The militarisation of policing and internal security

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Protesters squat in the foreground with their arms in the air making peace signs, their backs to the camera.  Facing them is a line of police dressed in riot gear with a large, armoured vehicle in the middle of the line.
Protesters face police at a sit-in on the beach at Karbabad, Bahrain, in June 2012 during the Bahraini uprising. They were met with tear gas.

The visible face of police militarisation is the use of militarised equipment and body armour; of sniper rifles and tanks facing down protesters in Ferguson, United States, and of heavily armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the favelas of Rio de Janiero. But such conspicuous militarisation is merely a symptom – an end-product – of a militarised mindset that sees those being policed not as members of a community in need of protection but as a threat.

The perception of threat

Militarisation is driven by “the idea that the world is a dangerous place” (Enloe, 2016). It is a process that relies upon the widespread social acceptance of a narrative of insecurity. There is always a new emergency just around the corner. The ‘war on terror’ has been used to mobilise a culture of fear across the world from France to Kenya to Indonesia but whether the ‘war’ that is being waged is on terror – or on drugs or on gangs – the response of the state is always framed in the language of militarised conflict.

A soldier is schooled to assume a threat before the need for help and to respond accordingly by eliminating it (Tabassi and Dey, 2016). But whereas the role of a solider is supposedly to confront a threat coming from outside – an external enemy – increasingly the danger is identified as coming from within. When militarised language is used to talk about perceived internal threats, the danger that is to be eliminated is to be found on the streets of our towns and villages and the war that is being waged is a war on our own communities, who have themselves become the enemy.

The enemy within

The militarisation of policing is nothing new and police forces in colonial and other oppressive regimes have long sought to control rather than protect but increasingly the boundaries between what is considered to be internal and external security are becoming blurred. In ‘The Fourth World War’, Marcela Paz describes a state of low-intensity war where “it is increasingly hard to make a distinction between military and police activity”. Whilst taking care to be “conscious of how state and global violence differ across contexts” (Tabassi and Issa, 2017) and not to conflate repressive policing with the great violence occurring in some parts of the world, it is possible to recognise a shift away from the notion of ‘defence’ – which “used to refer to protecting a country’s own borders” – to ‘national security’; an idea which “requires the country to be militarily prepared, in a state of constant alert” and emphasises “the idea of the enemy within” (Paz, 2017). More and more, the “wars of states are being fought within their borders – often against their own people – by police forces” (Tabassi and Dey, 2016).

Militarised policing is racist policing

The militarised mind, trained to see threat, sees surroundings filled with potential enemies who become dehumanised and ‘other’ when looked at in this light. Those identified as potential enemies are almost always, for one reason or another, on the margins of society; they may be political activists, social dissidents, gender nonconformists or poor. But, almost always, they will also be perceived as ‘other’ in racialised terms. The militarisation of policing is a militarisation against minority ethnic groups and people of colour the world over.

The ‘war on terror’ has raised the spectre of an Islamic threat and is used to justify militarised policing that targets Muslim communities. Indigenous groups such as the Mapuche in Chile are marked out for protecting their land and resources. Entire neighbourhoods populated by people of colour such as the favelas of Rio de Janiero are deemed a threat to social cohesion and blackness is conflated with criminality and met with violence. Militarised policing is used to sustain the colonial occupations of the lands of one ethnic group by another, such as in Palestine.

Militarised borders define who is, and who is not, a citizen: who has rights and merits the protection of the state and who is a threat to the social order. The Schengen Area allows for free movement of people (and, of course, capital) within Fortress Europe whilst undesirables drown on its shores. The militarised border regime “based on the exclusion of black and brown people” (Segantini, 2017) “sustains cultural notions of relative human worth” (Linke, 2010). It operates “as an amorphous buffer zone against global mobility and the presumed threat of race” (Linke, 2010).

Militarised policing is supposed to make society safer but the security that it is supposed to ensure is the security of selected groups at the expense of those not deemed to be of value. We are not expected to interrogate whose safety is being protected. Militarised policing did not protect Tamir Rice, a black child who was shot dead by police in Cleveland, United States, in 2014 for playing with a toy gun. In West Papua, far from guaranteeing their safety, the “Indonesia police are making West Papua unsafe for Papuans. The police have become the main actor perpetrating human rights violations against West Papuans” (MacLeod, Moiwend and Pilbrow, 2016).

A militarised mindset

The militarised mindset is nurtured by police trainings which simulate scenarios of extreme threat and encourage knee-jerk militarised responses. In the United States, the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) runs a training called ‘Talk-Fight-Shoot-Leave’ which “encourages use-of-force solutions and ‘warrior mentalities’ over de-escalation tactics” (Tabassi and Issa, 2016). Such trainings are also often racist, such as the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) trainings held in the United States which use negative racial stereotypes in their dramatisations and regularly host Islamophobic speakers. Trainings are one of the key mechanisms through which militarised policing is exported.

There is a widespread use of militaristic tactics and weaponry. Sometimes actual military weapons find their way from the military into the hands of the police. Policing tactics are often indiscriminate and disproportionate to the threat posed and can be indistinguishable from those of the army uses against enemy combatants. There is a blurring of the lines between the police and the military with police units adopting increasingly militarised behaviours and the military taking on policing roles.

Militarisation is deeply rooted in patriarchy. Militarised structures prize masculine values such as obedience to authority, hierarchy and control and reflect these back into society: reinforcing gender norms and roles which define “masculinity as powerful and aggressive and femininity as humble and passive” (Laska and Molander, 2012) and the gendered order “in which men exercise power over women” (Cockburn, 2010), irrespective of women’s direct participation in them.

Militarised attitudes may show themselves in the increased use or threat of violence although police brutality does not mean militarisation in itself. Rather, it may be symptomatic of a way of dealing with an ‘enemy’, as are the tools – the machine guns and tear gas – that are chosen to carry out the task at hand.

Who profits?

Militarised policing works in favour of those who are already powerful. As in Bahrain, it is used to quell dissent and crush protest. It keeps those lower down the social order in their place. Gizele Martins describes how when the favelas of Rio de Janiero were occupied by the army in 2014 and 2015, one soldier was sent in for every fifty-five inhabitants. The state, which had never seen fit to provide the same ratio of teachers or doctors, was willing to spend vast sums of money to maintain its control. Militarised policing protects the interests of the capitalist, imperialist elite: their financial institutions and sites of power, their factories and shops and the mines, quarries and pipelines that they use to extract natural resources that do not belong to them from land that is not theirs. It protects their ability to exploit and harm the environment and profit from the labour of others.

Militarised policing also directly benefits those who profit from the provision of privatised security services and the sale of militarised equipment and training to police forces around the world. The homeland security industry has grown at 5% annually since 2008 despite a worldwide recession (Buxton and Hayes, 2016). 

Demilitarisation

Whilst a clear shift towards militarised policing can be observed across the world, there exist numerous examples of attempts to demilitarise the police; often in response to the end of an armed conflict or the fall of an authoritarian regime. In most of these examples, militarised policing has tended to resurface in an adapted form. The South Korean police force is currently undergoing a process of demilitarisation with the abolition of conscription to the police force as part of military service by 2023. A main role of police conscripts has been to confront protesters during political demonstrations. It remains to be seen what the outcome of this step towards demilitarisation will be and what its effects it will have on the wider police force.

In Colombia, conversely, there are concerns about the militarisation of policing in a context of demilitarisation after the signing of peace accords between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in 2016. Since the peace accords were signed, over one hundred leaders from different social movements have been assassinated. A new military doctrine called the Damascus Doctrine is being developed by the armed forces which consists of strengthening the armed forces to play a role as the principal interlocutor between the state and civil society.

Resistance

True demilitarisation will require challenging the militarised mindset that sustains militarised policing. A main aim of our new web resource is to bring the fore stories of resistance from communities across the globe from Kenya to Brazil to South Africa and the United States and so act as a networking and solidarity tool for those already experiencing the impact of militarised policing. We hope that you find them inspiring.

Author information

Sarah Robinson worked at the War Resisters’ International London office for a year from September 2016 researching the different ways police forces around the world are being militarised and developing an online resource on police militarisation. Her work was funded by Quaker Peace and Social Witness.

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