A major component of the militarization of policing in the United States and other countries is the proliferation of heavily armed SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams initially created for emergency situations like hostage crises or terrorist attacks. However, SWAT teams soon shifted towards more routine drug raids and patrol functions resulting in the extremes of military force being applied for minor warrants. Heavily armed police battering down doors and shooting dogs has become a disturbingly common experience in poor neighborhoods and communities of color (Balko, 2013). SWAT tactics treat all residents like dangerous insurgents while undermining civil liberties and escalating violence.
SWAT originated in the 1960s from a specialized LAPD unit inspired by military special forces and counterterrorism training (Kraska & Kappeler, 1997). By the 1980s, almost 60% of mid-size police departments and 90% of large ones had SWAT units equipped with military-grade weapons, armor, trucks, and tactics (Balko, 2013). Their budget increased over 1,500% from the 1970s to 2000s (American Civil Liberties Union, 2014). SWAT has been deployed for an ever expanding range of routine tasks from deporting immigrants to raiding underground poker games, largely in nonwhite areas (Balko, 2013). Methods like forced entry, flash grenades, and battering rams heighten risks and trauma in predominantly nonviolent situations.
Critics argue these paramilitary methods disproportionately impact children, the elderly, and the mentally ill who become terrified victims of violent police home invasions (Balko, 2013). SWAT raids have led to avoidable deaths, like shooting grandfathers when serving warrants mistakenly at the wrong house. Other countries have similar elite police teams, but reforms in the 1990s in places like the UK and Norway restricted their use to genuine emergencies to prevent overuse and human rights violations common in the US (Balko, 2013). Guidelines and oversight are needed to limit SWAT militarization, along with increased community policing.
Discriminatory Police Violence
Another disturbing manifestation of inequality in policing is the disproportionate use of force and lethal violence against minorities and marginalized groups. Excessive force stems both from individual prejudice and institutional cultures that devalue certain lives and overvalue force as a first resort (Ross, 2015). While poor training is a factor, patterns of abuse indicate social forces like racism and dehumanization of the “criminal other” remain deeply ingrained in many policing systems (Stoughton et al., 2020).
A 2000 report found Los Angeles police officers used excessive force, especially firearms and baton strikes, against blacks twice as often as whites during stops and arrests (Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, 1991). Despite reforms, racial disparities in LAPD shootings persisted, alongside evidence of overt racism like officers forwarding virulent messages denigrating minorities (Richardson & Armon, 2016). African-Americans are also disproportionate victims of police violence across the country according to extensive data analysis (Ross, 2015). These disparities reflect systemic biases in officers’ split-second decision making shaped by stereotypes and prejudices.
Brazil exhibits even wider racial gaps in police killings given the extreme repression of favela residents (Bueno & Lima, 2019). In 2019, police killed over 6,400 Brazilians, with at least 78% Black or mixed (Candia, 2021). Rio’s police alone killed over 1,800 mostly black citizens in 2019 (Faiola & Kaiser, 2020). In 2020, the number of police killings in Rio was higher than total civilian killings by any city in the United States (Galdo, 2020). Scholars describe these death rates as a human rights crisis and institutionalized racism. However, reforms have moved slowly amidst political divisions.
Police have also singled out indigenous and LGBTQ communities for violence in various contexts. Indigenous protest movements like Idle No More in Canada and water protectors against pipelines at Standing Rock in the US faced extensive police repression (Nichols, 2020). Police frequently assume trans and queer individuals to be inherently disorderly (Stotzer, 2016). For example, LGBT youth are twice as likely to face violence from officers compared to straight teens according to surveys (Amnesty International, 2005). Transforming these cultural biases requires far deeper reforms to hierarchies of identity and power underlying policing.
Technological Advances and Biased Algorithms
Modern advancements in policing technologies like data analytics, social media monitoring, AI, facial recognition, and advanced surveillance may seem neutral but also risk exacerbating discrimination and over-policing of marginalized groups (Richardson et al., 2019). Tools developed without carefully assessing disparate impacts often inherit human biases while empowering more intrusive state capacity to criminalize. However, thoughtful oversight and design could improve accountability and reform.
Predictive policing algorithms exhibit racial biases by directing patrols towards low-income and minority residents at higher rates based on flawed, incomplete data (Lum & Isaac, 2016). These tools reinforce existing inequities and over-surveillance. Facial recognition to identify suspects also misidentifies women and racial minorities at much higher rates due to lack of diverse training data, lighting biases, and other technical limitations (Raji & Buolamwini, 2019). Due to already extensive over-policing, these false matches further increase harms against marginalized groups.
However, algorithm audits, bias evaluations, and improved data practices offer ways to increase fairness in policing technologies (Whittaker et al., 2018). The AI field needs greater awareness of how opacity and complexity of systems disproportionately impact vulnerable populations. Thoughtful efforts to include impacted communities in technology design and policymaking are vital to challenge hierarchies coded into these tools. There are opportunities to utilize data to reveal inequities and improve accountability if guided by inclusive democratic values.
Police Militarization Trends across the World
Aspects of militarized policing have spread globally in varied political systems under the logics of crime control, counterterrorism, and internal security. Technologies like surveillance drones, biometrics, social media monitoring, and cyber infiltration have disseminated worldwide through private companies and security partnerships between states (Amar, 2013). International weapons manufacturers market advanced hardware to domestic police and there are now over 450 SWAT-type special forces units just within Latin America (Neild, 2014). However, converting police into paramilitary institutions undermines citizenship and increases inequality in all contexts.
Israel has extensively resold its counterterrorism and population control tactics honed controlling Palestinians to security services in Latin America, the United States, and beyond (Graham, 2010). For instance, one Israeli entrepreneur markets tests for racial profiling algorithms. China has also been exporting its model of high tech predictive policing, surveillance, censorship, and citizen rating systems to authoritarian nations for profit and geopolitical influence (Feldstein, 2019). As policing becomes a globalized industry guided by profit over human rights, reforms grounded in community safety and equality are urgently needed.
Some countries with recent histories of authoritarianism have made progress reorienting policing towards public service and accountability like East Timor, Guatemala, and South Africa (Pino & Wiatrowski, 2006). Their experiences developing democratic police reform could provide lessons to improve human rights through institutional changes guided by citizens. While problems persist, civil society oversight and ending military policing reduced state violence after decades of repression in these cases. Participatory police-community relations can be strengthened worldwide to build trust and equality.
Police Unions and Political Power
A major obstacle blocking reforms is the extensive political influence wielded by police unions and lobbying groups that aggressively defend the status quo and fiercely oppose transparency or accountability measures (Rushin, 2017). Police associations have secured enhanced legal protections for officers that make disciplining wrongdoing difficult in ways unmatched for other public employees. Union contracts also often destroy misconduct records which contributes to patterns of abuse going unpunished (U.S. Department of Justice, 2017).
Critics argue that the unchecked clout of police lobbying distorts criminal justice policies in ways that undermine civil rights, while preventing reforms demanded by impacted communities (Rushin, 2017). Powerful groups like the Fraternal Order of Police regularly advocate for harsher laws and sentencing policies that perpetuate inequalities and mass incarceration. They also strongly resist external oversight and limits on use of force. For instance in Brazil, an association of police officers called Clube de Desbravadores e Comandos promoted fascist ideologies valuing extrajudicial killings and repression (Enstice, 2020). Breaking the political influence of such groups will likely require mobilized civic movements.
However, police unions could play more constructive advocacy roles to actually improve community relations and safety based on a guardian model of policing versus warriors (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). Unions focused on preventing abuse and reducing animosity towards officers through transparency and building connections with neighborhood residents are possible. A human rights approach to unionism for police could be a constructive part of reforms. This requires moving away from notions of policing as an occupation detached and dominant over society.
Global Solidarity for Police Reforms and Equal Citizenship
Diverse grassroots groups worldwide from Black Lives Matter to the Zapatistas have contributed momentum to transnational struggles for human rights, demilitarization, and community-based democratic governance over policing. Activists draw inspiration across movements while adapting ideas and tactics to their local contexts. This solidarity highlights shared aspirations for security, justice and dignity across humanity against state repression and social hierarchies.
Black Lives Matter has sparked global protests against police racism and violence from London and Paris to Tokyo and Sydney (Kuo, 2020). Activists have adapted the anti-racist framework and civil disobedience tactics to challenge local inequities and colonial legacies. For instance, 2013 protests led by indigenous and black Brazilians called for an end to “genocide in the favelas” pointing to shared struggles against police brutality from Ferguson to Brazil (Enstice, 2020). The World Social Forum has brought together groups campaigning for police reform and prison abolition from multiple continents to discuss ideas, build solidarity, and coordinate international days of action (Teivainen, 2017). These transnational civil society networks aim to make human rights and transformational reform central to policing in diverse nations.
Activists emphasize ensuring impacted communities control processes for reimagining policing and public safety. For example, the social change organization Project NIA facilitates community forums in Chicago to develop alternative approaches that address underlying violence and trauma without relying only on criminalization (Project NIA, 2012). Solutions emerging from marginalized urban neighborhoods where distrust of the system runs deepest have potential for resonance across lines of race and geography. Building democratic power and greater equality from below has the most capacity to overcome oppressive institutions and advance the universal goals of participatory justice.
This extended analysis reveals the deep historical roots and institutional staying power of discriminatory and militarized policing across diverse nations. Reform efforts have slowly advanced standards of rights and accountability. However, transformational change fundamentally shifting cultures and structures requires ongoing mass civic action, political will, and policy imagination guided by the most impacted populations. The goal of policing aligned with equal rights citizenship for all regardless of identity remains elusive. Yet determined advocacy and community power building provide hope for positive change promoting justice over state violence. Protecting human rights and dignity in an unequal world demands continual organizing and vision beyond partial reforms. By linking local, national, and global struggles for change, today’s social movements carry forward the unfinished legacy of expanding freedom through solidarity.
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