Militarized Police and Urban Colonies

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In 1997 Pete Kraska and Vic Kappeler conducted ground-breaking research into the militarization of policing in America. They surveyed all local law enforcement agencies with 100 or more officers and found that 90% of those agencies had police paramilitary units (PPUs). PPUs are supplied with high-powered weaponry and high tech devices. Their members speak in military terms and in the language of war. They dress in full body armor, helmets, combat boots and sometimes even hoods.

The trend which Kraska and Kappeler identified has become ever more rapacious over the years. Not only have we increased the number of militarized units in U.S. policing but we have drastically increased the number of police overall. Today New York has 36,000 police officers; Chicago has 13,400; and, Los Angeles has 10,000. The density of American policing is staggering. Los Angeles has 469 officers for every square mile within city limits; New York has 303 officers per square mile and Chicago has 227 police for every square mile.

The LAPD costs over $2 billion a year to maintain. That’s 55% of the city’s budget. While Los Angeles has reduced its budgetary commitment for street repair and maintenance, and its fire department by 36%, it has increased police spending by 9%.

In 1980 there were about 3,000 operations conducted by PPUs, or SWAT teams, across the United States. By 2001 that number had increased to 45,000 and today it is around 80,000. Since 1985 there has been an 80 percent increase in police departments with PPUs.

PPUs/SWAT teams are popular with the police for a couple of reasons. First, cops love to be portrayed as heroes and the use of military terminology makes them seem deserving of more respect and honor. Second, militarization confers the image of war on what is a rather mundane function of maintaining order.

But, politically there may be much more to the militarization of policing. If we look at American cities a few facts become apparent. Urban areas populated by the poor have become socially and spatially separated from the rest of the city by substandard housing, inadequate social services, poverty, unemployment and underemployment, and decaying infrastructures, which physically separate those areas from other parts of the city. Second there is an economic separation based on labor status, with many of the residents of these areas engaged in menial and unskilled work, a prototype of “surplus labor.” And, finally there are cultural and racial characteristics which separate these communities. It can be argued that the militarized police are engaged in forced, involuntary intrusions into those communities. It can be argued that they engage in policies designed to constrain and destroy the culture of those communities. It can be argued that they are an occupation force engaged in sporadic acts of repression and violence against internal colonies.

Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Blauner, R. 1972. Racial Oppression in America. Harper & Row.

Kraska, P. and V. Kappeler. 1997. Militarizing American police: The rise and normalization of paramilitary units. Social Problems 44.

Whitehead, J. 2013. A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. Select Books.

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