Some of the most essential innovations we use, from the internet to the EpiPen, were created either in a military-funded lab or on the battlefield. It’s no surprise, then, that law enforcement agencies across the country are eager to use military-generated tactical technologies to assist them in their duties. These inventions include most equipment used by police, from the personal body armor donned by SWAT teams, to radar guns employed to catch speeding.
In recent years, however, there has been a surge of weapons and armored vehicles being used at home that look like they came straight from the out of a warzone – and that’s because they have. As our foreign entanglements have required less equipment, the excess gets passed down to local law enforcement in a program designed to assist the military in ridding itself of its surplus, either for free or through Department of Homeland Security grants.
Since the declared War on Terror, no one disputes that there has been a marked rise in local law enforcement’s use of military weaponry and armor, which in certain cases is a clear necessity. However, along with these new technologies, there are reports of small towns that are now proud owners of an MRAP (Mine Protected Ambush Protected vehicle), and stories about the domestic use of crowd control methods that have been banned from international warfare and some serious questions must be raised.
Does domestic use of weapons with origins in the military necessarily signify a militarization of law enforcement? No, and it’s impossible to judge from this list alone if our police have become militarized. But it is equally undeniable that as weaponry and surveillance technologies have advanced and new challenges to law enforcement have developed, the line between domestic law enforcement and the battlefield have sometimes blurred on our country’s streets.
Tear gas, one of the first chemical warfare inventions, was originally deplolyed by the French in World War II as an irritant agent to be used against German troops. The quantity of gas delivered, though, wasn’t enough to be an effective weapon, and so it was quickly taken out of use. It was shortly after abandoned completely by armed forces in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1925, which prohibits the use of chemical or biological weapons in international warfare.
The home rules are a different story. Both public and private law enforcement officers are authorized domestically to use tear gas as a form of riot control. Most notably, it was employed during the Waco Siege of Branch Dividians in 1993 in Pittsburgh during the 2009 G-20 Summit protests, and again in Oakland during the Occupy protests, when a police tear gas canister was thrown and fractured the skull of a veteran.
Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, more commonly known as drones, were created during the Cold War Era as unmanned helicopters stationed on U.S. destroyers and used to catapult torpedoes at the enemy. The vehicles as we know them today were thought of in 1971 by Dr. John Foster, Jr., a director at the Department of Defense, who came up with the concept while building a model airplane, his hobby.
By 1973, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) had built two prototypes based on Dr. Foster’s plans, and an unarmed model was used in combat that year during the Yom Kippur War when Israel successfully used it against Egypt, by having the country waste its stockpile of anti-aircraft missiles.
Armed drones were first used about a decade later by the Iranian military during the Iran-Iraq War. Drones and their effectiveness at minimizing casualties have made news recently as the CIA has been deploying the weapon through Northwest Pakistan in what has been dubbed a “drone war.”
Domestically, all levels of law enforcement have voiced the desire to use drones as a surveillance tool – a move that is highly controversial due to privacy concerns. Despite this resistance, drones are currently being used by Customs and Border Protection. The agency’s drones have been reportedly “borrowed” by local police departments, such as was the case in Lakota, ND, where a Predator drone was deployed to conduct surveillance of a farm during an armed standoff that began as a case of cattle theft.
Mesa County, CO, is home to many national parks and rugged trails that are attractive to hikers and because of the county’s search and rescue concerns, has one of the few local police departments authorized to use unmanned aerial vehicles. While intended for search and rescue efforts, to date there have been only two such missions and both failed. Instead, they are mainly used for police chases and to assist in reconstructing crime scenes.
Legislative and popular pushback against drones have come from both sides of the aisle. Last year, Seattle police returned two drones to the manufacturer after public outcry and Florida’s governor has signed a bill restricting law enforcement use of drones in the state’s Freedom from Unwarrented Surveillance Act. Currently, there are bills either passed or in passage restricting law enforcement use of drones in 45 states.
Directed Energy Weapons
Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) are what they sound like – weapons that can inflict injury on a target without firing a shot. These include radio and sonic frequencies, lasers and pulsed energy projectiles.
The first DEW was the sonic cannon, a Nazi invention, capable of internally shaking a person apart to death using a methane gas combustion chamber and parabolic receptors. While pulsing, the infrasound was theoretically capable of killing someone within 50 years in under half a minute. However, the cannon itself was found to be too fragile to be exposed to combat and never made it out of the lab. Since being banned from military use under the 1995 United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, the technology is employed by police both to enforce crowd control and as dazzlers – lasers or other forms of light intended to temporarily disorient a target.
The DEW most used by law enforcement to control crowds is the LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device. It was first employed in the United States during Pittsburgh’s G20, again during Occupy protests, in Chicago during a march in 2012, and most recently to disperse protesters in Madison last year during the heated “right to work” debate.
Active Denial System/Assault Intervention System
Also known as a heat ray, the ADS (or AIS when used for non-military purposes) is a millimetre wave system, a type of directed energy weaponry that is in a category of its own. Researched for 15 years, the U.S. military came up with the technology for crowd control, perimeter security and area denial.
It works by emitting high powered wave beams under the skin, exciting and instantly heating fat and water molecules. The ADS works on the same principle as a microwave, but at 50 times the frequency, is targeted and designed to be unbearable after five seconds. The ADS was deployed in Afghanistan in June 2010, but was withdrawn from service just over a month later for unknown reasons, although it is rumored that it was due to the weapon’s capacity to be turned into a torture device.
Renamed the Assault Intervention System, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office announced that it would be testing the weapon in the Pitchess Detention Center to control inmate violence. While no further news of its use on the prison has been publicized, there has been one lawsuit brought by a prisoner, claiming the weapon qualifies as an unreasonable punishment technique.
While some form of armored vehicle has been around since 1899, when a single prototype was made in London, they weren’t used until World War I, when British forces drove a tracked tank onto the Western Front to break up a stalemate. Since then, armored vehicles have become a standard for armies worldwide, with capabilities ranging from armored trains (still used by North Korean leaders) to combat cars.
While SWAT teams in large U.S. cities have had some type of armored vehicle at their disposal for decades, in recent years police departments of all sizes have acquired them, either from the Defense Department’s surplus program that gives away their excess to law enforcement agencies, or bought from grants distributed by the Department of Homeland Security.
While their domestic use has historically been in high-risk unit operations, an armored vehicle is currently employed by Clearfield, Utah police as a “nuisance abatement vehicle,” which sits in front of homes to discourage crime as well as being used to deter possible terrorism in Fargo, ND.
GPS Tracking Devices
GPS, first created in the early ‘70s by the Department of Defense as an advanced navigation system and made fully operational in 1995, is now applied almost infinitely across the world and considered indispensible by many. Its military uses include search and rescue, digital map creation, and target tracking.
The legality of police using these surveillance devices without a warrant has been the source of much debate. As a result of United States v. Jones, a 2005 case in which police installed a tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitored his movements for 28 days, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that long-term surveillance by the police must be accompanied by a warrant. While this ruling was upheld and broadened in appellate court last year, there is still confusion in the application of its technicalities in state courts across the country as the law races to catch up with technology.
Plans for GPS tracking made news last November, when Boston’s police department announced plans to install the monitoring device in patrol cars to facilitate processing emergency calls. Officers and their union opposed the move, voicing concerns over privacy.
Use of assault rifles in war dates back to the turn of the last century, although they weren’t called “assault rifles” until World War II, after a loose translation of Hitler’s name for the weapon, Sturmgewehr (“storm rifle”). They have since become standard issue in most modern militaries and is consistently used in combat.
Police began using assault rifles in 1997 in Los Angeles after they found themselves ill-prepared for a shootout in front of a bank with a suspect wielding an AK-47. The trend of its use has grown since then, and many, if not most, police departments across the country have AR-15s at their disposal.
There are many reports about their misuse by both law enforcement and criminals as assault rifles have been used both in police murders and by members of the New Orleans Police Department during the Danziger Bridge Shootings, in which two unarmed civilians were killed and four others were wounded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.