Since Memorial Day, when cops in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, thousands of protesters across the United States have demanded that their elected officials “defund the police.” It is difficult to imagine Donald Trump affirming, rather than mocking, this call. Yet in 2018 the President made a surprise Christmas visit to troops stationed at Ayn al Asad Air Base, in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and declared that the United States would cease to be the “policeman of the world.”
Trump was not the first President to make such a declaration. All three of his predecessors made similar claims about reining in the global policeman, a term that usually refers to the US propensity to deploy its naval armadas, spy satellites, infantry battalions, and supersonic jets to regulate distant disputes. Trump further claimed, during his visit to the air base, that other countries were “going to have to start paying for it,” meaning for US protection. If Trump didn’t want to entirely defund the global policeman, he at least wanted others to foot the bill. But this wish betrayed a misunderstanding of the way that the United States projects force overseas. The US global policeman functions in four primary ways. Three are relatively well known: first and most obvious, there are direct military operations launched from the approximately eight hundred US bases around the world, such as Trump’s drone strike on the Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani; second, there are joint operations and advisory missions, which President Obama expanded dramatically in Africa and the Middle East; and third, there are arms exports, highlighted by the Trump-Ukraine scandal. The fourth and perhaps least-discussed method is “security assistance,” which the US offers to dozens of countries, and which consists of training and technical upgrades for other nations’ military and police forces.
It is through security assistance that the United States puts the police in global policeman — a project that the country uses to manipulate others into achieving its own geopolitical goals. Far cheaper and less flashy than typical US military missions, security assistance’s primary domains of action are nonmilitary: terrorism and narcotics trafficking. In addressing these threats, the United States sends the militaries of the countries it aids on missions that look much more like law enforcement than combat. Increasingly trained in biometrics and forensics and reliant on predictive algorithms, soldiers are assigned to control borders, stop smuggling, eradicate drug crops, and prevent terror attacks.
Cops have become frontline US diplomats. Policing today is a triumph of globalization.Tweet
If US security assistance is turning soldiers around the globe into cops, it is also sending US police experts around the globe to work with uniformed police in dozens of countries. The global policeman relies on local policemen. In addition to the troops Clinton, Bush II, and Obama placed on the ground and the air strikes they ordered, each committed to deploying police experts to other countries. Such commitments are diffuse and open-ended. As a result, the global policeman seems to run autonomously. No single agency controls the numerous programs that compose the colossus. Each day the global policeman assembles itself anew through the work of hundreds of global policemen (and policewomen): current and former US police officers who train, equip, and advise other countries’ police. Cops have become frontline US diplomats. Policing today is a triumph of globalization.
As many hope for a post-Trump future, reenvisioning US foreign policy seems possible, even if Senator Bernie Sanders — the Democratic candidate who was most critical of the way the United States acts as global policeman — is no longer in the running for the White House. Figuring out how to disassemble the global policeman, a common goal among many on the left, will require understanding what it is, how it evolved, and why it remains so intractable. Yet most existing critiques of the global policeman by liberal or centrist Democrats focus on its disorganization, hoping that US foreign policy can be rationalized to better align means and ends, accepting rather than transforming or rejecting the imperative of US primacy. This technocratic critique of the messy bureaucracy of security assistance amounts only to an attempt to apply a finer chisel, not a hammer, to the policing colossus.
The most widespread political uprising in the United States in decades, spurred by Floyd’s killing, provides guidance for a different approach. Calls to defund the police reject incrementalism in changing how police operate because they repudiate police primacy on city streets. These calls often issue from an abolitionist framework that would divest from coercive state violence and invest in new institutions to promote human flourishing within a new social covenant based on racial and social justice. The problem with US foreign policy — represented in the figure of the global policeman — is that it is like a fully resourced police department in a time of dwindling fears of crime: robustly equipped with sophisticated tools to answer any exigency with force, even as the strategic and political value of using such lethal force recedes. Just as the uprisings urged cities to find ways to resolve conflicts without bullets or batons, they also show it is time for the country to relinquish its status as global policeman. Whether at home or abroad, doing so will require forfeiting a reliance on cops as the universal solvent for social problems.
Critics of US foreign policy have wielded the term global policeman for over a century. It has persisted as a popular term in the lexicon of foreign relations because it both admits the reality of US power on the global stage and acknowledges that no one is happy about how that power has been wielded. Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw the New York Police Department before becoming President, outlined the need for an “international police power” in his 1904 State of the Union address. He argued that there were too many holes and ambiguities in international law. There was nowhere for a nation to turn in an emergency. The United States could resolve this problem by acting the way a police officer on the beat would: helping those in need, telling others to stand back, and smacking the recalcitrant across the face. As the leader of New York’s board of police commissioners, Roosevelt had promised reforms that would root out corruption and brutality on the force. But when it came to global politics, he endorsed what the infamous New York cop Alexander “Clubber” Williams believed: law could be found at the end of a nightstick.
In practice, Roosevelt’s arrogation of an international police power in the early decades of the 20th century took shape through US military invasions and occupations. But why use the term police at all if what Roosevelt had in mind were military expeditions? For the Enlightenment jurists and philosophers who coined the term, police power was functionally unlimited because it concerned anything that law failed to specify. What law was impotent to achieve, and what law had yet to discern as its obligations — these were the concerns of police. Roosevelt extended this idea by suggesting that where international law lacked specifics, and where there was no enforcement mechanism, police power would fall to the United States.
The founder of the discipline of political science in the US, John Burgess, called the police power “the ‘dark continent’ of our jurisprudence,” and thus “the convenient repository of everything for which our juristic classifications can find no other place.” Scholars have, justly, tended to treat this metaphor with trepidation, not least because Burgess, a white supremacist, intended it as a critique. The metaphor of the dark continent was intended to indicate the hazy infinitude of policing’s purview. For Burgess, who opposed US imperialism, the dark continent entailed the suspension of liberal order (for its own protection) in the face of an unknowable threat. But the history of US interventions overseas shows that such threats are far from unknowable. According to US military theorists, the mechanics of such military interventions have resembled policing at home.
Thanks to Roosevelt and his successors, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Rim became laboratories for techniques and technologies of law enforcement in the early decades of the 20th century. Military brigades found themselves acting more like police departments when confronted with what Roosevelt called “chronic wrongdoing”: resistance to the imposition of capitalist labor discipline and agricultural routines, theft and banditry, and guerrilla insurgency. US soldiers and marines also ended up training police officers in occupied zones after the Spanish-American War, from the Philippines to Haiti to Nicaragua, sometimes acting as commanding officers for “native” constabulary regiments. In turn, many of these US military men joined domestic police agencies after returning home, bringing with them colonial ideologies that treated racial difference as sufficient grounds for suspicion. They also brought home new technical expertise in police patrolling, training, and logistics.
After World War II, officially beginning in 1954, the United States started offering “public safety assistance” for the purposes of controlling crime and communism to over fifty countries, mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The United States took it upon itself to modernize policing around the globe. This cold war program, called the Office of Public Safety, housed in the US Agency for International Development, provided a range of tools for law enforcement, ranging from filing cabinets for fingerprint records to pistols, tear gas, batons, and other weapons. The Office of Public Safety also had a training facility called the International Police Academy in Washington DC. At this facility, between 1963 and 1975, 8,855 high-ranking police from 77 countries received specialized training in law enforcement, intelligence, and counterinsurgency. The aim: to protect the emergent multi-lateral order from the threat of communist revolution. Even as new institutions like the United Nations filled in some of the gaps in international law that Roosevelt had derided, these police officials continued to operate, targeting bandits and brigands who were seen as violating communities from within and subversives and seditionaries who were seen as violating the state from without.
In 1965, Arnold Sagalyn, the US representative to Interpol and a member of the board of directors of the Office of Public Safety, declared, “While the world is divided by differences on many critical issues, there is a universal dedication and commendable unity among all countries in the war against crime.” His job, in fact, was bringing this unity and dedication into existence. The global policeman was working hard to ensure that its own approach to law enforcement was widely adopted. But the history of US domestic policing, which had been born of slave patrols, corrupt machine politics, strikebreaking, and the enforcement of the color line, stood in the way. Police in the United States often lacked legitimacy among the policed, just as in US client states. If they were to be a model for how to effectively contain political instability abroad, police forces at home also needed to be improved. Figures like Sagalyn directed a single, global project of reformism that would hone techniques (the roadblock, the stakeout, the stop-and-frisk) and technologies (the helicopter, the walkie-talkie, the tear-gas grenade) to be used both overseas and on US streets.
Yet a single-minded obsession with the communist threat abroad papered over the differences between administrative police reforms aimed at eradicating corruption and technical police reforms aimed at better neutralizing subversives. Neither kind of reform tackled the history of racism that shaped US policing. One South Vietnamese cop told a US counterpart that he was worried US police trainers would treat him as they “treated Negroes down South.” A more prescient concern would have been that they would teach him how to treat the “Viet Cong” that way.
Despite its wide reach, the Public Safety operation was centralized in Washington, led by a small staff, and managed by powerful figures in the national security bureaucracy. Officials with a direct line to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon vetted the program’s strategy. When something went awry, the response was to strengthen centralized oversight. That way the big-picture foreign policy goals of the global policeman would find expression in the street-level recommendations and training of cops around the world. Centralization, however, made the organization vulnerable. After New Left researchers with anti-imperialist groups like the North American Congress on Latin America and the Institute for Policy Studies argued that the Office of Public Safety fostered human rights violations, it was relatively easy for Congress to shut the program down. The 1974 statute prohibiting the use of aid funds appropriated through the Foreign Assistance Act to train and equip police around the globe, known as Section 660, remains in effect today.
But the US security state has proven astonishingly resilient. When the Office of Public Safety abruptly ceased operations overseas after the passage of Section 660, a commercial overseas police-training sector emerged as a stopgap, making it possible for some of the office’s old operations to continue without violating the law. To this day, private firms avoid the original legislative restrictions. They are also not necessarily subject to the oversight provisions of the Leahy laws — designed to prevent US security aid from reaching known violators of human rights — which were passed in later decades.
In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia’s government, for example, tried to find a way to keep receiving US assistance after it became clear that Congress would close the Office of Public Safety. The result, violating the spirit but not the letter of US law, was a bespoke private firm staffed by retired Public Safety advisers and working for a single client. Today, it is known as Vinnell Arabia. This security monopsony exclusively trains and continually upgrades the Saudi National Guard, a ruthless force larger than the Saudi Army. It answers directly to the monarchy and is designed to suppress dissent, prevent terrorism, and maintain order during the Hajj. At first mainly a construction and logistics firm, Vinnell had been on the brink of financial collapse after the US withdrawal from South Vietnam, but it was resuscitated in 1975 by a $77 million contract with Saudi Arabia. The former Public Safety advisers the firm hired continued their work, finding that not even nominal standards of human rights now encumbered them. Two decades later, a devastating bombing in Riyadh would target a Vinnell facility: this was the first attack by the group that later became al Qaeda.
It took a decade or so after the introduction of Section 660 in 1974 for the United States to officially get back into the business of supporting police in other countries around the world. The first target, as with so many US overseas interventions, was Central America. Under President Ronald Reagan, and based on the advice of a bipartisan commission chaired by Henry Kissinger, the US formally resumed police aid in El Salvador and Honduras under a 1985 legislative amendment to Section 660. (Reporters claimed at the time that El Salvador had already been receiving continued US police aid in violation of the 1974 law.) In 1984, Costa Rica separately received counterinsurgency-style training for its border police stationed near Nicaragua.
As the cold war came to a close, Section 124 of Title 10 of the US Code and Section 1004 of the Defense Authorization Act, passed in 1989 and 1991, respectively, gave the Pentagon new counternarcotics responsibilities. The latter section authorized a more prominent role for the military in training police overseas. The Department of Defense now would not only take the lead on interdicting narcotics trafficking from Latin America to the United States by sea and air but also provide assistance to partner nations in areas like intelligence, building bases and border facilities, repairing equipment, and training law enforcement. Today the secretary of defense is legally unable to place limitations on what sort of assistance the department can provide. This flexibility means that although it amounts to a small fraction of the massive defense budget, assistance provided under this authorization continues to expand what counts as counternarcotics work.
If the Pentagon’s counternarcotics mission opened the door to the military training of police, the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions adopted after September 11 blew that door off its hinges. For decades, the creation of independent local police forces to keep the peace as hostilities dwindled had been a measure of US success in “small wars,” like those in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic in the early 20th century. The US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan revived this metric, and US assistance was designed to cultivate steadfast and adept local police forces. This goal, however, has remained elusive. Even in a single country, like Afghanistan, it is unclear where the ultimate responsibility for training and equipping such police forces rests. No US official maintains paramount oversight. Instead, an ombudsman, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, is left to calculate costs — $137 billion total spent on reconstruction since 2001, with at least $21 billion since 2005 spent on police, plus since 2001 over $8 billion more appropriated to control narcotics — and to catalog US mistakes. Among his conclusions: the United States was “ill-prepared,” resources were “wasted,” and the resulting police capabilities remain “grossly inadequate.”
The globalization of US policing both extends outward and reverberates inward. Today’s global policeman may be the world’s largest organism with no brain or nervous system. The operations of this acephalous being exceed enumeration, in part because reporting requirements are thin and often ignored. But it has several identifiable tentacles.
Police departments in the United States routinely invite officers from around the globe to visit and learn how they operate. Cop diplomacy fosters cop friendship. In 1959, describing visits by foreign officers to his academy, an NYPD inspector in charge of training told the New Yorker, “We learn from them, too.” This aspiration to mutually beneficial international exchange remains unchanged today, but the opportunities to realize it have dramatically multiplied. Open any small-town newspaper and you are likely to see a story like “German Police Spend Time in Wisconsin for Exchange Program” about the nonprofit International Police Association’s program, which in 2017 brought five officers to Altoona, Wisconsin (population 7,870) to “learn about alternative policing techniques and forge lasting friendships.” Altoona’s police were surprised to learn that cops from Hamburg (population 1.8 million) get by without “stun guns.” Similarly, police from many US cities visit counterparts overseas. They build informal connections at regular conferences held by organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where experts share lessons learned and corporations peddle the newest gear. Today, overseas travel to the warmer climes of Central America’s Northern Triangle rejuvenates obsolescing cop buzzwords. Trying to win converts, US consultants introduce foreign audiences to terms and names already worn out at home, like intelligence-led policing, community policing, CompStat, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), and even Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE).
There are also more rigorous international police-training operations that employ former cops who have moved their careers to the international arena, including programs conducted by private corporations and programs conducted by the US government. The State Department’s programs operate within a blizzard of acronyms that all begin with I, for international: ICITAP, ILEA, INCLE, and INL. The International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), aptly described by one expert as a “jerry-built agency,” was placed under the guidance of the State Department, which lacked law enforcement experts; it was funded by the Agency for International Development, which was not supposed to engage directly in police training; and it was technically located within the Department of Justice, which had other priorities. Today, it has shifted its focus from basic training to “sustainable institutional development.” ICITAP now maintains seventeen field offices, from Mexico to Mali, Bosnia to Bangladesh, and several other types of overseas outposts. Over thirty years after its founding in 1986, ICITAP was proud to be nominated by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction to take over all US police assistance operations, thanks to the confusion and waste attributable to the other acronymic outfits.
But International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) is not likely to cede its turf anytime soon. This training group is responsible for helping other countries combat organized crime and stem drug trafficking. INCLE is a subsidiary of the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and partners with the Department of Defense. INL is supposed to oversee the operations and develop the strategic goals of INCLE, but again law enforcement agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration believe the State Department lacks the requisite expertise. Appropriations for INL have increased fivefold since the 1990s, to around $1 billion annually today, as journalist Todd Miller points out in his book Empire of Borders, a rare critical look at this group. INL, meanwhile, is also responsible for yet another acronym, the International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEAs).
Security consultants and their clients, trainers, and trainees crisscross the globe, operating both inside and outside the United States. And no one is in charge.Tweet
The first ILEA opened in Budapest in 1995. It joined Instagram in 2018. Today there are three additional INL academies, one each in Botswana, Thailand, and El Salvador, plus a regional facility in Peru. There is also an advanced-training facility in Roswell, New Mexico. The truth is out there if you can decipher the acronyms. Approximately 4,500 police officers from around the world graduate annually from these academies, where courses are led by instructors from various federal law enforcement agencies as well as local US police agencies. Trainees learn law enforcement techniques, but they also learn to “cooperate with US law enforcement entities.” The criminologist Otwin Marenin has compared the first ILEA in Budapest to the cold war–era International Police Academy administered by the Office of Public Safety. The ILEA’s mission was more diffuse and “free-floating,” he found, as the training was no longer singularly designed to prevent communist revolution. Instead, the Budapest ILEA, founded soon after the Berlin Wall’s collapse, was meant to bring Eastern European police in from the cold. As the ILEAs have expanded, their ideological valence has remained a commitment to capitalism. According to the State Department, the ILEAs are today designed to “buttress rule of law” but also to protect US “citizens and businesses,” “increase social, political, and economic stability,” and “enhance the functioning of free markets.”
The ILEAs are separate from the Export Control and Related Border Security Program, also funded by the State Department, through which Customs and Border Protection, housed in the Department of Homeland Security, operates training facilities for other countries’ border police. Todd Miller has documented how widely CBP experts travel on training missions, tracing the peregrinations of the CBP’s obscure Border Patrol Tactical Unit, BORTAC, which offers one-stop “doctor, diagnosis, and prescription” training in locales from Iraq to Guatemala. Part of CBP’s Special Operations Group, a civilian analog of the Navy SEALs, BORTAC is “capable of rapid response to emergent and uncommon law enforcement situations requiring special tactics and techniques.” CBP’s website illustrates such special tactics with dramatic photos of heavily camouflaged snipers. In practice, BORTAC snipers spend a lot of time on mundane activities like training their foreign counterparts.
US border patrol advisers worked under the auspices of the Public Safety program during the cold war, aiming to help third world countries prevent smuggling and infiltration by subversives. At that time, the United States wanted to help places like Guatemala keep problems out. Today, when the Department of Homeland Security goes to Guatemala, it is trying to keep problems in. The goal is to prevent Central American migrants from leaving and heading north, as well as to prevent cocaine, smuggled primarily from Colombia to Guatemala, from heading into Mexico.
With all these agencies working in competition, redundancy, like cash, abounds. Federal police at a Mexican naval installation in Chiapas, built with US funding through the Mérida Initiative, can expect to receive assistance with aerial surveillance, biometric data collection, drug-sniffing dogs, and the safe decontamination of methamphetamine laboratories through visits from trainers with the US Army and Navy, Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as from the corporations that design backscatter X-ray machines, night-vision goggles, and maritime sensors. One can imagine the Mexican officers nodding their heads politely after each new training session, thinking, “I’ve heard all this before” — perhaps when they themselves traveled to the US for training.
This incoherence, duplicative effort, and aimlessness is all one long ramifying aftereffect of the 1974 Foreign Assistance Act’s restrictions. Beyond loopholes carved into Section 660’s original prohibition, which mainly concerned counternarcotics support, Congress has found ways to work around the law, and Presidents sign waivers. As of 2017, dozens of authorities — meaning specific sections of federal law — allowed 107 separate programs of security assistance in at least 160 countries, as calculated by the Washington Office on Latin America. According to the diplomacy-oriented principle behind these assistance efforts, the State Department spends, and the Defense Department implements. State provides “assistance,” Defense provides “cooperation.” But in the fifteen years after September 11, the amount the Pentagon spent on security cooperation increased over 1,000 percent. The State Department funds most foreign assistance by the Department of Homeland Security. And the Departments of Energy, Justice, and Treasury also contribute specialized assistance, as does the Agency for International Development. Put these all together and you have 194 programs — as an example, INCLE, described earlier, is just one of them. Yet, according to the Government Accountability Office, while eighty-seven Defense efforts require State participation, another fifty-six do not. The Department of Defense will circumvent some of the difficulties that come from working within the legal confines applied to the Department of State by inviting officers from an agency like the New York City Police Department to travel abroad and impart focused lessons. All of this funding is byzantine in organization but bountiful in application. As a result, security consultants and their clients, trainers, and trainees crisscross the globe, operating both inside and outside the United States. And no one is in charge.
Training thousands of police from scratch is a difficult process, consuming both manpower and money. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq relied on gargantuan budgets, yet no one agreed on exactly what could fix these newly “liberated” countries’ unreliable security forces. Since September 11, expenditures on foreign police assistance have dramatically increased, while aid to foreign militaries has been redirected toward counterterrorism, counternarcotics, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, border control, and other activities formerly delegated primarily to civilian law enforcement. Around 90 percent of security assistance can be allocated to foreign militaries under current authorizations, and 55 percent to police, with the understanding that some will be shared by both groups. The total 2019 annual federal budget outlay for security assistance, both military and police, was $18.8 billion, delivered to at least eighty-five countries and regional entities. (Arms sales, totaling over three and a half times that amount, and which went to ninety-six countries in 2019, are separate.) The largest portion of this aid was directed to Afghanistan ($4.9 billion), with Israel, Egypt, and Iraq as the next largest single-country recipients ($3.3, $1.3, and $1.1 billion, respectively), according to Security Assistance Monitor. When grouped regionally, Central American countries received $527.6 million in US aid in 2019, with $190 million arriving via INCLE, down from a peak under Obama of $750 million in 2016. Under President Trump, the level of White House requests for aid to Central America has fallen, while Congress has tried to maintain it; this has reversed the trend of the Obama years, in which Congress refused to fully fund the appropriations the administration requested.
None of these sums, however, include all the training expeditions and information exchanges that make up the global policeman. They leave out the many privately funded initiatives, as well as spending by the EU and NATO and by other individual countries, US states, and municipalities, which all connect law enforcement agencies across borders. There is no federal agency tasked with coordinating and overseeing these relationships, even as the United States demands that other countries better integrate their military and civilian agencies and eliminate waste, corruption, and inefficiency.
Once resentful of other allied countries that tried to finagle their way into training foreign police, today the United States is open to entrepreneurial allies. Germany, for example, was in charge of training Afghanistan’s police after the United States ousted the Taliban from Kabul. Dissatisfied with Germany’s ability to reach security benchmarks, however, Washington hired DynCorp International to do the job, at a cost of over $1 billion over six years. Then, both the Defense and State Departments got involved, with neither answering to the other. Defense broke prior promises to Afghan officials that only US law enforcement experts would train police. It used soldiers instead, “leading to a militarization of the force” in terms of training and mission, though without military-style weapons, whose issuance was prohibited. These ill-equipped trainees tasked with risky missions have suffered alarming casualty rates while also committing numerous thefts, rapes, and murders.
Law enforcement globalization relies on private firms because the US government continually commits to overseas missions without creating the capacity to fulfill them. For instance, a group of reporters recently revealed in the Chicago Reader how a company called the International Tactical Training Association, founded by a Chicago cop, is operating in El Salvador. This company stepped into the breach after the State Department cut off government assistance to a specialized Salvadoran police unit linked to death squads, thus circumventing Leahy Law restrictions and allowing training to continue. Separately, the firm had begun working with the Salvadoran national police academy. Once the Salvadoran government ran out of money for police training and could not cover the company’s costs, the State Department leaped in to foot the bill through INL. Other private security companies, much like DynCorp in Afghanistan, also engage in direct overseas training on behalf of the US government. Active at home and abroad, some firms offer technical training in specific domains like cybersecurity. Others, like Giuliani Security & Safety, advise elected leaders on the types of crime or terrorism policies they should adopt. Others still, like Academi (formerly Blackwater), provide armed officers to undertake specialized operational law enforcement support. (Blackwater has changed names multiple times and is now part of a massive security conglomerate, Constellis; it operates a facility in North Carolina capable of training over twenty thousand police and soldiers per year.) Building on the model of oversight avoidance Vinnell Arabia helped pioneer, these firms continue to tally massive profits.
The power such corporations hold in Washington is significant. DynCorp continually failed to meet qualitative benchmarks in Afghanistan while rushing recruits through training and into the field in order to meet quantitative ones. As a result, the Pentagon barred DynCorp from placing a bid for a new contract to train the Afghan National Police. Its lawyers registered a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. DynCorp then earned a new two-year contract worth over $700 million in 2010.
Even before it was revealed that Trump had decided to withhold security aid to Ukraine in a sophomoric bribery scheme, few people believed the contemporary US security assistance arrangement to be a good one. From the left, critics like Security Assistance Monitor and the Washington Office on Latin America worry that contemporary police assistance is endowing repressive institutions with increasing power without effectively fighting corruption. More centrist or conservative critics with think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies decry the system’s administrative bloat, strategic incoherence, and costs, while insisting that better US assistance could eradicate the corruption and repression that leftists condemn. Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, recently blessed US police assistance efforts, visiting a police academy in Colombia to honor a cohort of newly trained policewomen who received scholarships from Washington.
These trivial efforts will not fix the problems of the global policeman. Neither will the boldest recent proposal. Two military experts, Tommy Ross and Philip McDaniel, have advocated repealing the 1974 ban on foreign police training in the Foreign Assistance Act and creating a revived version of the Office of Public Safety, a consolidated administrative agency in Washington to coordinate all overseas police assistance and training. To believe that the abuses that imperiled the Office of Public Safety can be avoided, however, is to believe that the United States can produce a type of policing overseas that it has failed to implement at home. In the aftermath of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, followed by the beating and tear-gassing of thousands of protesters, the only way to interpret this continued devotion to US police assistance is as a sort of religious belief.
The great myth that underpins policing in the United States is that it remains a purely local affair, with police responding to the safety needs of individual neighborhoods. Setting aside the numerous federal law enforcement agencies, the grants to municipalities from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and the nationwide professional and fraternal organizations that cops belong to, what unifies police in the United States today is their global reach. It is common today to hear criticisms of the militarization of US policing. But beneath this trend is a much-older process that has ebbed and flowed over time: the globalization of US policing.
Since September 11, numerous individual US municipalities have entered into training arrangements with other countries, especially Israel. The premise here is the opposite of many other US police training operations: that the US police should be pupils, not professors. These expeditions are often funded through private donations. The Law Enforcement Exchange Program, operated by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, as the brainchild of a former New York police executive and a former FBI agent, is one of the primary facilitators. The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and American Israel Education Foundation also facilitate these exchanges, which have connected thousands of US police officers with Israeli security experts.
These efforts have attracted greater scrutiny than most forms of global security cooperation. In Durham, North Carolina, local elected officials issued a policy opposing collaborations between the city’s police and other countries, including Israel. This controversial 2018 decision was the result of concerted political organizing that argued that such collaborations led to intensifying surveillance and racial profiling as well as harsh responses to public protest. This small win for protesters was not easy, and a backlash ensued, indicating how difficult it will be to massively shrink a decentralized but global law enforcement system.
After nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, an estimated 20 percent of cops on US streets today are military veterans, though precise numbers are difficult to obtain. And numerous police officers and prison guards in the reserves were called to active duty after September 11. Because counterinsurgency operations by the US military in these theaters often replicated everyday policing — from getting to know local kids so that they might offer intelligence to breaking down doors and rounding up suspects in midnight raids — some of these veterans have tried to apply their experience overseas at home. Michael Cutone and Thomas Sarrouf, state police troopers in Massachusetts, invented what they called C3 policing, meaning Counter Criminal Continuum, after determining that Springfield’s gang problems bore “troubling parallels” to what they experienced in Iraq as special forces operators. This initiative generated copious press coverage, but it also revealed how little distance there already was between the supposedly exotic counterinsurgency methods used in Iraq and everyday policing in the United States. The troopers also admitted that coercion alone was unlikely to reduce crime. Echoing innumerable treatises on how to stop an insurgency, they argued that the “problem of gangs is something you have to make the community itself responsible for.” Those with the least resources or power would be expected to solve the problem themselves, and if they failed, state troopers were poised with handcuffs.
The thin blue line belts the globe.Tweet
When it comes to technological innovation, post–September 11 wars have had a dramatic effect on policing in the United States. The widely criticized mine-resistant trucks, body armor, and high-powered rifles that police now deploy are only the most visible effects. C3 policing drew on rudimentary analyses of social networks to create maps of likely perpetrators of gang violence. Counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan adopted this type of work first, but it has become commonplace in big-city police forces. Firms like PredPol, which have developed algorithm-based risk models for police deployment, tout their reliance on grants from the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, police in New York City have routinized the targeting of large groups of young people based on little more than their Facebook friends lists. These simplistic but devastating uses of data are only the first step, as new and enormously sophisticated big data operations aim to predict when and where criminal activity will occur. Funded by lucrative and largely secret contracts with intelligence agencies, companies like Palantir have developed software to harvest massive quantities of data that most people would consider private. These data identify likely suspects not only in counterterrorism investigations but also in more traditional criminal and civil immigration investigations.
Baltimore has become a testing ground for other technologies repatriated from battle zones. One is continuous aerial surveillance that creates a detailed image of the entire city. This is not just a snapshot, but a high-resolution record of people’s movements over time. The Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance Systems developed tools to track insurgents and then tested them in Baltimore with the approval of the police commissioner but without informing the mayor or city council. A Texas-based billionaire footed the bill. Ross McNutt, the firm’s founder, likes to call the result “Google Earth with TiVo capabilities.” When the experiment ended, the company kept the data. After receiving mayoral approval and a favorable decision by a judge, the plane returned to the skies over this majority-Black “laboratory” city five years to the day after the uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral. At an altitude of 4,500 feet, McNutt’s single-engine Cessna traced circles like a bull’s-eye over the Western District, where Gray grew up and police killed him.
Police agencies are desperate to predict crime, particularly shootings. It has never been possible, but technological advances seem to put this chimera within reach. Cityscapes are today festooned with high-resolution police cameras, while patrol cars at street level collect data from every license plate they pass. No technology, however, could be as bizarre as the fantasy that US counterinsurgency efforts overseas after September 11 actually worked as they were supposed to: stemming rather than causing insurgency. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a Los Angeles group organizing against police surveillance, has argued that location-based algorithmic crime predictions bring into being what they claim to diagnose: predictive policing is itself criminogenic, activists claim. If counterinsurgency in Iraq is its blueprint, they are right.
From Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump, US foreign policy has relied on a simple argument: absent US stewardship, anarchy threatens. This belief has been at the core of global policemanship. It is the global-scale version of the municipal-scale argument behind robust police budgets. That the aggressive posture of the United States in global affairs also relies on the global activity of actual police officers reveals the inherent connection between a more aggressive, well-endowed, and unrestrained foreign policy and more aggressive, well-endowed, and unrestrained law enforcement at home. The thin blue line belts the globe.
What would the retrenchment of the global policeman look like in practice? One goal would be dissolving bilateral assistance arrangements between the US and other countries and running all public-safety assistance through multilateral organizations, though the preponderance of US power in groups like the Organization of American States could not be overlooked. At a more granular level, the liberal demand for oversight and accountability is one starting point, but it has to be met with requirements for action. If measures of the effectiveness of police training in other countries suggest failings, the programs should be terminated. For decades, police reformers have met every indication of police inadequacy with a demand for continued reform. This cycle must end. Just as protesters in hundreds of US cities and towns have oriented their demands for decarceration and depolicing toward an abolitionist horizon, a goal that will necessarily require long-term work along a consistent path, so too must critics of US global security assistance demand that each reform of the global policeman shrink its reach and power. The goal should be for any investment in policing abroad to result in less policing in total. The range of responsibilities and powers of the police should shrink, not grow. At a minimum, police assistance should be self-liquidating. How much authority for social intervention can be delegated away from police agencies? That should be the guiding question until at last it no longer needs to be raised.