility for abuses or atrocities, by saying its training manual did not actually command anyone to commit atrocities, for example. But police advisers were eager to take credit anytime something worked properly, whether a well-attended local Police Athletic League jamboree in Thailand or a nonviolent arrest of a communist revolutionary in Colombia.

The same dynamic unfolded in the United States with the War on Crime, initiated by President Johnson in 1965 and solidified in 1968. The War on Crime was an effort to institutionalize some reforms at the federal level, with the idea that they would filter down to local levels. Meanwhile, at the local level, the police didn’t want to be told what to do by a centralized authority in Washington.

The War on Crime took on a peculiar shape, built through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). One of the things that I point out in my work is that the LEAA and the Office of Public Safety had a lot in common. Not only did they share individuals — some people’s career trajectories took them straight from OPS to the LEAA — but the very structuring principle behind the LEAA was the same as the OPS’s. Both organizations were trying to figure out how to use a centralized set of resources to reform and professionalize law enforcement at local levels, which was precisely what OPS was trying to do, just across borders.

Badges Without Borders reveals how some of the key figures involved in designing the War on Crime’s bureaucratic infrastructure, which became the LEAA, invoked OPS as a model. The LEAA did not actually engage in operational crime-control activity, but it put tools, resources, and knowledge in the hands of the people who did engage in that work, including those employed by police agencies, courts, prisons, and jails. In the United States, the block grant, which sends money from Washington to the states basically without conditions on how it will be spent, emerged through the War on Crime. The LEAA was the first agency to make great use of this instrument, which became infamous later when wielded to undermine social-welfare programming.

The LEAA spent billions of dollars beginning in 1968 to increase the technical capacities of law enforcement. This occurred under the banner of reformism, gently acknowledging some problems in how policing looked at the time. But the program’s design meant it was impossible to guarantee that any reforms that took hold actually were oriented toward lessening racism, which was the real problem of policing in the 1960s and remains so today.

In the LEAA’s first years, because its enabling legislation was a direct rejoinder to black political insurgency of the 1960s, a major proportion of its funding went to “riot control.” The book details how federal riot-control planning, training for police and military, and technologies like the chemical weapon CS (mislabeled “tear gas”) all drew on lessons from OPS advisors and their experiences. OPS itself invented a cheap grenade system for delivering tear gas, for instance, which was widely adopted.

Through the War on Crime, the federal government increased the ability of local and state governments to engage in repression — and, as the experience of OPS overseas predicted, they turned around and used these resources to do exactly that, even when policing activities that could never be credibly labeled as riots.

JW

Today, the United States is waging the War on Terror, which in some respects looks like a return to more overt counterinsurgency methods. The playbook for the Iraq conflict, for example, was the Small Wars Manual created during the Marine occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s — a far cry from the materials produced by the OPS during the Cold War. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response not only to racist police killings, but also to the conspicuous militarization of police forces at home.

What lessons do you want people to take from your book, reading it at this fraught moment in the history of both policing and imperialism?

SS

The book is very much about the seedy underbelly of the so-called liberal internationalism of the post-1945 moment. Now, oftentimes when people discuss the seedy underbelly, they focus exclusively on, say, the coups in Iran and Guatemala. And certainly those historical events are relevant to the story I’m telling.

But the police professionalizers that I focus on, who took as their primary purpose preventing communist revolution in the Third World, were liberal internationalists, too. They didn’t see themselves contradicting that always-deferred dream of bringing democracy to the globe. In fact, they saw themselves as furthering exactly that goal. That leads to some troubling conclusions about the project of liberal internationalism.

I started this project in the Obama moment, when liberal internationalism seemed like it was on the upswing. I finished the book in the Trump moment, when liberal internationalism seems like it’s dying off. And there are certainly a lot of people who desperately hope that, with Trump out of the White House, they can bring back that old project and everything will just be fine.

My book is a call to think much more carefully about what this mid-century moment, the heyday of liberal internationalism, actually entailed. What were the mechanisms that allowed liberal internationalists to enforce friendliness to global capitalism around the world? It turns out that it entailed supplying all kinds of guns and tear gas to police forces. It entailed building up the capacity of police forces to gather intelligence and monitor dissent, which, in some cases, later enabled the creation of death squads.

Now, since September 11, the US military has been engaged in counterinsurgency operations across the globe, and it certainly is the case that soldiers are fighting these wars, in many cases. However, I would argue that these military operations have a lot more in common with policing, in a vernacular sense, than with what we generally think of as military conflicts. We’re seeing soldiers basically doing police work.

This is as true of Obama’s so-called surge in Baghdad in 2014 as it is of the continuous counterterrorism operations around the globe today. What soldiers are doing, whether they’re special operation troops or just regular old soldiers, is gathering intelligence, looking for suspects, executing searches, knocking on doors (sometimes in the middle of the night), taking people’s photos and putting them in databases. To the extent that somebody might use the term “militarization of policing,” it’s just as important for us to consider the “police-ification” of the military.

I think Black Lives Matter is asking intellectuals and radicals to think in really fundamental ways about what policing is. From that perspective, it’s important to remember that even if police got rid of the military-style gear that appears in lots of photos, they would still be police. They would still be capable of enacting social control through repression, through surveillance, through killing armed and unarmed people, and so forth.

I certainly would not deny that police — particularly since the 1990s, but especially after 9/11 — tend to dress like soldiers and tend to drive armored vehicles. But does simply calling that phenomenon “militarization” help us to think in fundamental ways about what a critique of policing needs to call for? That’s where I’m skeptical, in part because I think that the introduction of so-called military aspects to policing has been ongoing since the beginning of the twentieth century.

At no point in history we can say that there was a rigid divide between civilian police and military. There’s always cross-contamination.

JW

How did that process leave us with such a bloated and seemingly intractable prison system? How did it make the carceral state?

SS

One aftereffect of overseas police assistance is the lingering belief that reforming institutions of social control should be our overriding goal. What that reform actually means, of course, is making these institutions more capable of achieving their purpose, which is surveillance, repression, and ultimately incarceration. The United States did this around the globe through OPS, and, in doing so, figured out how to navigate the really peculiar intra-governmental relations that comprise law enforcement in the United States.

This created a situation in which US law enforcement actually found something valuable in that reform process, because it ended up endowing them with more tools at their disposal, greater reach, more political clout. That was the whole point of professionalization — through professionalizing reforms, cops come to be treated as authoritative and worthy of the resources bestowed on them.

It’s a disposition, really. We’re left with a stubborn attachment to reformism as a tool for making law-enforcement institutions more eligible for the investment of resources. But if legislators endow law-enforcement institutions with the resources to engage in comprehensive social control, they’ll do it.

JW

And once they have that power, they’ll resist any effort to roll it back, even technocratically.

SS

Exactly. Also, to go along with the disposition toward state building and capacity expansion through reformism, you have the disposition of thinking that all sorts of social problems are to be solved by law enforcement. This is really crucial to the growth of the carceral state. To use OPS’s phrase, “the first line of defense” is the police.

When the police adopt this disposition, when they start presenting themselves as the primary answer to everything, they just end up finding ways to insinuate themselves into all these problems. You get to a point where today, in 2019, a lot of police (particularly at the managerial level) actually really regret the situation they’re in. They regret the fact that the United States, on the whole, has extremely thin emergency civil services, and so police are thrust into doing all kinds of jobs that they aren’t actually trained to do (and that they don’t know how to do well).

But police created this situation for themselves, by adopting the position they rehearsed during the Cold War — repeatedly saying that the police can provide solutions to every political problem, whether it be criminality or communist subversion. The cops blurred the lines between those two things and end up asserting their own necessity over and over again. Eventually, that got the United States to the point where there is no other option for people who are in distress other than to call for a police response, even though that police response, almost invariably, is going to make the situation worse.

In both its foreign policy and its domestic policy, the United States has consistently routed its understanding of problems through rhetorics of security, rhetorics of emergency, rhetorics of crisis.

I hope people will read Badges Without Borders and be surprised by these affinities across foreign and domestic policies. We really need to understand this as one sphere, not two. During the heyday of police assistance, the decade of the 1960s into the 1970s, policymakers and intellectuals were really quite explicit about their belief that borders should be crossed and singular solutions to problems proposed.

One reason was certainly that they believed the internationalist claims, and feared the practical border-crossing efforts, of left-wing militants. Many anti-communist analysts and intellectuals vastly overestimated this supposed threat and inflated left-wing linkages across borders, as if they were easy and smooth and required no translation into local contexts.

It’s difficult to confirm the accuracy of this story, but in a sense, the anti-communists’ greatest worry was captured in a communication from the North Vietnamese military leadership to black radical Robert F. Williams: Detroit’s uprising in 1967 taught them, the Vietnamese insurgents, to go to the cities and conduct urban guerrilla operations, leading to the Tet Offensive the next year. That this offensive arguably sealed the US defeat in the war, not least by discrediting it among US voters, demonstrates the power of a militancy that respects no borders.

There is a reflexive, antagonistic relationship here between internationalist politics and border-crossing security policy. One takeaway, I hope, is the sense that political movements aiming to constrain or abolish the carceral state must be willing to think in global terms. Similarly, our critique of US militarism (or global policemanship) must acknowledge how deeply projections of imperial power can shape everyday life on city streets at home.