Police in the United States share little with their early American predecessors in all dimensions: technological, procedural, and political. When the union was still young, the professional police forces we know today didn't exist. Instead, police were paid and hired more like freelancers in their local communities. Americans inherited community policing practices from England, where law enforcement powers were imbued in the people.
While political and social forces have shaped how police look and act today, technology has driven many of the major changes over time. And it's not just military uniforms and big guns; information technology, like the 911 system, have widened the rift between the police and the communities they serve. In a 1990 opinion from The New York Times, the editorial board wrote that the "tyranny of 911" contributed to a deteriorating relationship between police forces and the public. "The 911 system forces police into a reactive posture," the Times wrote, "rolling in after a crime occurs to take information that might or might not lead to an arrest."
Timeline of major police technologies
It's not just military uniforms and big guns that have alienated the people from the police
In the 1960s, President Johnson established a commission to study crime and policing in the United States. The report produced by that commission found that America's police had lagged behind the private sector and even other areas of government in adoption of science and technology. "More than two hundred thousand scientists and engineers are helping to solve military problems, but only a handful are helping to control the crimes that injure or frighten millions of Americans each year," the report found. Technologies that followed this report include the 911 system and less-lethal weapons, like the Taser.
Fast-forward to today, when the subject of police brutality and militarization has gained a renewed national prominence following the slaying of an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown in Missouri. The shooting itself, which has raised questions about racial bias and violence in policing, ignited a bigger debate in the days that followed as the St. Louis County Police descended on the suburb of Ferguson with an intimidating show of force. The nation has watched for more than a week as police officers wearing military apparel and using surplus military equipment have cracked down on protests, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound weapons to control and disperse crowds.
Police now no longer seem to be lagging behind the military in the acquisition and use of technology, chiefly because they're now getting it directly from the military for use on domestic streets. But for most police departments throughout history, acquisition of new equipment and technology happened through the consumer market.
What's in your bag, police?
- One thing hasn't changed much for more than a century: pistols are still the primary service weapon for police officers. Of course, they've gotten much more sophisticated since the first revolvers.
- High-powered sniper rifles, like this Barrett M82, have been acquired by police departments in the US. The M82's power allows it to be used as anti-personnel or anti-materiel weapon.
- Long rifles have become more prevalent on American streets since September 11th, 2001. This rifle, the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR), can be used both as an assault rifle or sniper rifle. It is used both by militaries and police forces around the world, including the US.
- "Riot guns" are capable of launching explosive grenades, smoke grenades, or "less lethal" ammunition. In the wake of 9/11, police departments around the country have received semi-automatic grenade launchers.
- Non-lethal weapons like pepper spray are widely used by police forces and have been in the law enforcement arsenal for decades.
- In the 1960s, a federal commission on crime recommended that the government explore technologies that are less-lethal than pistols. They spelled out the need for the Taser before it existed. Now, Taser pistols are a popular choice for police departments. They disable people by firing dart-like electrodes that disrupt muscle control. Tasers are not completely non-lethal, and have been implicated in serious injuries and death.
- The Taser XREP projectile has a similar effect to Taser's handguns, but can be loaded into traditional shotguns and has a longer range.
- The Taser Shockwave is like a Taser on steroids. It is an electroshock "cannon" that allows users to disable multiple people in a crowd.
- MRAPs, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, were developed by the US for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these heavily armored vehicles were given to police departments across the US when their overseas service was no longer required.
- Even regular police cruisers have become more aggressive looking. Some departments have replaced the iconic Crown Victoria with interceptors like the Dodge Charger.