Barely 48 hours after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police in Los Angeles had shot dead another young black man, described by his family as suffering from “mental problems“. Accurate and up-to-date figures on police killings in the United States are hard to come by, but statistics from the Department of Justice showed that from January 2003 through December 2009, 4813 people died during “an arrest or restraint process”. Black men were, of course, substantially over-represented. As Salon noted  a few years back, “if you are a young man, a person of color, and live in a poor urban area, you are far more likely to become a victim of police gunfire than if you are none of those things”.

But if the situation in Ferguson is about race and poverty, it’s also about the transformation of local American police forces into miniature (or not so miniature) armies. Increasingly, there’s nothing exceptionable about officers in body armour, riding in military-style vehicles and toting assault weapons.

In Montgomery County, Texas, the local police possess a weapons-capable drone. In Tampa, officers can deploy an eight-ton armoured personnel carrier and two tanks, while the Fargo police operate bomb-detection robots, and Chicago runs some 15,000 interlinked surveillance cameras. In New York, former mayor Michael Bloomberg once boasted: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.”

The militarisation of police forces began with the (symptomatically titled) War on Drugs and then accelerated massively with the War on Terror. Since 9/11, the US Department of Homeland Security has provided something like US$40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, much of which has been spent on systems and devices perfected in actual war zones. In 2012, one estimate put the total expenditure of US federal funds on homeland security-related activities and equipment in the wake of 9/11 at a staggering US$635 billion.

Naturally, the acquisition of combat gear both fosters and relies upon an increasing perception of those being policed as an enemy to be pacified, if not suppressed — a mentality that pervades the security services more generally. “To conclude that ‘the police’ have become increasingly militarized,” writes Stephan Salisbury, “casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.”

Only in America, right? Well, no, not quite.

“The acquisition of combat gear both fosters and relies upon an increasing perception of those being policed as an enemy to be pacified, if not suppressed …”

In Australia, the Brandis plan for metadata epitomises the same post-9/11 attitude of generalised suspicion, while counter-terrorism has become more and more influential on state policing. In the wake of Occupy Melbourne, David Vakalis and Jude McCulloch noted that:

“Specialist squads like the Force Response Unit (FRU), the military-trained Special Operations Group (SOG) and the ‘counter-terrorism’ Security Intelligence Group (SIG) were rationalised on the basis of ‘terrorism’. These squads have gradually come to have a greater influence on regular policing, particularly the policing of protests. Many of the most controversial and problematic policing incidents in Victoria since the early 1980s, including assaulting peaceful protestors and using pressure points and neck holds, can be linked to the SOG or its influence over operational tactics.”

Most of the state police forces are either using or want to use their own drone units. But in Western Australia, police have gone further, announcing in 2013 the acquisition of the $400,000 Ballistic Engineered Armoured Response Counter Attack Truck (known as “Bearcat”), a vehicle whose features include “gun ports, rotating roof hatch, two electric winches, emergency light/sirens, spot/flood lights, battering ram, tear gas deployment nozzle, thermal cameras, common remotely operated weapon station and protection against chemical, biological, radiological nuclear and high-yield explosives”.

During the G20 conference scheduled for Brisbane this November, we’re likely to see exactly the conditions in which militarised policing flourishes. During the summit, the entire CBD will be locked down, with police granted special powers to blacklist, detain and hold people. Within a declared area running from South Bank to Kelvin Grove, Bowen Hills, Fortitude Valley and Woolloongabba, officers will have the right to strip search anyone they think might be carrying a weapon, and anyone arrested will be automatically denied bail. Queensland Police Minister Jack Dempsey has said he wants to deploy drones — possibly second-hand ex-military aircraft previously employed in Afghanistan — during the G20, as the police prepare for mass arrests.

Furthermore, as Terry Goldsworthy notes, with the extraordinary unpopularity of both the state and federal governments, “a sociopolitical environment for a perfect storm of protest has been created”.

At the moment, Ferguson, Missouri, seems like a long way away. We may feel differently after November.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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