Is this your neighborhood cop?

The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism
in American Police Departments

by Diane Cecilia Weber


Over the past 20 years Congress has encouraged the U.S. military to supply intelligence, equipment, and training to civilian police. That encouragement has spawned a culture of para-militarism in American law enforcement. The 1980s and 1990s have seen marked changes in the number of state and local para-military units, in their mission and deployment, and in their tactical armament. According to a recent academic survey, nearly 90 percent of the police departments surveyed in cities with populations over 50,000 had para-military units, as did 70 percent of the departments surveyed in communities with populations under 50,000. The Pentagon has been equipping those units with M-16s, armored personnel carriers, and grenade launchers. The police paramilitary units also conduct training exercises with active duty Army Rangers and Navy SEALs.

State and local police departments are increasingly accepting the military as a model for their behavior and outlook. The sharing of training and technology is producing a shared mindset. The problem is that the mindset of the soldier is simply not appropriate for the civilian police officer. Police officers confront not an "enemy" but individuals who are protected by the Bill of Rights. Confusing the police function with the military function can lead to dangerous and unintended consequences — such as unnecessary shootings and killings.

Go to the full Cato Briefing article
Published by the Cato Institute, Cato Briefing Papers is a regular series evaluating government policies and offering proposals for reform. Nothing in Cato Briefing Papers should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Cato Institute or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.
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3 September 1999