The Thick Blue Line: How the United States Became the World’s Police Force

by Patrick Blanchfield, published on Black Agenda Report, December 18, 2019

Many of the tools and tactics adopted by American police over the past half century were originally deployed to fight communism abroad.

“The era of intensified American policing that began in the 1960s cannot be understood outside the context of the Cold War national-security state.”

Stuart Schrader
Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing
by Stuart Schrader. Berkeley: University of California Press
416 pages. $35

The first test call using America’s 911 emergency system was placed on February 16, 1968. To fanfare in the press, a state legislator sitting in the City Hall of the small Alabama town of Haleyville dialed in to the local police station. His call was answered by a group of august notables—a US representative, a telephone-company executive, and president of the Alabama Public Service Commission Theophilus Eugene Connor. Better remembered today by his nickname, “Bull” Connor was an outspoken white supremacist who believed desegregation was a communist plot; just five years earlier, as commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, he had notoriously unleashed riot police, fire hoses, and attack dogs on nonviolent civil rights protesters.

That such a man should have been on the receiving end of America’s first 911 call is fitting. As Stuart Schrader reveals in his new book, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, the United States’ 911 system was modeled on an earlier program pioneered by American-funded police forces fighting a Marxist insurgency in Caracas. The Venezuelan emergency-number program, used by local authorities to connect civilian informants and coordinate crackdowns, was such a success that President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders recommended its adoption stateside. The new emergency-call network was a signal achievement of the Johnson administration’s War on Crime, which overhauled America’s police infrastructure and laid the groundwork for modern mass infrastructure and the carceral state. By fostering “consumer-like expectations of police responsiveness,” Schrader observes the 911 system proved transformative. “Agents of state power authorized to enact violence would not be a last resort. The first line of defense became the first responders.”

“The United States’ 911 system was modeled on an earlier program pioneered by American-funded police forces fighting a Marxist insurgency in Caracas.”

Helping security forces crush dissidents in Venezuela was not America’s only “experiment” in foreign police assistance in the 1960s and ’70s, and today’s 911 system is not the only “product” developed abroad and then imported back to the US during this time. In his distressing and erudite history, Schrader documents how many of the tools and tactics adopted by American police over the past half century were originally deployed to fight communism abroad. His argument, which Badges Without Borders persuasively demonstrates, is that the era of intensified American policing that began in the 1960s cannot be understood outside the context of the Cold War national-security state.

After World War II, the United States found itself in a delicate position: ostensibly committed to a global agenda of liberty and human rights, but also materially and ideologically vulnerable to leftist and communist insurgencies in the decolonizing nations of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

“The United States could not fight a hot war against all of these everyday people who took up the mantle of revolution,” Schrader writes. “But its security thinkers tried mightily to figure out how to stymie these efforts.”

One form these efforts took was the creation of a world order of “uncompromising police, professionally trained and equipped on a US model.”

Since the Truman administration, an alphabet soup of government programs, initiatives, and presidential commissions, their names deliberately innocuous and similar-sounding, have channeled funds, matériel, and know-how to friendly police departments around the world. Schrader focuses on the most significant of these programs, the Office of Public Safety (OPS), created in 1962 as part of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Though it cost a fraction of what directly deploying American forces did, the OPS’s impact was outsize. Along with similar organizations, it disbursed millions of dollars in guns, riot-control gear, radios, uniforms, and office supplies in more than fifty countries across the Global South. Throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, US specialists provided “technical assistance” in building crime labs and prisons, and helped local police develop surveillance and interrogation squads. American police veterans were embedded as “Public Safety Advisors” within national gendarmeries and frontline counter-guerrilla squads, ostensibly in an advisory capacity, but on occasion killing people themselves. Foreign police were flown stateside to attend conferences and pursue degrees in specially created academic programs taught in multiple languages. Some even trained hands-on with American police, walking beats in US cities that were gingerly selected to minimize racial friction.

The OPS disbursed millions of dollars in guns, riot-control gear, radios, uniforms, and office supplies in more than fifty countries across the Global South.”

American officials portrayed US-sanctioned police in the decolonizing world—from South Vietnam to Indonesia to Nicaragua to Turkey—as essential to maintaining international order, and cast political dissidents as criminals who needed to be stopped. As Schrader observes, this was a savvy, calculated move: Protests against state brutality or American intervention could now be dismissed as “subversion,” and police crackdowns on dissidents defended as “law and order.” The rhetoric of police aid was always technocratic, draped in a language of neutrality, experimentation, and flexibility. American specialists would train local authorities who could become trainers themselves, and thereby better adapt and tailor American lessons to “conditions on the ground.”

But as Schrader shows, the reassuring rhetoric of technocratic development was a convenient shield. The emphasis on “experiments” inoculated the US from responsibility for what its proxies actually did with what they learned and the tools they were given. In countries from Nicaragua to Indonesia, US-trained police preserved the interest of local elites by repressing dissidents—or simply murdering them. In Guatemala, John Longan, an Oklahoma cop who had risen to become chief of US Public Safety Assistance for Latin America, organized an urban counterinsurgency unit that launched what it called Operación Limpieza (“Operation Cleanup”) in 1966. Paramilitaries went on a months-long spree of “disappearing” peasant and worker organizers, arresting and torturing them before dumping their bodies in the ocean. When the bodies washed ashore, Longan was blasé, claiming that the massacre was the type of thing that “just happened.” US-trained Guatemalan forces would be implicated in up to forty thousand more disappearances during the country’s long civil war, which itself left some two hundred thousand people dead, and hundreds of thousands more tortured and subjected to systematic rape.

The Americans who populate Schrader’s book, like the institutions they worked for, are strikingly generic. Many were veterans of the Second World War who were afterward recruited to rebuild national police departments in US-occupied Japan and West Germany, and from there to work for the CIA and various government-adjacent consultancies. “Security was his earthly purpose,” Schrader writes of Byron Engle, the Kansas City police reformer turned OPS director. “His high forehead, broad nose, prominent ears, and bulbous chin contrasted with his thin, tight lips. Exaggerated features balanced by a mouth easily kept shut—his was the very visage of US empire.” However quiet and unremarkable they may have been, men like Engle were driven by a “vision of modernized, professional, well-trained, proactive, countersubversive police,” and were the architects of a truly cosmopolitan system where “Kansas City met Tokyo met Ankara met Saigon.”

“Protests against state brutality or American intervention could now be dismissed as ‘subversion, and police crackdowns on dissidents defended as ‘law and order.’”

Occupied territory is occupied territory,” wrote James Baldwin of 1960s Harlem. He argued that America’s police, like its troops across the world, enforced a particular social order—one marked by the rhetoric of democracy and free markets but defined by racialized violence. Baldwin’s unflinching assessment of the transnational character of America’s counterinsurgency programs is supported by Schrader’s analysis: As Badges Without Borders shows, the OPS’s “experiments” did not just impose order abroad. They also helped consolidate new forms of social control at home. Two key features of today’s police—SWAT teams and the use of tear gas as “riot control”—both drew upon lessons from foreign “experiments.” Tear gas was cannily sold to American liberals as a “nonlethal” tool successfully tested by US forces in Vietnam. The National Guard began heavily deploying tear gas against urban uprisings in 1968, using it both in open spaces and to overpower and immobilize people in enclosed ones. As Schrader writes,

“the ability to preempt crime or unrest with nonlethal weapons meant that police could treat political dissent as incipient rioting.”

On campuses and in streets, police launched and dropped tear gas to preemptively “disperse” crowds or create “buffer zones” to confine them. Buildings occupied by Black Panthers and other radical groups were besieged and saturated with gas; when their inhabitants fled, they were shot down by police waiting outside. The new tool meant that any mass agitation in public, from nonviolent marches to sit-ins to walkouts, could be considered a form of disorder, which police professionals could quell through tools effective against “subversives” and “criminals” alike.

“The OPS’s ‘experiments’ did not just impose order abroad. They also helped consolidate new forms of social control at home.”

In the 1960s, the link between America’s wars abroad and its police at home was made by radical groups like the Black Panthers, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Efforts to raise public awareness about the OPS were quickened by revelations of torture at an OPS-advised island prison off the coast of Vietnam and the killing of an American trainer in Uruguay. Media pressure and congressional inquiries mounted, and the OPS was dissolved in 1974. But, as Schrader notes, the US has hardly stopped training and arming police in other countries; today it annually disburses hundreds of millions of dollars in police aid to Latin America alone. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the rationale shifted from fighting communist “subversion” to fighting terrorism, but the security state has become so normal it is basically invisible—as dependable and ubiquitous as calling 911.

Since the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in 2010, American arguments over policing and imprisonment have increasingly acknowledged how the racial politics of the War on Crime shaped the American criminal-justice system. But in this domain as in many others, the debate has remained parochial, hemmed in by the nation’s borders. Today, the US carceral apparatus is rightly understood as exceptional in size and scale—but its connection to the global operations of US empire remains largely unspoken and unseen. Meanwhile, the mandate of police, and their material empowerment, has only continued to expand. Counterinsurgency policing, first promised as a way to secure the United States’ imperial core from outside threats, has become a way of life.

“At home and abroad,” Schrader writes, “policing would remain the cornerstone upon which liberal democracy was built, as well as its greatest fetter.”

We can only hope that his magisterial history will help to break this shackle.

*Featured Image: Police in riot gear blocking a checkpoint into the parade route at Bush’s 2nd inauguration, Washington DC. ~Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons


Patrick Blanchfield is a writer and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

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