Militarized Police: A Consequence of the War on Drugs

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Fifty years ago this month President Nixon declared drugs “public enemy number one” and began the war on drugs. His war altered American institutions, but not for the better. His policies transformed the U.S. criminal justice system, with devastating consequences.

All wars have casualties. The war on drugs is no exception. From the impoverished farmers in Afghanistan who faced the choice of defying either the Taliban or the U.S. military, to those who will die in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses, many have been caught in the crossfire.

The war on drugs has impacted a myriad of domestic institutions within the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than in analyzing the evolution of U.S. domestic policing.

Historically, laws within the United States have attempted to separate the functions of domestic police from those of the military. Police are to protect the rights of citizens — both the victims and perpetrators of crime — and are to use violence only as a last resort. The military, by contrast, is trained for war, to engage and destroy enemies. While events throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century opened the door that separated police and military, the war on drugs blew that door off its hinges.

More traditional wars, like World War II, have a clearly defined external enemy. The war on drugs is different. While the United States engages external enemies as a part of its drug interdiction policies, it also targets domestic “enemies”—drug users, dealers, manufactures, and everyone involved in the illicit drug trade. These domestic adversaries are not readily identifiable.

Police became responsible for rooting out these domestic enemies. Finding themselves on the “front lines” of the federal government’s battle against drugs, they sought to equip themselves with the necessary tools and tactics.

So, they adopted the tools of war.

The development and expansion of “Special Weapons and Tactics” or SWAT teams, is a prime example. Modeled directly after aggressive military units in Vietnam, SWAT teams integrated war tactics into domestic police operations.  Los Angeles’ SWAT team became permanent in 1971 and drug policy allowed for the proliferation of these units across the country. By 1982, nearly 60 percent of police departments had a SWAT team. By 1995, this number had climbed to 89 percent. SWAT teams are deployed an estimated 50,000-80,000 times per year.

The war on drugs contributed to police militarization in other ways. In 1981 Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, allowing for the Department of Defense to share information, advise local law enforcement, and transfer equipment, so long as the equipment was used for the purposes of enforcing drug, immigration, or customs laws. In the first three years following the law’s implementation, the DOD granted some 10,000 requests for assistance for activities ranging from surveillance to property seizures.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 1990 created the 1208 Program, which authorized additional transfers of military equipment to state and local agencies for the purposes of combating drugs. In 1997, it became the 1033 Program. To date, more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies have received over $6 billion total in DOD property—from protective vests and night vision optics, to assault rifles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs.

This integration of military equipment and tactics into domestic policing has had a profound impact on the attitudes of law enforcement. Some officers, for example, now discuss the neighborhoods they serve, not as their communities, but as “battlefields.” The ideas of becoming a “police warrior” and of having a “warrior mindset” have been readily adopted across many departments.

It should come as no surprise that this militarization of police and the aggressive attitude it has encouraged has yielded negative outcomes. The tactics adopted by SWAT teams, for example, have been directly responsible for the injuries and deaths of innocent civilians, police officers, and non-violent offenders. The civil unrest of the last year, sparked by disproportionate use of these tactics against communities of color, is a direct outcome of the policies adopted as a result of the drug war.

The tide may be turning against the war on drugs. Evaluations of the 1033 program have failed to find evidence of enhanced police safety or crime reduction. But they have found plenty of evidence that suggest militarization harms police reputation. In 2015, calls to halt or overhaul the program gained some traction, and President Obama ordered changes to the program. These modifications were rescinded by president Trump in 2017. Though President Biden has not made changes to the program, House Democrats have called for him to end it outright.

President Nixon wasn’t wrong when he pointed out the perils of drugs.  They harm individuals, families, and communities. But the war on drugs has wrought harm too. It’s a prime illustration of government’s addiction to backward policy and a clear lesson in unintended consequences.

The cure has been worse than the disease. It’s time to consider a new treatment plan.

Abigail R Hall is an Associate Professor of Economics at Bellarmine University, a Young Voices contributor, and the coauthor of  Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror. Follow her on Twitter @Abigail_R_Hall.