Person walking next to a wall. Writing on the wall says 'Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?'

Militarised policing

US police forces are among the most lethal in the world, killing over 1,000 civilians a year, disproportionately Black people. Racism is embedded in the DNA of US policing from its beginnings in slave patrols. Police forces systematically targets people and communities of colour for arrest, abuse, and violence. US policing has become increasingly militarised due to the free transfer of military equipment to police forces across the country. This militarised policing is frequently deployed to violently repress protests, especially those involving Black, Indigenous, and other non-white groups and communities.

Last updated 28 May 2021

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 sparked a wave of protests and uprisings against police racism and violence across the US, as part of the broad Black Lives Matter movement. These protests were themselves met with sometimes extreme levels of violence by the police, including tear gas, baton charges, rubber-coated steel bullets, the use of heavily armoured military vehicles, attacks on journalists, medics, and legal observers, and widespread arbitrary detention of protestors or suspected protestors. Solidarity protests also took place around the world, including in the UK, often also highlighting racism in their own countries. The UK supplies significant quantities of anti-protest equipment to the US, including tear gas products, batons and riot shields. UK-supplied riot shields were used against Black Lives Matter protestors in 2020 by at least 6 law enforcement agencies.

The murder of George Floyd was unusual in the extremely high level of public and media attention it received – largely due to its unspeakable brutality, captured on a phone camera and seen by millions. The fact that a police officer was convicted for the killing was even more unusual. But it was also just one of 1,127 police homicides that year, a similar number to most recent years. Although Black people make up just 13% of the US population, they represented 27% of those killed by police, and 35% of those killed while unarmed. Beyond killings, Black people face systematic discrimination, abuse, violence, and racism at the hands of the police and at every stage of the criminal justice system.

While there are widespread calls for police reform, many activists see the police in the US as being a fundamentally racist institution from its very inception, indeed arguing that policing in the US was established to maintain white supremacy. This has prompted growing calls to defund the police, transferring resources to community-based public safety efforts, mental health support, and poverty reduction measures among others, and ultimately to abolish the police in their current form. Police budgets in the US are huge, often accounting for the majority of a city’s expenditure. The New York Police Department (NYPD)’s annual budget is over $10 billion, more than the military spending of most states.

Stop arming US state violence

The UK government has licensed anti-protest weapons of the type that have been used in violent attacks on protesters, journalists and others in the United States. Please ask your MP to support the cancellation of these licences.

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Crackdown on protests

As well as the repressive nature of policing against communities of colour in general, there has been an escalation of militarised state violence against protests involving these communities. One of the starkest examples was the violent assault by hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the country on the Standing Rock “water protectors” encampment in North Dakota, who were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline through indigenous land. The police came with mine-resistant military vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, and used tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, water cannons, tasers, and stun-grenades among others.

When Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, these were likewise often met with police violence. This contrasts with the often hands-off or even protective approach taken by police towards far-right protests. One study found that, between 1 May and 28 November 2020, police were more than twice as likely to intervene to break up protests by left-leaning groups (including BLM) as right-wing ones, and that when they did so, they were 50% more likely to use force. Thus, overall, the police were more than three times as likely to use force against left-wing protests.

Movements for change

Black Lives Matter logo superimposed on a background of a BLM protest

Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.

Image of a white dove flying through broken prison bars against a red background

AFSC - Ending mass incarceration

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) resources on prisons and policing. AFSC works to promote healing – instead of punishment – in the U.S. criminal justice system. The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, disproportionately impacting poor people and people of color. We advocate for alternatives to incarceration, better reintegration after prison, an end to prison privatization, more humane conditions of confinement, and ultimately, the abolition of prisons.

Police militarisation and the 1033 program

Policing in the US has always had a militarised aspect, especially towards Black and Indigenous people. One of the most shocking examples of this in modern times was the 1985 bombing by police in Philadelphia of a house occupied by members of MOVE, a Black political and religious movement, killing eleven people including five children.

However, the militarisation of police forces in the US has increased hugely since 9/11, under the Federal Government’s 1033 program, which provides for the free transfer of huge quantities of surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense (DoD) to police forces, including automatic weaponry, mine-resistant armoured vehicles, helicopters, grenade launchers, and unmanned air and ground vehicles, as well as more mundane, non-military supplies. While the 1033 program existed before 9/11, the surpluses generated by troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with the growing counter-terror ideology adopted by law enforcement, led to a massive increase in the program. According to a paper from Brown University’s Costs of War program, the DoD recorded just $27 million of transfers to police forces between 1990 (when the 1033 program started) and September 11 2001, it recorded $1.6 billion in transfers since 9/11, up to June 2020. The upsurge gathered pace in particular from around 2010, as troop withdrawals from Iraq began. However, this only covers equipment tracked by the DoD. One estimate suggests that a total of $7.4 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the DoD to the police since the 1033 program began.

Police militarisation does not just involve equipment, but also the growth of a counter-terrorism approach to policing, with increased surveillance and intelligence operations, and more generally, police forces’ “use of military language and counterinsurgency tactics, the spread of police paramilitary units, and military-derived ideologies about legitimate and moral uses of violence”. However, the paper’s author emphasizes that militarisation is built into the DNA of US policing from its roots in slave patrols and colonial-era militias, and its close links to US colonial wars abroad throughout the country’s history.

Key statistics


Police killings in 2020

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Proportion of Black people killed by police

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$7.4 billion

Military equipment transferred to US police since 9/11

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