This week, much of the public has been aghast at images of police in Ferguson, Missouri, wearing camouflage, driving armored vehicles and aiming assault rifles. This "militarization" of police has been decried and blamed on an influx of cash from the federal drug war and Iraq-era surplus gear.
But the issue of the militarization of cops goes back to the first days of policing in 19th century England, when citizens were fearful of occupying forces and the government took a community policing stance, with cops largely unarmed, says John Buntin, author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City.
The organization, strategy and tactics of the armed forces were a polar force on policing. And the concept was brought to American law enforcement largely by the Los Angeles Police Department:
The LAPD's first experience with military organization started in the late 1930s when Mayor Frank Shaw was deposed in a recall election, Buntin says. Shaw's police chief, James E. Davis, commanded cops who were widely believed to to be on the take and conducting surveillance of political enemies.
A turn toward uniform practices and a clear chain of command was, at the time, seen as a path toward improvement, the writer says. Thus was born the LAPD's elite Metropolitan Division, the future home of Special Weapons and Tactics, better known as SWAT. "Really the militarization of policing began as a reform," Buntin says.
Chief William Parker, the top cop at the LAPD from 1950 to 1966, found that military organization and tactics served the department well. The LAPD was tasked with patrolling a more than 400-square-mile city, but it was sorely understaffed.
"If you go back to William H. Parker, he was a military man wounded on D-Day," says Glynn Martin, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Museum. "For him, his method of running the department was similar to the military. It was understaffed and, for him, the military was the model of efficiency."
During Parker's reign, the first police helicopter in the U.S. went into service, in 1956. Martin says the goal was to "establish an expeditious flow of traffic on our newly established freeways."
The SWAT unit and its military tactics were born a year after Parker left, in 1967, as a reaction to the Watts riots of 1965. Today departments across the nation deploy their own paramilitary SWAT teams. The L.A. version was formalized under the Metropolitan Division in 1971.
It was a time of social upheaval and the Black Panther Party. "One of the big concerns was crowd control and restoring public order," Martin said.
The unit's creator, Sgt. John Nelson, was a former Marine. Future LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, a commander who had served in the Navy, helped to put the team together under Chief Parker.
Gates' military-style tactics would later be criticized after he took over as chief in 1978 and confronted a gang and crack epidemic in the 1980s with a heavy hand, including the use of the infamous the B-100 battering-ram armored vehicle used to force through the doors of suspected drug houses.
It sometimes busted down the doors of the innocent. Reviled in black L.A., the instrument was mythologized in the rap song, "Batterram." Martin says the battering ram came to L.A. courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.
"In the '80s and '90s, we were basically trained that in a lot of communities in South Central L.A., if one of the residents jaywalked or spit on the sidewalk, he was face down on the concrete," says Jody David Armour, the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the USC.
By the early 1990s the LAPD was viewed by many in African Americans in South L.A. as the occupying army of a hostile government.
"The increasing militarization of law enforcement—in some ways L.A. has been at the forefront of that movement," Armour says. "The LAPD had the reputation of being one of the more paramilitary departments in the nation."
In 1992 South L.A. erupted when news of the acquittal of four cops accused of beating black motorist Rodney King hit the airwaves. A succession of African American police chiefs followed the downfall of Daryl Gates, accused of sitting on his hands during the first hours of rioting in 1992. But it was the Rampart Scandal of the late 1990s that really put an end to Gates' militaristic LAPD.
Although Chief William Bratton (2002 to 2009) was a "broken windows" acolyte bent on busting kids for, as the professor put it, spitting on the sidewalk, he also welcomed back community policing. Bratton has been largely credited with repairing wounds created by bad cops in South L.A.
The department also operated during much of that time under a federal consent decree that demanded better diversity hiring and cultural sensitivity on the street.
Chief Charlie Beck's father was LAPD brass and Daryl Gates was his godfather. Author Buntin believes his experience witnessing the bad times, including the 1992 riots and the Rampart Scandal, turned Beck into a Bratton-style reformer.
"I generally believe that Beck and his commanders did see firsthand the errors of Daryl Gates' approach and have tried to engage with L.A.'s minority communities," he says.
Professor Armour agrees.
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"I think the LAPD has changed for the good," he told us. "But I hope Ferguson is instigating reflection on where we're going with law enforcement and a paramilitary mentality across the country."
Lt. Ruben Lopez, officer in charge of SWAT, says even his elite force, equipped with armored vehicles and assault weapons, is cognizant of the need not to appear as an occupying force.
"People get amped up because we look ominous," he says. "People forget, we have a Constitution. We're bound by that. I always tell my guys, 'We have to embrace the community.'"