Bringing the War Home

In 1965 the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance (1965-1968) was established. It was replaced in 1968 by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which was created by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. Begun within the U.S. Department of Justice, its function was to administer federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies; it sponsored educational programs, research, state planning agencies, and local crime initiatives.  Its budget was $63 million. By 1971 LEAA had expanded its budget 8-fold, to $480 million.  At this point over one-half of LEAA’s action grant dollars went for police functions. LEAA was originally created by Ramsey Clark to focus on arrests, trials, incarceration and release. Conservative forces in Congress then worked together to ensure that the state governments would retain power over law enforcement agencies rather than having the power shift to the federal government.1

The U.S. military created Project Agile in Vietnam in 1961, to apply data processing techniques to the task of measuring the allegiances of every individual in the numerous hamlets of South Vietnam. Files were maintained on every aspect of every person’s life. Every Vietnamese 15 years and older was required to register with the Saigon government and carry ID cards. Those apprehended without cards were imprisoned or worse. At the time of registration, a full set of fingerprints was obtained, and the individual’s political beliefs were recorded. 2  By 1966, the U.S. military began studying the potential applicability of this program to cities and communities inside the U.S.

Although the LEAA was abolished in 1982, it had already begun to introduce military hardware and tactics into the daily programs of domestic law enforcement. LEAA’s emphasis included surveillance equipment and computer systems that compiled information on individuals such as criminal activity, biographical and physical data (scars, deformities, etc.), identifying numbers, social security numbers, operators licenses, skin tones, addresses and occupations. In addition, enormous amounts of money went toward police hardware including products such as infrared equipment, anti-sniper vans, helicopters, communication systems that enabled the police to write messages through their radios, lightweight portable video tape recorders, short landing and take-off planes, and filing systems.

LEAA was not merely designed to bolster the reputation of right-wing “law n’ order” forces inside the U.S. at a time during the 60s when there was little respect for law enforcement, but rather was empowered to create a completely new law enforcement infrastructure inside our own communities. Programs created by LEAA ranged from prison and community-based halfway houses to “Watch Your Neighbor” programs on our streets. The infrastructure was designed to render law enforcement needs a responsibility of our own communities – to make us all responsible for dealing with the prevention of crimes. Virtually nothing LEAA sponsored dealt with the root causes of crime, but rather, made the citizenry part of the detain, arrest and imprison aspects of law enforcement.

Today, while the U.S. military is building and maintaining bases throughout the world, it is providing an updated armamentarium of warfare hardware to our local “law enforcement” communities. Over the last two decades, for example, San Francisco has acquired “infrared scanning devices, combat helmets, chemical protective gloves, vehicles and even a boat as discarded hand-me-downs free of charge from the Department of Defense.” The Alameda County Sheriff’s department got an 85-foot patrol boat as well as a grenade launcher. Police departments are equipping themselves with 8 and 1/2-ton bulletproof tactical vehicles. Santa Barbara Sheriffs have taken four helicopters, and the San Joaquin County Sheriffs picked up a full-tracked tank last year even though it had previously received a mobile-command vehicle that it bought with federal grant money.3 The newest additions to this stockpile of hard-core weapons will be be surveillance drones.  The Federal Data Center in Utah has been designated as the information-gathering center of the U.S. surveillance empire: it will be responsible for gathering, maintaining and disseminating information nationwide.

Military infringement into domestic law enforcement has become an essential part of our border control policies, especially in the Southwest. “During the 1978-1992 period, U.S. immigration and drug enforcement policies and practices in the U.S.-Mexico border region became increasingly militarized. Developed during the 1980s for use in Central America and elsewhere, this doctrine is characterized by broad-ranging provisions for establishing social control over specific civilian populations, and its implementation has often been accompanied by widespread human rights violations.”4

Author Joey LeMay points out that “Counter-terrorism efforts abroad have expanded to include counter-terrorism efforts domestically” and that military-style tactics within the police force[s] have taken root since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.  “In September 2006, the U.S. issued the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, an overview of the practices and goals that were to be implemented and accomplished to curb terroristic efforts. The document details the ideological shift of combating attacks against the U.S.:

The paradigm for combating terrorism now involves the application of all elements of our national power and influence. Not only do we employ military power, we use diplomatic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement activities to protect the Homeland and extend our Defenses, disrupt terrorist operations, and deprive our enemies of what they need to operate and survive. We have broken old orthodoxies that once confined our counterterrorism efforts primarily to the criminal justice domain.

Today’s favorite police toys include sound cannons (LRAD) to SWAT Teams, pepper gas, shotgun-style Taser projectors, and focused, invisible beams of waves that cause a severe burning sensation in the skin (AIS), the list goes on and on.

Only a police force that earns the people’s trust and respect can be effective. This is certainly the case in Afghanistan where the accelerated rate of U.S. militarization of the Afghani police force resulted in the contempt and antagonism of the entire Afghan people. As a result, the U.S. was forced to modify its strategy from containment to one of counter-insurgency.

The major problem with integrating military tactics into domestic police departments is that it transforms community participation in law enforcement into acts more common to warfare: renditions; torture; isolation cells; strip searches; racial profiling; and, the numerous excesses that identify U.S. imperial actions throughout the world. To the extent that police attempt to control the American people with drones and batons, rather than with cooperation and protection, they they are doomed to failure.

Once again in our communities, there is little credibility among community members for the legitimacy of police forces, Border Patrol, Homeland Security forces, etc. Many people fear the unleashed power of the police and react strongly to the implications of greater police power. The disrespect that the American people have for law enforcement is paralleled by the public’s contempt for Congress, the so-called Supreme Court and the Presidency. Our national preoccupation with arresting and imprisoning the largest domestic population in the world is a reflection of our murderous foreign policy.  Only when democracy is restored in the U.S. will we see an end to our ever-expanding, immune, and unaccountable police force.

  1. “For fiscal year 1973, LEAA was allocated $841 million in crime-fighting funds, bringing the total funds awarded to LEAA to $2.43 billion. 85% of LEAA’s funding is directed to State Planning groups, which then turn over most of it to local law enforcement application. The remaining 15% is distributed by LEAA as it wishes.” (Hiken, Marti, Ed., “A Primer on LEAA,” October 1974, Published by the National Lawyers Guild, Seattle Chapter; officially presented to the community of Seattle and the city council []
  2. ibid.,  “Primer on LEAA” and Wikipedia []
  3. Schulz, G.W. and Becker, Andrew, California Watch, “If U.S. military doesn’t want it, cops will take it,” 3-31-12, p. 1A []
  4. Dunn, Timothy J., “Militarization of the US-Mexico Border, 1978-1992.  “Dunn demonstrates that U.S. immigration and drug enforcement practices in the southwestern border region have coincided with many key features of low-intensity conflict doctrine. His findings are supported extensively by material from U.S. government documents, investigative reports from mainstream and alternative presses, interviews with federal law enforcement personnel in South Texas, and reports from human rights advocacy organizations. The study reflects a concern for human rights conditions in the U.S.-Mexico border region and is informed by the belief that the ‘official’ story is usually but one version of events and should not be accepted uncritically.” []

Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law. Marti Hiken is the director of Progressive Avenues. She is the former associate director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and former chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. Read other articles by Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken, or visit Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken's website.