The Militarization of U.S. Police Departments


Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to just everywhere.” We should all be cognizant of King’s quote. In the 20th and 21rst centuries, U.S. policies around the world, both economically and militarily, have been questionable at best. They started with the Philippines in the beginning of the 20th century up to the Middle East today. These policies, more often incredibly violent, are coming back to haunt us. An example of this includes the U.S. international policy of “Low-Intensity Conflict” (LIC).

The U.S. launched LIC at the beginning of the century in its Philippine colony in 1901 with the creation of the Philippine Constabulary. The Philippine Constabulary is, even today, a national police organization created principally to protect American and Filipino elite interests. The legacy of this policy is that it now serves as a model for a militarized policing system in our 21rst century domestic American life.

The U.S. government and its elite tend to try out policies internationally before introducing them into the U.S. I generally define the “elite” as neoconservative and neoliberal economic proponents along with their corporate capitalist supporters and colleagues. As in the Philippines, these U.S. elite want to control Americans. They don’t want opposition to their policies, pure and simple.

Often the U.S. elite are constrained in implementing the policies domestically, due to laws that prevent this. They then will try to circumvent the restricting laws or attempt to overturn them.  There has been a similar pattern with economic policies as with structural adjustment economic initiatives internationally by the IMF and World Bank and now neoliberal privatization in the U.S. itself. This is mostly thanks to Congress overturning, for example, the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 (Crawford) and politicians and government agencies allowing for the privatization of many of our formerly “public” institutions (Gray).

Constraints on Militarization in the United States

Not long after the end of the Civil War, in 1865, the United States government sent federal troops to the South to enforce the policies of the reconstruction period:

Reconstruction addressed how the eleven seceding states would regain what the Constitution calls a “republican form of government” and be reseated in Congress, the civil status of the former leaders of the Confederacy, and the Constitutional and legal status of freedmen, especially their civil rights and whether they should be given the right to vote. Intense controversy erupted throughout the South over these issues….Congress removed civilian governments in the South in 1867 and put the former Confederacy under the rule of the U.S. Army. The army conducted new elections in which the freed slaves could vote, while whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were temporarily denied the vote and were not permitted to run for office (Reconstruction – Wikipedia.).

When, in 1877, there was a highly contested presidential election between Democractic candidate Samuel Tilden from New York and Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, a compromise was generated between the southern “Democractic” delegation and the northern “Republicans”. This became known as the “Compromise of 1877“, in which the south agreed to support the Hayes presidency in return for the removal of the federal troops from the South  (Compromise of 1877 – Wikipedia)

The compromise, then, led to Congress passing the  Posse Comitatus Act in 1878. “The purpose of the act… (was) to limit the powers of the Federal government in using its military personnel to enforce the state laws (Posse Comitatus Act– Wikipedia).

There are exceptions, however, to the Posse Comitatus Act. If a state chooses to violate its citizens’ rights under the constitution, federal military troops can then be sent in. This was the case when President Eisenhower sent troops to Arkansas in 1957 to enforce the Supreme Court’s “Brown v Board of Education” decision to integrate American schools. Eisenhower responded to the obstructive opposition by the arch segregationist, Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus.

Since the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, therefore, the U.S. government has been constrained overall in the use of military force domestically in any of the U.S. states.

This constraint, though, has never been the case in U.S. international policies and, therefore, the U.S. has engaged in militarizing the domestic arenas of other countries that fall under the auspices of the U.S. empire or areas of interest (such as the Philippines, South American countries, the Middle East, etc.).

Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC) is a “Policing/Militarization of the U.S. Empire”

What is “Low-Intensity Conflict”? There are seemingly many definitions of the term. Regarding the impact of the U.S., however, I refer to it as “low-intensity” only for the U.S. military. In other words, the U.S. military does not get its hands dirty nor is it violently impacted but instead trains others for this insidious work. This is in contrast to those who are the recipients of it.

“Low Intensity Conflict” is simultaneously “high intensity” for those outside the U.S. who are victims of these U.S. international LIC policies. These victims are often under intimidating surveillance, sometimes suffer or are killed by summary execution, torture, displacement etc. by military or police in their own country who are trained philosophically and militarily by the U.S. In other words, it is a method employed to “police/militarize” the U.S. empire for U.S. political and economic interests. This could also be referred to as “war capitalism” (Beckert).

After the Philippine-American War (1899 to 1902), the Philippines became a colony of the United States. This was the first imperial venture by the United States outside its hemisphere and it set the tone for the 20th century policies in other countries including those in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. These countries were not colonies but are countries the U.S. has had an interest in and/or has wanted to make sure the governments complied to U.S. trade policies or other economic interests.

In 1901 the  U.S. created of the Philippine Constabulary(PC). It is still in existence today.

It  was created under the Commission Act No. 175 by Captain Henry T. Allen, an American, who was later dubbed as the “Father of the Philippine Constabulary”. It was first named as the Insular Constabulary and later renamed to Philippine Constabulary on December 1902. Its establishment then was meant to assist the United States military forces in fighting the remaining Filipino revolutionaries (Philippine Constabulary – Wikipilipinas)

This, in fact, was the launching of LIC strategies by the United States.

The Philippine Constabulary…was the first of the four service commands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It was a gendarmerie-type police force (armed police force or a militarized police force) of the Philippines established in 1901 by the United States-appointed administrative authority to replace the Spanish Guardia Civil (Spanish Civil Guard – Wkikipedia). It was later integrated with the municipal police force, (to become the) Integrated National Police  (and then) into the current Philippine National Police on January 29, 1991.

The constabulary assisted the United States military in combating the remaining irreconcilable revolutionaries (during the Philippine-American War) following the March 23 capture of General Israel L. Adalla III, and Adalla’s 1 April pledge of allegiance to the United States. The second phase of the Philippine-American War ended in Luzon by 1906, with the surrender and execution of one of its last remaining generals, Macario Sakay (Philippine Constabulary – Wikipedia).

In layman’s terms, the militarized Philippine Constabulary has served in the interest of the U.S. and Filipino elite against the revolutionary movements in the Philippines that would, for example, choose to rid the country of its exploitive corporate and military ventures. At the very least, the revolutionary movements throughout Philippine history have attempted to end a government that relies so heavily on and adherence to the United States dictates. (Read the history of the Hukbalahap (Huk) in mid 20th century and/or the New Peoples Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front in the Philippines in the excellent book The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance by Schirmer and Shalom).

Michael McClintock describes an example of the Constabulary military actions in the 1950s and their work has been on-going up to the present:

The combined army and Philippines Constabulary (PC) force level rose dramatically from 32,000 at the beginning of 1950 to 40,000 in 1951 and 56,000 in late 1952. Air power, too, became increasingly important as U.S. assistance stepped up, with some 2,600 bombing and strafing runs reported between I August 1950 and 30 June 1952 alone (some sorties allegedly with support from U. S. planes out of Clark Air Force Base). Requests for napalm were initially turned down on State Department advice, but from late 1951 American napalm was supplied and used both for crop destruction and antipersonnel purposes. A record system devised for Philippine military intelligence, which traced all known supporters of the wartime Huk resistance movement, was operational by the end of 1950; according to one source, it was used in screening operations that resulted in some 15,000 arrests in the first six months of 1951 (McClintock).

In other words, regarding the Philippine Constabulary, there is a fine distinction, if any, between what is policing and military operations.

On-Going U.S. International “Low-Intensity Conflict” Policies

When militarizing the domestic arena of its areas of influence in the world, the United States, as mentioned, pays no attention to its own domestic laws that do not easily allow for this militarization in its own domestic sphere.

International LIC policies have been implemented by the United States throughout much of the 20th century. The Philippines is just one example. Regarding LIC in South America, we need to consider the School of the Americas (SOA) or what is now referred to as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Georgia. In this school, the United States trains the military of South American countries to serve a somewhat similar role as the Philippine Constabulary and/or even more violent and extreme if that’s possible. Filipino army officers have also been trained at the SOA.

So instead of the United States military going into El Salvador, Nicaragua, Columbia, Argentina, etc. the U.S. trains troops from these countries to serve the interests of the United States and the friendly elite of the South American countries. Again, it is a “policing” or “militarization” of countries in what the United States considers its empire of interest.

The “School of the Americas Watch” has a sizable listing of human rights violations committed by graduates of the SOA/WHINSEC. (“The School of the Americas Watch” under the leadership of Father Roy Bourgeois has for years wisely tried to close down this school.)

One example below of these human rights violations is by that of graduate General Juan Orlando Zeped from El Salvador who took a course at the SOA in 1975 on Urban Counterinsurgency Ops.; and in 1969, Unnamed Course:

Jesuit massacre, 1989: (Zeped) Planned the assassination of 6 Jesuit priests and covered-up the massacre, which also took the lives of the priests’ housekeeper and her teen-age daughter. (United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Salvador, 1993) Other war crimes, 1980’s: The Non-Governmental Human Rights Commission in El Salvador also cites Zepeda for involvement in 210 summary executions, 64 tortures, and 110 illegal detentions. (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) Member of the “La Tandona” and held the rank of colonel and served as the Vice Minister of Defense at the time of the massacre. Prior to the massacre he publicly accused the UCA of being the center of operations for the FMLN and was present for the meetings where orders were given for the massacre. He was later promoted to the rank of general (Notorious Grads – School of the Americas).

The Domestic Military: Contemporary Police Departments and Militarization

As with the international structural adjustment policies that are now being implemented in the United States, as mentioned above, I have always assumed that the U.S. would also want to implement the LIC strategies or increased domestic militarization in the U.S. as well. The Posse-Comitatus Act has invariably prevented this from happening to any significant degree. One way around this, as in by not being able to send in the federal troops to cities and states, is to militarize the local police forces and this is happening to a significant degree in the United States.

As the ACLU has reported:

All across the country, heavily armed SWAT teams are raiding people’s homes in the middle of the night, often just to search for drugs. It should enrage us that people have needlessly died during these raids, that pets have been shot, and that homes have been ravaged.

Our neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. Any yet, every year, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color.

As our new report makes clear, it’s time for American police to remember that they are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not wage war on the people who live in them (The War Comes Home).

We also need to look at the role Israel has played in training our local police forces since 9/11. As Robert Salladay reported September 2014:

The clouds of tear gas, flurries of projectiles and images of police officers outfitted in military-grade hardware in Ferguson, Missouri, have reignited concerns about the militarization of domestic law enforcement in the United States.

But there has been another, little-discussed change in the training of American police since the 9/11 attacks: At least 300 high-ranking sheriffs and police from agencies large and small – from New York and Maine to Orange County and Oakland, California – have traveled to Israel for privately funded seminars in what is described as counter-terrorism techniques….

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, said the seminars reflect a militarized mindset diametrically opposed to traditional police-community relations in the United States….

If American police and sheriffs consider they’re in occupation of neighborhoods like Ferguson and East Harlem, this training is extremely appropriate – they’re learning how to suppress a people, deny their rights and use force to hold down a subject population,” said Khalidi, a longtime critic of the Israeli occupation (Salladay).

In a 2014 article on Alternet, Art Kane refers to “11 Shocking Facts About America’s Militarized Police Forces: The militarization of police is harming civil liberties, impacting children, and transforming neighborhoods into war zones“. He states:

The “war on terror” has come home–and it’s wreaking havoc on innocent American lives. The culprit is the militarization of the police….

A recent New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo reported that in the Obama era, “police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”  The result is that police agencies around the nation possess military-grade equipment, turning officers who are supposed to fight crime and protect communities into what look like invading forces from an army. And military-style police raids have increased in recent years, with one count putting the number at 80,000 such raids last year (Kane).

Alex Kane’s “11 shocking facts about the militarization of the U.S. police” are:

1. It harms, and sometimes kills, innocent people.

2. Children are impacted.

3. The use of SWAT teams is unnecessary.

4. The “war on terror” is fueling militarization.

5. It’s a boon to contractor profits.

6. Border militarization and police militarization go hand in hand.

7. Police are cracking down on dissent.

8. Asset forfeitures are funding police militarization.

9. Dubious informants are used for raids.

10. There’s been little debate and oversight.

11. Communities of color bear the brunt.

Kane provides an excellent narrative for each of the above facts.  I witnessed virtually all of these “11 shocking facts”  in the Philippines in 1989. They are now, unfortunately, to be witnessed in the United States as well.

The unfair and disastrous “Low-Intensity Conflict” policies forced on many other parts of the world have come home to roost.


As those in the United States have explored ways to implement “Low-Intensity Conflict” policies domestically, they are now doing this through militarizing our police forces. To say “we are all Palestinians” certainly has relevance.

It is encouraging that there is now significant organizing in the country against this trend. It needs to also be extended as well to the countries throughout the world that are continuing to be victims of these U.S. “Low-Intensity Conflict” policies. Closing down the School of the Americas would be a good first start and implementing policies that do not allow for a militarization of our police departments would be another, and should be addressed with all deliberate speed. No more training in Israel, for example, should be demanded immediately. After all, most of this domestic and international violence is being conducted thanks to our tax dollars and/or by our own corporate elite. King was certainly correct: Injustices will come home!

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.


Beckert, Sven, The Empire of Cotton: A Global History,  Knopf (2014)

Compromise of 1877,  History.com

Crawford, Corinne, The Repeal Of The Glass- Steagall Act And The Current Financial  

Crisis, Journal of Business & Economics Research (JBER) (2011)

Gray, Heather, A Draconian Structural Adjustment for the US, Counterpunch (2011)

Johnson, Chalmers,  Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire,  Holt Paperbacks (2004) (first published March 14th 2000)

Kane, Alex, 11 Shocking Facts About America’s Militarized Police Forces, AlterNet (2014)

McClintock, Michael Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, Pantheon Books (1992)

Molloy, Ivan, Rolling Back the Revolution: The Experience of Low Intensity Conflict, Pluto Books, Sterling VA (2001)

Notorious Grads, School of the Americas Watch

Philippine Constabulary – Wikipedia

Philippine Constabulary – Wikipilipinas

Posse Comitatus Act – Wikipedia 

Reconstruction – Wikipedia

Salladay, Robert, US Police Get “Anti-Terror Training” in Israel on Privately Funded Trips, Global Research News, September 23, 2014

Schirmer,  Daniel B., Stephen R. Shalom,  The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance, Boston, South End Press (1987)Spanish Civil Guard – Wkikipedia

War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing – ACLU (2014)


More articles by:

Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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