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Do U.S. policing programs help boost the militarization of foreign police forces?

Joint police/military training is a feature of some U.S.-funded programs.

- July 10, 2020

As heavily armed police cracked down on marchers outraged at the death of George Floyd, the widespread protests against police brutality also heightened concerns about police militarization — when policing increasingly adopts military techniques.

When analysts describe police militarization, they point out the Department of Defense’s donation of military equipment to U.S. police forces, the development of military-style police training programs or the growth of paramilitary policing units like SWAT teams. To some critics, it’s the U.S. global “War on Terror” coming home to roost, with the training and materiel deployed around the world now ready for use against U.S. citizens.

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But the United States also exports policing techniques. In fact, the U.S. has been exporting policing techniques and technologies for more than a century, from constabulary training academies in Cuba and Panama at the turn of the 20th century to anti-communist police training programs during the Cold War.

These programs have expanded over the past two decades. Much of this transfer of knowledge and technology involves Department of Defense and Department of State foreign police training programs. My research on these training programs not only charts their expansion, but also raises questions about whether the U.S. is contributing to the militarization of police forces worldwide.

Who receives this police training?

Although Congress restricted U.S. agencies’ ability to train police abroad after the Cold War, police training became a focus of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades. In some cases, the expansion of U.S. police training reflects America’s globalized response to the 9/11 attacks. But police professionalization and training also have become a cornerstone of various foreign policies — as part of U.N. peacekeeping missions, IMF loans, and as membership criteria for organizations like the European Union.

The Defense Department and the State Department’s yearly Foreign Military Training Report outlines all publicly available information on these security force training programs. While some information about foreign policing remains classified, especially information about training in NATO countries or other American allies, the available data show that U.S. funding for foreign police training expanded from $4.3 million in 2001 (the first year reliable data exists) to $146 million in 2018.

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Meanwhile, the number of countries receiving police training programs more than doubled, from 37 countries in 2001 to 91 in 2018. Although funding for police training is concentrated in Latin America, North Africa and Southeast Asia, there are some surprises. Most notably, the 2018 Foreign Training Report describes at least three programs that included police officers from Hong Kong and four programs that included police from Myanmar.

Military education is often part of this training

So what is the U.S. teaching foreign police? According to the Foreign Training Report’s data, police training courses vary from cybersecurity to crisis management. The majority of police training programs in 2018 fell into three categories: counterterrorism (15.6 percent), professionalization (15.6 percent) and technical training (21.9 percent).

Much of the police training documented in the Foreign Training Report focuses on noncontroversial topics — like courses on anti-corruption or English language skills. Yet in select instances, the report indicates that foreign police receive military training as well. Without more public disclosure, it’s difficult to determine whether these courses constituted serious military training or why this training was specifically needed.

This training creates opportunities for police militarization

The Foreign Military Training Report suggests various routes of militarization. For instance, foreign police sometimes train at U.S. military bases or military training facilities. Here’s an example: Panamanian police reportedly received training alongside U.S. Air Force officers at Lackland Air Force Base. Similarly, police from Mauritius received officer training at a naval education facility in Pensacola, Fla.

Moreover, the Foreign Training Report often refers to courses that police and militaries take together. Sometimes these involve classes like interministerial cooperation or statewide crisis management. In these cases, it makes sense that police would train alongside other forces.

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Yet not all these cases are as clear-cut. Colombian police, for instance, received joint operations training alongside members of the Colombian army and navy. Police in Indonesia, the Philippines and Nigeria similarly gained counterterrorism training alongside members of their country’s armed forces. This type of cross-training may help police and military harmonize goals, but could create opportunities for the diffusion of a paramilitary mind-set, one that emphasizes the use of force, discretion from authority and mistrust of protesters.

Why is this an issue? The data from these reports highlight potential areas where including police in military programs could effectively militarize the police. Research suggests that when police receive military training, or train alongside the military, they can be socialized into a militarized, warrior-like mind-set. Once police have a militarized mind-set, the distinction between an urban insurgent and a peaceful protester may blur, creating preconditions, at home and abroad, for crackdowns on free speech.

Overall, then, most U.S. foreign police training appears noncontroversial. But the training of foreign police on U.S. military bases, often in military-oriented classes alongside members of the military, points to opportunities for foreign police militarization. Given policing’s controversy in the U.S. today, these training programs highlight that the impact of American police training practices do not end at the water’s edge.

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Benjamin Kenzer is a PhD candidate in international relations at Ohio State University.