Armed and Dangerous

How mission creep is turning our cops into warriors

Photograph by Joshua Scott
Military tactics and gear have radically undermined the foundational principles of modern policing.

When political scientist Adam Molnar was working on his doctoral thesis at the University of Victoria a few years ago, he unearthed an unnerving development among Canadian police departments. In the early 2000s, an unnamed source told him, the Vancouver Police Department established what it calls a military liaison unit, or MLU. This elite team coordinated the Canadian Forces troops assigned to the 2010 Winter Olympics, an event with a $1 billion security budget.

Through in-depth, off-the-record interviews with VPD insiders, as well as access-to-information requests, Molnar determined that in the run-up to the games a senior police officer with military experience identified a need for “interoperability” between the department and the Canadian Forces. The officer’s goal: create clear lines of communication, demarcate jurisdictions, and address chain-of-command issues.

The senior officer pitched the idea to the VPD chief at the time, Jamie Graham, who had grown up on army bases and approved of the concept. The VPD then assigned more than two dozen police officers to a new unit—all of them specially trained to respond to such crisis events as major earthquakes—along with two dozen or more Canadian troops. “It was a perfectly reasonable justification,” Molnar told me.

I contacted Molnar, who now teaches at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, late one afternoon through Twitter. The young researcher responded almost immediately. Neither the VPD nor the Canadian Forces, he explained, had disclosed information about their joint operations. There hadn’t been public oversight of the unit’s activities, either. The aura of secrecy, he said, should make everyone “sit up straight and ask more questions.”

Ask more questions is just what Molnar has done: as he peeled the onion, he discovered that Vancouver’s MLU had quietly expanded beyond its original mandate. In fact, the senior officer who set it up had pitched the idea to other police services, including those in Calgary, Victoria, and some cities in Atlantic Canada. (A spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, Canada’s largest municipal force, said its 5,500-officer force does not include an MLU.) More troubling, Molnar learned, those assigned to the Vancouver MLU travel regularly, along with other Canadian cops, to a base in Yakima, Washington, where they work alongside members of the US National Guard on urban law enforcement techniques. In effect, the police officers are receiving military instruction. Is this how we want to train those who will come back to patrol the streets of our cities?

We live in a world of mission creep, a world where the lines that once separated local policing and national security have become profoundly entangled. On one level, that blurring is intentional—a rational response to the globalization of organized crime, terrorism, and borderless online activities like identity theft and child pornography. On another level, it’s not always intentional. Insular municipal police departments have inadvertently found themselves with the tools of war, and are using them to guarantee domestic tranquility. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this dynamic more vividly than what happened this past August in Ferguson, Missouri.

As images of a two-week military-style siege went viral—following the police-shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in the St. Louis suburb—people around the world asked, How did all that equipment end up in the hands of a suburban enforcement agency? How does such a small agency come to look and act like an expeditionary force?

It happens when the US Defense Department, through a program established in the early 1990s and known only as 1033, off-loads more than $5 billion worth of gear to 8,000 state and local police forces, along with a handful of school districts. Ferguson, a city of 21,000 people, isn’t exactly a forward operating base in Afghanistan. Yet its cops apparently keep armoured vehicles, night-vision goggles, assault rifles, and assorted battle gear on hand, just in case things get ugly.

Questions about whether there was a Canadian version of 1033 came hard on the heels of Ferguson. The short answer: it exists, but on a much smaller scale. The Directorate Disposal, Sales, Artefacts and Loans, a division of the Department of National Defence, oversees transfers, subject to various regulations of the Treasury Board. DND spokesperson Ashley Lemire told me that municipal or provincial police services can request surplus matériel through the solicitor general’s office. The defence minister’s staff then reviews those requests on a “case-by-case basis.”

As the protests unfolded in Missouri, Canadian media reports itemized the gear cops here had amassed. Postmedia, for example, reported that the Canadian Forces had transferred night-vision goggles, webbing, and field equipment to the RCMP over the years, while police forces in Edmonton, Windsor, Ontario, and New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, had received “de-armed” armoured fighting vehicles. Saskatoon police used their own AFV in a recent standoff, and released aerial footage of the incident to underscore how the vehicle keeps cops and civilians safe.

Other cities, including Ottawa, have purchased military vehicles and other surplus gear. According to the Vancouver Sun, the VPD bought a $270,000 Lenco BearCat armoured rescue vehicle in 2007, with fundraising by the police association covering the bulk of the cost. A few years later, York Region, the sprawling municipality of a million people north of Toronto, acquired a $340,000 Quebec-made “rolling fortress,” the Globe and Mail revealed. In Montreal and Quebec City, cops have taken to wearing camouflage pants, a practice that has raised eyebrows. The CBC reported last year that Windsor police bought fifteen high-powered carbine rifles to replace older and less accurate shotguns—a move that twenty other police services in Ontario had already made.

While Windsor cops are receiving training with their new rifles, they haven’t yet field-tested their de-armoured military vehicle, a Cougar the Canadian Forces donated earlier this year. In September, emergency responders in the city rushed to a dramatic standoff in a working-class neighbourhood, with a gunman holed up in an apartment. More than fifty cops, including heavily armed members of the local SWAT team, cordoned off the area. They were supported by command-unit buses and police cruisers; the department intends to use the Cougar only when an active shooter is on the loose.

Overall, Canadian cops aren’t as heavily armed as their American counterparts. And experts emphasize that the militarization that does exist—motivated by counter-terrorism efforts, proactive intelligence gathering, and stepped-up emergency preparedness—falls far short of the sort of thing we saw in Ferguson.

“I don’t see direct parallels between Canada and the US,” Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, told me. If anything, he has observed a trend toward de-escalation. But the growing reliance on weaponry in local law enforcement “is worrying on one level, because we think of militarization as armed conflict between states,” Boyd said. “As a society, that’s not consistent with the police model of keeping the peace. The question we have to ask is, Are the police more inclined to take an us-and-them approach, or are they simply acquiring more technology? ”

The post-Ferguson spotlight on the overt militarization of policing has focused on the most tangible evidence—the proliferation of weaponry and combat gear that most people encounter only in Hollywood blockbusters and shoot-’em-up video games. Yet the quiet expansion of military liaison units underscores another, more pernicious phenomenon: the subtle and not-so-subtle tactics geared toward occupation, control, and surveillance. This is where the Canadian story becomes much less comforting.

The slippery slope of “security thinking” is all too familiar—just think of the cameras aimed at public spaces, massive electronic eavesdropping campaigns carried out by the Communications Security Establishment Canada and the National Security Agency, or workplaces dutifully defended against intruders and maniacs by swipe-card entry systems. In the wake of Ferguson, I contacted Veronica Kitchen, a security expert at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. She often asks her students to consider the full-body scanners that now greet passengers at major airports (baggage and supplies find their way onto planes with far less scrutiny). They don’t think twice about measures that “were all exceptions at one point.” That’s the truly disturbing detail, she told me: society has come to accept such searches, video surveillance, and the presence of armed transit cops without questioning whether these intrusions actually make us safer, or merely more wary.

I emailed the VPD and asked about its military liaison unit of thirty officers. Spokesperson Randy Fincham acknowledged it had been involved in joint “military/civil” training programs, but declined to offer much more in the way of specifics. For Molnar—who maintains that there is no “meaningful public disclosure and consultation” about such training exercises, especially those taking place outside Canada—the VPD’s official position was inadequate. “The joint nature of the program shows that the MLU is not just a small unit,” he wrote in an email after I forwarded him the VPD’s statement. “Its members are often recruited on the basis of their previous experience in military situations, arguably not a valuable credential to serve and protect Vancouver’s communities and neighbourhoods.”

The VPD program is but one example of a largely invisible expansion of highly coordinated militaristic tactics involving municipal police services and other agencies. Since 9/11, according to government documents obtained by criminologists Jeffrey Monaghan and Kevin Walby, nuclear facilities in Ontario have ramped up their security operations, establishing paramilitary-style teams to defend plant perimeters. In the event of a security breach, these teams are trained to work closely with local and provincial police forces; Ontario Power Generation also hires local cops and private guards to staff off-site command posts and participate in joint training drills.

In recent years, to cite a more urban example, police in low-income Toronto neighbourhoods have employed the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy to curb turf wars between rival gangs. Following a major bust, large teams of officers virtually blanket communities, ostensibly to prevent more violence and to reassure residents. (These so-called guns-and-gangs investigations frequently involve investigators from the TPS, the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP, and the Canadian Border Services Agency, as well as the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.) John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor and long-time police watchdog, told me that 24-7 patrols are a waste of resources and that the net effect of random ID checks heightens the sense of insecurity—and disproportionally targets young black males. “The police literally try to go in and occupy a community,” he said. “They are supposed to be part of the community, not occupying it. That’s a military thing to do.”

Photograph by Carl Heindl
Carl Heindl Gear shift Society has come to accept searches, video surveillance, and the presence of armed transit cops without question.

The pre-emptive mindset of the urban-military security cordon could not be more removed from the democratic principles that informed the birth of domestic policing. In the early 1830s, British prime minister Sir Robert Peel instituted the first modern municipal police service, dispatching peace officers—“bobbies” or “peelers”—across London to replace a patchwork of private runners and guards.

Peel famously believed that the police are the community and that the community is the police, and his philosophy influenced law enforcement in both Canada and the US. Under the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the Posse Comitatus Act—a Reconstruction policy passed in 1878 and kept in place until 1981—American soldiers were not allowed to touch domestic law enforcement. That principle has been dying the death of a thousand tough-on-crime bills since the Reagan administration. In fact, US law enforcement had become increasingly militaristic since the 1960s, thanks to the backlash against the civil rights movement and the advent of SWAT teams. Over the last three decades, the war on drugs, the war on illegal aliens, the war on terror, the war on international money laundering, and countless other rhetorical battles have changed the very nature of domestic law enforcement.

In 2001, US international relations experts Peter Andreas and Richard Price noted that Cold War surveillance technologies had been adapted for drug- and border-control operations, as well as municipal policing, under the encouragement of federal lawmakers and military officials. Along the way, police tactics had become increasingly militaristic. Thirteen years later, the situation has only gotten more pronounced.

Consider the seemingly indispensable SWAT team. In The Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko, a Washington Post crime reporter, explains how it didn’t even exist until a thirty-nine-year-old Los Angeles police inspector informally consulted a Marine unit and effectively changed “the face, the mind-set, and the culture of US policing” forever.

Fifty years ago, for six days in August 1965, racially charged violence and unrest swept through Watts, a densely populated LA neighbourhood. In response, the police chief charged Inspector Daryl Gates with running a new tactical operations unit, to combat what was seen as a virulent form of racial urban warfare. Gates recruited skilled marksmen and set up several military-style squads, and named his creation Special Weapons and Tactics. He went on to investigate the Manson Family murders and the Hillside Strangler, before becoming chief in 1978 and resigning in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots. But as the father of the SWAT team, his real legacy was to devise an aggressive response approach that radically undermined Peel’s foundational principles.

As I thought about how the proliferation of guns, mass shootings, and cop killings have propelled SWAT teams and the use of formidable weaponry, I asked Greg Bennett, a security consultant and retired lieutenant with the Middlesex Sheriff’s Department in New Jersey, about the spread of military thinking. He pointed to a particularly violent bank robbery that occurred in LA a decade ago: thieves shot several officers and civilians before the SWAT team arrived. That incident, he said, “sent out shock waves internationally” and triggered a push for better body armour, military-grade assault weapons, and AFVs that many people are only now noticing. The outlays can be significant, he acknowledged, but “the public will get behind you if they are afraid of what can happen.”

The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed four people and injured hundreds of others, fostered a similar response among police departments tasked with securing mass public events. Before the 2014 race, according to local news affiliates, Boston’s bomb squad acquired state-of-the-art portable robots designed to remotely defuse or detonate explosives. Some 3,500 officers, twice the 2013 contingent, were on hand, and the heightened security measures included bomb-sniffing dogs, additional cameras, and restrictions on bags that spectators and participants could bring to the event. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia also bolstered security provisions for their marathons. New York’s organizers, in fact, doubled their security budget to $1 million and hired a private security firm to do a full review of its safety policies.

There are also seemingly less obvious responses, such as tourniquets. Since the 2013 bombings, according to USA Today, many police forces have equipped their officers with the simple devices. The move may be a cost-effective response to tragedy, but it nonetheless reflects a change in mindset, one that anticipates the domestic sphere being transformed into a field hospital.

GovSec, a massive expo for homeland security equipment and services in Washington, DC, helps to disseminate new technologies and tactics. As the strong attendance at this year’s show suggests, the industry is enormous and growing quickly. According to Homeland Security Research—a DC-based market research firm whose clients include the US Congress, NATO, and the Government of Canada—the global homeland security and public safety markets are dominated by American companies, and will balloon from $305 billion in 2011 to $546 billion in 2022. The tally includes billions spent globally on so-called safe cities projects.

Each year, the trade show attracts police from around the world, and features panel discussions and training seminars. At the same time, equipment suppliers ply their wares to a captive and sympathetic audience. Not surprisingly, there’s nothing subtle about their pitches: many fill their promotional materials with images that recall in-the-trenches screen grabs from violent video games.

Greg Bennett is a member of the GovSec advisory board and knows first hand how militarized law enforcement tactics spread around the world. He told me that many US police departments are looking for equipment that will better protect front-line officers, who must do their jobs in a society awash with military-grade weapons: “We’ve had a lot of issues in recent years with officers being outgunned.” But his tone was more matter of fact when he mentioned international agencies and customers who eagerly invest in security equipment meant to “harden”—a military term—facilities from oil refineries to elementary schools against armed intruders. As he put it, “Have you heard about Columbine? ”

Like many Canadian cops, Robert Chrismas, a Winnipeg staff sergeant who recently wrote Canadian Policing in the 21st Century, is keenly aware of the threats facing American law enforcement. Stories about downed officers are so common on US police blogs that he had to stop following them: they’re too depressing. The tales about officer safety prompted Chrismas’s own department to upgrade its SWAT team from part-time to full-time, and the unit is now deployed for high-risk takedowns. “It’s the safest way to deal with these situations,” Chrismas explains. He tellingly describes his world as a “battleground.” Other police agencies have put forward similar explanations to justify the purchase of everything from armoured vehicles to tasers.

Those who follow Canadian crime statistics point out that the risk levels are at historical lows. Indeed, violent crime has fallen so dramatically in recent years that the Fraser Institute came out with a study earlier this fall calling for reductions in police staffing levels. Given the trends, John Sewell believes cities should be thinking about eliminating some firearms and other so-called less lethal weapons, including tasers, as a way of rebuilding the social connections between law enforcement and the public. “It’s important to pull back from that approach,” the former mayor said.

That suggestion, of course, is a non-starter in today’s tough-on-crime political environment. Instead of de-escalating, Canada seems to be expanding a form of security-oriented policing, influenced by such events as the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the 2010 G20 Toronto summit, and next summer’s Pan Am and Parapan American Games in Toronto.

Waterloo University’s Veronica Kitchen, who is also a fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, observes that mega-events funnel military tactics and equipment into the bloodstream of Canadian law enforcement agencies. And then there’s the matter of private-security armies that augment the overall policing plan, without accountability or public oversight. Organizers of both the Olympics and the G20, for example, relied heavily on Contemporary Security Canada—a subsidiary of a US firm that bills itself as “the leader in crowd management”—to supply hundreds of private guards to work alongside police, riot squads, and other public agencies in a highly integrated, military-style operation. As it happens, that same company has won a contract for the Pan Am Games. The total security cost is estimated at $239 million, and will likely grow by next summer.

Besides the privatization of security, mass events result in large one-time equipment purchases, which have unforeseeable uses. “It’s often at these events where police forces can argue they need extra security equipment,” Kitchen told me. In a study published this year in International Political Sociology, she and Wilfrid Laurier University professor Kim Rygiel illustrated how the security thinking that characterizes a special event can be integrated into normal policing—a dynamic that’s evocative of the dramatic expansion of the SWAT teams. Kitchen and Rygiel cite, by way of example, the seventy-one CCTV cameras that the Toronto Police Service installed before the G20, at a cost of more than $700,000. After world leaders left town, the department decided to keep fifty-two of them, to be deployed around major downtown intersections, despite a dearth of evidence that such equipment deters criminals in public spaces. As Kitchen said, “There isn’t a terrorist on every corner.”

The most questionable equipment legacy of the G20, however, was the purchase of several sound cannons, which can induce vomiting and can even make human bones vibrate. The cannons, Kitchen and Rygiel point out, were originally developed by the US military to fight Somali pirates and Iraqi insurgents, but found their way to the 2009 Pittsburgh G20 summit. Amid controversy over the decision to keep the sonic weapons, TPS chief Bill Blair insisted that they’ll only be used by the marine unit and in emergency situations when other communications systems fail. Nonetheless, “function creep” is a real concern. As Kitchen put it to me: if a tool is there, it’s likely to get used—and not necessarily for the stated purpose. “These decisions happen under the radar,” she said. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that Blair’s order won’t be altered by a tough-minded successor.

Adam Molnar, the Canadian political scientist, is worried about similar function creep with drone use. Police departments in a growing number of US cities have already added unmanned aerial vehicles to their arsenal of equipment.

At the moment, drone use in Canadian airspace, by any entity other than the military, is strictly regulated by Transport Canada, which is primarily concerned with aviation safety rather than crime prevention. While provincial police forces have flown them over traffic accidents and in search-and-rescue missions, they remain off-limits for municipal police services. As the federal privacy commissioner noted in a 2013 discussion paper on the topic, “Law enforcement represents the greatest potential users of small drones domestically because they offer a simple and cost effective alternative to airborne law enforcement activities.” Unsurprisingly, the report flagged privacy and intrusive stealth surveillance as obvious concerns.

Should Canadians be worried about military drones being dispatched to support domestic criminal investigations? Molnar thinks it’s a valid concern, and warns that military liaison units could facilitate unauthorized drone surveillance. “When you look at the way information sharing is occurring between the military and the police, this creates the opportunity for the MLU to become the conduit between the police and Canadian Forces drones. The full implications have yet to be revealed.”

The events of Ferguson, though shocking visually, should not have come as a surprise. For years, the transfer of equipment from the military to police forces has not only continued apace, it has been encouraged and lauded by local and national authorities. Law enforcement officials have been reaping the benefits of the technology that has flowed out of the military-industrial complex for decades. And as security consultant Greg Bennett reminded me, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated the transfer, with cash-strapped police departments eyeing the windfall of deeply discounted matériel left over from the Iraq war.

Here, in Canada, we may feel smug about our low crime rates and the fact that our police forces don’t, for the most part, dress and act like RoboCops. Yet Molnar, who is now researching the social and privacy implications of domestic drone use, maintains that Canadian officers are hardly immune from the influence of military techniques and the pervasive security thinking that permeates virtually every sphere of society—from private homes to schools, offices, and public spaces. More troubling is the fact that our civilian oversight bodies have failed to put a check on these instances of mission creep, even when there’s no defensible reason for keeping the information about the activities of police operations, such as military liaison units, away from the public.

In some ways, Ferguson, for all its awfulness, may be more straightforward to counter, because the world got to see, once and for all, how a modest American police department sought to deploy its arms on the front lines of an imagined race war. So far in Canada, the militarization of policing is more about the practices than the stuff. Our cops have all the body armour. They just wear it on the inside.

This appeared in the December 2014 issue.

John Lorinc
John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist and editor and the author of Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias, published this year.
Joshua Scott