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The profitable marriage of military and police tech

War technologies aren't just adopted by domestic law enforcement; they're created with policing in mind

September 5, 2014 6:00AM ET

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown have cast a spotlight on the militarization of police departments across the United States. On Aug. 18, President Barack Obama called for an assessment of police use of military technologies, stating, “I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars, to make sure that what they’re purchasing is stuff they actually need.” A few days later, he announced an official review to examine the federal programs that equip local police forces with military hardware.

Obama’s call echoes the concerns raised in the ACLU’s comprehensive June 2014 report “War Comes Home” (PDF), which points a finger at federal programs that grant permission for special weapons and tactics teams trained in paramilitary styles of offensive force, including swarming and unannounced raids. These programs have encouraged a police mentality that increasingly relies on brute power to maintain law and order. The Department of Defense’s 1033 program, for example, transfers military surplus equipment to state and local police departments, equipping police with combat gear and armored vehicles, creating what geographer Nick Graham describes as “cities under siege.” Neighborhoods become hostile zones, their inhabitants seen as potential threats that the police must neutralize.

While these are significant concerns, the current focus on giving the toys to the boys masks underlying changes in the research and development process for law enforcement technologies. From body armor to pepper spray, the special relationship between the military and the police begins in the laboratories, long before cops equipped with sniper rifles and highly flammable smoke grenades wind up circling your house. 

Intertwined history

In 1994, amid the war on drugs and the rise of SWAT ("Special Weapons and Tactics") to combat it, a memorandum of understanding (PDF) was signed between the Defense and Justice departments acknowledging a decades-long relationship between police and military. The memo formalized joint technology development practices between the military and police, seeking to create common solutions for what officials considered common problems.

According to a National Institute of Justice two-year review (PDF), the initiative produced such benefits as increased cost effectiveness, greater potential for long-term research and an easier process for technology transfer between the military and police. Outlining their shared objectives in the post–Cold War era, the 1997 report read, “Today the nation’s more than 3,000,000 civilian law enforcement officers and soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen find themselves performing many of the same tasks.”

This formal fusion of the police and military in the research and design phase of equipment development meant that the blur between civilians and enemy combatants became part of the original design brief. Before new models of armored trucks hit the streets, university and government facilities work with both the police and military to develop these technologies. In other words, equipment is not simply transferred from the military to the police. Increasingly, it is being researched and designed to simultaneously counter protest crowds, drugs cartels and enemy forces.

The Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies (INLDT), for example, underscores such simultaneous design. It describes itself on its website as “the leading academic national performer for the Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program” and “one of the Department of Justice’s technology centers of excellence,” working on weapons and protective systems technologies for law enforcement. The research and testing conducted at the INLDT feed both police and military arsenals, contributing in particular to advancements with Tasers and long-range acoustic devices, or sound weapons used by police and military forces. 

This means that a military mindset is embedded not simply from the moment local law enforcement makes a budget request for grenade launchers. Rather, the military-police collaboration runs throughout the entire process of creating, evaluating and deploying products for maintaining public order. 

The warrior-cop is a process, not a product — made possible through science and technology, fueled by longstanding fears of crowds, enemies and marginalized ‘others.’

The commercial market

This interchangeability of the police and military is perhaps most clearly seen in the commercial market for less lethal weapons such as Tasers, stun grenades and tear gas. Beyond universities and government facilities, research and development of these technologies also take place in the private sector, conducted by commercial manufacturers. In this industry the police and military are increasingly treated as two slices of the same pie. For example, the 2014 Homeland Security Research market report states that in response to asymmetric warfare, street riots, insurgency and mass demonstrations, “many governments have entered into nonlethal weapons R&D and procurement dedicated to the full spectrum of public safety, law enforcement, crowd control and asymmetric warfare.”

This fusion of military and police is seen across the spectrum of U.S. less lethal weapon manufacturers, whose branded products littered the streets of Ferguson. Not all military-grade policing equipment enters through federal programs like 1033. Law enforcement can also obtain products from private companies and commercial distributors. Companies such as Combined Systems regularly sell the same equipment to military and police outfits in the U.S. and abroad. A flip through their promotional material shows the same equipment being used by SWAT police teams and army troops. The company manufactures 90 percent of its materials in house, doing roughly one-third of its business with the Department of Defense and serving as a primary supplier to Israel. As in the industry more broadly, its largest expanding markets are in the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa. 

Other brands well represented in Ferguson’s policing arsenal were Defense Tech and Federal Laboratories. These are two of the 19 labels carried by the defense and weapon technology company Safariland Group, which manufactures stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and body armor. It had been owned by U.K. defense giant BAE Systems until BAE dropped the division after a major lawsuit: The company’s salesmen allegedly bribed U.N. officials to purchase its goods. (The lawsuit was settled.)

These weapons companies congregate at international security expos where, between swigs of champagne, new product lines are unveiled to military and police buyers. While most goods — such as the Samson, a multilauncher riot-control armored vehicle produced by Israeli-based Rafael Advanced Defense Systems — continue to be rolled out first in war zones, their adaptability to the civilian policing sector is built into their product marketing. As Israel uses its military to police occupied territories on a daily basis, it is no surprise that it continues to lead the industry in innovation.

On Sept. 5, Oakland, California, plays host to Urban Shield, one of the largest national gatherings of military-police fusion. Ali Issa, an organizer of the Facing Urban Shield campaign against the militarization of police explains, “Urban Shield is a symbol of the war on drugs, the war on terror and the war on immigration coming together.” It’s where the for-profit synthesis of military and police technologies comes to determine the agenda of first responders, turning protection into a battleground.

A complete overhaul

It takes more than simply being equipped with military-grade arsenals and trained in combative swarming techniques to make the warrior-cop. It requires research briefs and laboratory meetings. Made possible through science and technology, fueled by longstanding fears of crowds, enemies and marginalized “others,” the warrior-cop is a process, not a product.

Obama’s call for a review of military technology transfer is a solid first step toward curbing police militarization. However, beyond this review of federal programs, a public investigation into the entire cycle of militarized policing — research funding calls, design, product evaluation, marketing and real-life implementation of law enforcement technologies — is needed. Understanding the process of police militarization demands an examination not only of the toys but also of how and why they are made.

Anna Feigenbaum is a lecturer in media and politics at Bournemouth University. She is a co-author of “Protest Camps” (Zed, 2013) and the author of the forthcoming “Tear Gas: The Making of a Peaceful Poison” (Verso, 2015). Follow her on Twitter: @drfigtree.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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