The Police Became "Militarized" in Response to Race Riots

The heavily armed Black Panthers resisted and attempted to shoot it out with 40 SWAT officers.


There is an incredible amount of misinformation being spread about the "militarization" of the police on the right and the left.

While 9/11 did massively accelerate the amount of security funding going to police departments and the two wars led to a lot of surplus gear being offloaded onto local forces so that you have cops driving armored vehicles, that's not where it began.

All 9/11 did was create an opportunity for local forces to solicit money and gear. That sort of thing has been going on forever. When the drug war was "hot" every police department was looking for money to get drug sniffing dogs and choppers. If aliens invaded tomorrow, they would be asking for spaceships. If the Ebola epidemic gets worse, they'll all be asking for quarantine facilities and labs.

That's not just how the police departments work. It's how every level and area of government work.

They're all soliciting funding all the time and they know that if they link their request to the hot new policy, they will get it. And they know that going big, asking for an exciting 3 million, instead of $30K for a new cop car, means that they're more likely to get it.

But that's not how this got started.

In the summer of 1965, a six-day frenzy of looting, burning, and sniping consumed 46 square miles of Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. The rioters used tactics closely resembling 20th-century guerilla warfare—with people running and shooting in all directions, rather than massing in a single mob like Picket’s Charge. The chaotic situation prompted Inspector Daryl Gates, the point man for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) during the riots, to ask the military for guidance. Gates’s consultation with the military would eventually give rise to the first American SWAT team.

What's going on in Ferguson is how we first got here.

The special weapons and tactics concept originated in the late 1960s as a result of several sniping incidents against civilians and police officers around the country. Many of these incidents occurred in Los Angeles during and after the Watts Riot.

If anyone could be labeled as the "founder" of LAPD's SWAT unit, it would be John Nelson, a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran who joined the LAPD as a patrol officer.

John had served in a USMC elite Force Recon unit during WWII and based the SWAT concept on the Recon units, believing that a small squad of highly trained police officers armed with special weapons would be more effective in a riotous situation than a massive police response.

On Dec. 8, 1969, the department called on SWAT to help serve a warrant for illegal weapons at the Black Panther headquarters.

The heavily armed Black Panthers resisted and attempted to shoot it out with 40 SWAT officers. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired during a four-hour siege, resulting in the wounding of three Panthers and three officers. The Panthers eventually surrendered.

It's reasonable to suggest that the police are overmilitarized. Law enforcement tends to abuse the tools that are handed to it. But we have too many conversations that act as if the militarization is just some insane thing that the police began doing on their own for no reason whatsoever.

This was very much a cycle of escalation. And police forces were confronting terrorism and urban guerrilla warfare. They still are.

watts riots