Militarized Policing Is a Global Problem With U.S. Roots

In May of this year, thousands of Colombian citizens took part in weeks of widespread protests against a newly proposed tax reform plan and, more generally, the country’s growing economic inequality. The demonstrators included teachers, doctors, students and labor union members, as well as many who were new to protesting. But instead of allowing them to peacefully express their opinions, the Colombian National Police cracked down, killing at least 24 people in clashes that resembled their fights against criminal organizations and insurgents. 

Of course, Colombia’s police are not unique in their heavy-handed approach to law enforcement. In 2019, police violence became a central concern of protesters in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, following violent crackdowns by the once-esteemed Hong Kong police. In 2020, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many others, at the hands of police in the United States brought massive attention to the issue not just in that country, but around the world. Later that year, in October 2020, Nigerian protesters mobilized against abuse by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad—or SARS, a notoriously violent and corrupt police unit—only to be violently suppressed by the police and military.  

While there are no one-size-fits-all explanations for police brutality in all these different contexts, there are links between the incidence of police violence and the gradual militarization of police units around the world. And there are links between militarization and the export of international police assistance, particularly from the United States. The Colombian National Police, for instance, has received over $6 billion in police assistance from the U.S. since the 1970s, in addition to funds and training from Israel and the United Kingdom. Much of this funding has been directed toward improving the operational capacity of the police, including the transfer of U.S. surveillance technology and military-grade equipment. After the violent crackdown in Colombia this year, members of the U.S. Congress moved to place restrictions on this aid, but those efforts did not actually reduce the support sent to the country.

For much of the world, the militarization of police forces has only been possible with international aid—and the U.S. is one of the largest suppliers, if not the largest, of this assistance. Solutions, then, may need to originate in Washington.

U.S. International Police Assistance 

International police assistance refers to a country’s provision of development aid to the internal security forces of another state, and in particular to its police forces. U.S. work in this area has generally focused on technical assistance, such as helping police forces set up surveillance units, prisons and crime laboratories; on material aid, such as providing them with weapons, tear gas and helicopters, as well as basic supplies like filing cabinets; and on training, which is provided either by U.S. police officers or training academies. 

Historically, the advent of U.S. police assistance programs occurred as a part of reconstruction and redevelopment efforts in Germany and Japan, but those were limited in scope and involved just a handful of trainers. The U.S. continued to train foreign police in the first half of the 1950s, but on a limited scale and through advisory missions by the Central Intelligence Agency. Then in 1954, the White House’s National Security Council called for expanding police assistance, setting off a series of organizational moves that ended with the Office of Public Safety, or OPS, becoming the main hub for this form of aid. U.S. police assistance subsequently became more widespread starting in the 1960s, as it expanded into Latin America and Southeast Asia.

The OPS, which fell under the U.S. Agency for International Development, was only around for 12 years—between 1962 and 1974. But in that time, it trained thousands of police officers worldwide by subcontracting with professional organizations like the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police, and through new institutions like the International Police Academy set up by then-President John F. Kennedy, which primarily trained Latin American police. By 1973, the OPS had provided technical assistance to 52 countries and trained more than 10,700 foreign police officers—a massive increase when compared to the CIA effort, which had trained just 150 foreign police officers between 1950 and 1955.

For much of the world, the militarization of police forces has only been possible with international aid—and the U.S. is one of the largest suppliers of this assistance.

During the tenure of the OPS, U.S. officials saw police assistance as a part of the Cold War, carrying it out in hopes that it would enhance the capacity of police forces and internal security forces to subvert and counter communist movements. The problem with this approach, of course, was that police in some recipient countries also used their new skills and resources to repress the general population. In one scandal, it was revealed that Vietnamese officers were holding more than 300 prisoners in cramped, concrete boxes known as “tiger cages” in a prison built and operated with U.S. expertise and funding. After similarly alarming reports emerged in other countries, Congress prohibited the use of USAID funds for public safety programs outside of the U.S., and in 1974 mandated the termination of USAID’s involvement in these programs altogether. 

Those bans are still in place, so subsequent police assistance programs operate under a series of amendments and exceptions to them. One exception, for instance, allows the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration to engage in training. In the 1990s, concerns that the Soviet Union’s breakup would boost transnational crime also led the U.S. to pass additional legislation, like the Support for East European Democracy Act, through which a new police academy system—the International Law Enforcement Academies—began operating in Budapest and Hungary in 1995, overseen by the State Department. Today, ILEA branches also operate in Thailand, Botswana, Ghana and El Salvador, as well as in the U.S. itself. Congress granted so many exemptions that by 1992, the U.S. was offering police assistance to more than 152 countries.

These projects got another big push following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Departments of State and Defense set up nation- and state-building projects that included vast funds for police assistance. In 2004, the U.S. spent as much as an estimated $634.6 million on police assistance in a single year—adding to the roughly $159 billion it spent on such aid between 1960 and 2019, in partnerships with 130 countries. 

The Spread of Militarization

Police militarization is the process through which police forces increasingly draw from and pattern themselves on military models. The most heavily militarized police forces rely on military weapons and tactics, and they have a hierarchical structure, centralized command and control, and mission-specific units. Oversight for these groups can fall to civilians, but also to the military. Non-militarized, democratic police, on the other hand, eschew heavy weaponry and equipment; some use no firearms at all. In addition, they focus on community development, have low amounts of centralized command and hierarchy, and report exclusively to civilians. 

In the U.S., militarization of police forces took place as tactics honed in counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam and Central America were imported back home and used to deal with perceptions of rising crime, particularly after the Watts Rebellion in 1965, during which residents of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Los Angeles rioted against the police’s targeting of Black communities. Former President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the “war on drugs” in 1971 exacerbated police demand for military tools and tactics, which continued into the 1980s through then-President Ronald Reagan’s focus on crime. 

This trend fundamentally changed the makeup of U.S. police forces and led to the development of Special Weapons and Tactics units—better known as SWAT teams—trained in the use of military-grade weaponry. In 1970, there was only one SWAT team in the entire country; by 1975, there were roughly 500. Twenty years later, 89 percent of cities with a population of 50,000 or more had a SWAT team. This diffusion of militarization was made easier in 1997, with the creation of the “1033 program,” which allows the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment to local and state police forces. This program, which is named after the clause of the National Defense Authorization Act that created it, was banned by the administration of former President Barack Obama in 2015, only to be reinstated by former President Donald Trump in 2017. 

Recent studies have demonstrated that the “1033 program” does more harm than good. Its launch did not reduce crime, just as the ban on it in 2015 did not lead crime to increase. The deployment of SWAT teams has also not coincided with an increase in officer safety or reduced crime. In fact, according to a 2017 study, the program may be related to an increase in police officer shootings. Worth noting, too, is that SWAT teams are more likely to be deployed in neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color, and they are found to reduce public trust in policing. 

Afghan policemen watch U.S. soldiers teach a police training course in Kunar province, Nov. 5, 2009 (AP photo by David Guttenfelder).

If militarized policing has had harmful effects at home, then exporting that policing style abroad threatens to duplicate those consequences—including police abuse and operational failure—in other countries. 

The U.S. has passed on its more forceful policing style through several channels, some intentional and others unintentional. In addition to training police through counterinsurgency and counterterrorism programs, the U.S. funds the development of operational units within police forces, including SWAT and anti-riot teams, and equips and trains them. Trainees also sometimes learn alongside military officers, whether with soldiers on U.S. bases or with their own country’s military personnel. This “cross-training” homogenizes both tactics and forces, and therefore encourages police to think and act more militaristically by emphasizing the use of force or perceiving civilians—particularly protesters—as threats. 

Unsurprisingly, police militarization abroad has not led to better counterinsurgency outcomes. Colombia is a case in point. The policing unit responsible for this year’s violent crackdown—the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron, or ESMAD by its Spanish acronym—receives many of its weapons from the United States. Although the U.S. denies directly training ESMAD, U.S. police trainers have been and still are active in Colombia, and ESMAD itself has offered trainings to other police forces in Latin America. ESMAD and the Colombian police have a history of human rights violations, and now by serving as examples in the region, they may be exporting a model of policing that perpetuates such violations elsewhere.

Another important example is Afghanistan. Immediately after the invasion of the country by allied forces in 2001, Germany headed up efforts to rebuild its national police. Berlin had hoped to set up a democratic, civilian police force, but progress was slow, so in 2009, the U.S. Defense Department took over the program and adopted a military-based approach to police reform. It modeled the national police’s new command structure after that of the Afghan National Army; supplied them with military weapons like AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers; and appointed former soldiers to lead trainings. Once in action, police officers focused their work on high-risk missions that often saw them engaging in combat. 

But all these efforts came to an ignominious end in August when, despite the billions of dollars spent on security for counterinsurgency’s sake, the Afghan National Police, alongside the army on which it was modeled, quickly collapsed in the face of the Taliban resurgence.

Police Assistance Beyond the U.S. 

The U.S. is, of course, not the world’s only provider of police assistance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, when democracy promotion became a fundamental part of the international agenda, many other countries and organizations have become actively involved in police assistance, including the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and several United Nations agencies and missions. 

Europe and the U.N. tend to focus their assistance on democratic, non-militarized policing, often explicitly avoiding militarized tactics. For instance, the OSCE’s police assistance programs typically focus on human rights, rule of law, fighting corruption and community policing.  

If militarized policing has had harmful effects at home, then exporting that policing style abroad threatens to duplicate those consequences in other countries.

The United Nations, meanwhile, provides police assistance via several different avenues. First, provisions for it have become increasingly common in mandates for U.N. peacekeeping missions, leading the U.N. to deploy U.N. Police officers to help the receiving country’s forces engage in rebuilding and reform, by training, equipping, advising and coordinating with them. Importantly, in this model, police assistance is conducted by the U.N. officers’ countries of origin, known in U.N. parlance as “police-contributing countries.” 

At times, the U.N. supports police-contributing countries by training their police for peacekeeping operations. This can include standing up deployable Formed Police Units, or FPUs, which are a less militaristic alternative to enhancing security in conflict zones, but also strong enough to close the “security gap” left by national policing forces that may still lack capacity. The United Nations Development Program’s Peacebuilding Fund, established in 2006, also provides aid for security sector reform, which is one of its priority areas. 

Yet even these programs oriented toward good governance sometimes end up advancing police militarization. The OSCE’s work in Central Asia, for example, failed to take into consideration the authoritarian political structures that governed policing there, and as a result, host governments were able to negotiate more operational training oriented toward fighting trafficking, organized crime and terrorism.  Similarly, through the FPU program, the U.N. helps countries to create new policing institutions that are highly centralized. Once the peacekeeping mission ends, leaders could use those institutions for their own benefit. 

Separately, authoritarian countries have also developed their own police assistance programs in recent decades, which may contribute to police militarization globally. Beginning under former Chinese President Hu Jintao and continuing under current leader Xi Jinping, China has steadily expanded its overseas police assistance program, such that Chinese law enforcement agreements now span every major region of the world. 

China also hosts international exchange and training programs. Its police academy in Shandong province, for example, has offered foreign police training courses and trained many police officers since 2006. The country is also working through the U.N. to expand the reach of its police assistance by contributing personnel to peacekeeping operations. China’s style of policing uses both mass surveillance and a heavy hand to quell dissent, which means that receiving countries will learn techniques like the ones used to suppress dissent in Hong Kong.

Will International Police Assistance Continue? 

International police assistance programs have a checkered history. Police assistance often takes a militarized form, which does not lead to better security and can exacerbate human rights violations. Colombia’s history of police assistance, police militarization and police violence show these links clearly. 

Unfortunately, this trajectory is difficult to head off. Countries that provide police assistance have an agenda that drives the amount, type and destination of aid—and more often than not, they offer it mainly to further their own national security interests. The U.S. has used police assistance in this way ever since the Cold War, and the evidence suggests that China may now be doing the same. 

Still, recent failures of this approach might make the U.S. and other donor countries rethink the utility of police assistance programs. In the U.S., at least, having spent billions of dollars on Afghanistan’s security sector with nothing to show for it, the Biden administration ought to reconsider whether these programs should be a primary tool for pursuing U.S. interests abroad. 

Until there is a reorientation away from militarized policing, the export of it by the U.S. threatens to create instability in the world. Washington would do well to first fix policing at home and only then focus on policing abroad.

Sabrina Karim is the Hardis Family assistant professor of government at Cornell University. She directs the Gender and Security Sector Lab and is the co-author of the award-winning book, “Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping.” Her research focuses on    policing, security sector reform, peacekeeping and gender.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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