Blurring the lines between the police and the military

MAGAV border guards dressed in body armour and helmets stand at ease on a street corner.  Some have their guns down by their side and others have them pointing up in the air.
MAGAV Border Guards during a demonstration in a-Nabi Saleh, Palestine, in May 2011 at which protesters were violently dispersed. One third of the members of this police unit are recruited by conscription. Photo credit: Tal King.


There is a blurring of the lines between the police and the military with police units adopting increasingly militarised behaviours and the military taking on policing roles.  This resource looks at the militarisation of both policing and internal security because the police often do not have the monopoly on the use of force to maintain the state’s control over society.

In some cases, military units are called upon to fulfil policing roles or police forces include military police units.  Militarised policing in Rio now falls to the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro State, part of the Brazilian Army, and incorporating the Pacifying Police Units and the Special Police Operations Battalion or BOPE.  These units use armoured vehicles including the Maverick, which was also used in apartheid South Africa, and have a reputation for shooting to kill instead of arresting.  In West Papua, the Mobile Brigade Corps and Special Detachment 88 form part of the Indonesian Police but are in fact heavily-armed paramilitary forces used to crush demands for independence.

Elsewhere, the military is expressly forbidden from carrying out policing functions in an effort to stay the militarisation of society.  In practice, this often means that specialised police units take on quasi-military roles and behaviours.  The GSG-9 is an elite German special forces counter-terrorism policing unit.  It was created as a police rather than a military unit to get round the fact that German federal law prohibits the use of military forces against the civilian population.  In the United States, the National Guard fulfils the same function despite being a reserve unit of the United States Armed Forces.

Conscription to the police force can form part of compulsory military service as it does in Cuba where conscripts can be selected to join the National Revolutionary Police Force and Israel where one third of the police force is Border Guard or MAGAV, a unit that recruits via conscription.  Where conscription is not present, recruitment is still often militarised with ex-military personnel choosing policing as a career-path upon leaving the armed forces.

The army itself is also often used to occupy part or the whole of a territory and carry out policing functions.  In Rio de Janiero, the favelas were invaded and occupied by the army between 2014 and 2015.  The army had police powers during this time and military courts were used instead of civilian courts.  The Israeli army carries out an internal security role in the Occupied Palestinian territories alongside the police, with military snipers targeting demonstrators.  The armed forces may also be called in to put down protests as they were in Buenaventura, Colombia, in 2017 where the Naval Infantry joined the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron or ESMAD in violently quelling social unrest.

Into the mix are thrown unaccountable private actors in the form of private military security companies (PMSCs) which have proliferated “in the years since the declaration of a ‘war on terror’” with a “vast private industry” now being worth “hundreds of billions of dollars” (War on Want, 2016).  Israel uses private security companies to operate checkpoints and guard settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  Private security guards “have policing powers… bear arms and are entitled to use force in performing their duties.  In the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, [they] de facto serve as a private police force that serves the settlers population” (Who Profits, 2016).

The visible face of police militarisation is the use of militarised equipment and body armour; of sniper rifles and tanks facing down protesters in Ferguson, United States, and of heavily armoured vehicles patrolling the streets of the favelas of Rio de Janiero. But such conspicuous militarisation is merely a symptom – an end-product – of a militarised mindset that sees those being policed not as members of a community in need of protection but as a threat.

As a police force, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC) is unique in the way that it is organised and operates. It describes itself as an armed force.

Officers are known as ‘griffins’ because a griffin icon forms part of their logo.

The CNC was established in 2005, replacing the Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary which had been established in 1955.

When young college students in Seoul went out to march through the streets calling for Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in a long streak of demonstrations that started last October, it wasn’t difficult to bump into an acquaintance blocking you — dressed in a navy military drab armed with combat gear.

Militarism is much more than military institutions or people in uniform. The military sphere has to do with the lifestyles that people adopt, their way of seeing the world, of understanding social relationships or how effective a society can be.

Militarism is guns, armored tanks and drones, but it’s also a state of mind. Militarised mentalities have permeated many police forces and amplified dramatically the force of police violence against our communities.

Tahoe Resources is a Canadian mining company. In mid-2010, Tahoe acquired the Escobal mine in southeast Guatemala from Goldcorp; Escobal is a 'high grade silver' mine, and also contains gold, lead and zinc. Some analysts believe it to be one of the biggest silver mines in the world. The Escobal mine is approximately 40km southeast of Guatemala City, and 3km from San Rafael los Flores.

Theodore Baird1

A number of scholars, journalists, and activists have argued that we may be witnessing the development of a ‘security-industrial complex’ in Europe which resembles the earlier ‘military-industrial complex’ of the Cold War. The border security-industrial complex refers to the relations between military, security, and private industry within a global market for the design and implementation of border security technologies. The main actors are governments, suppliers of security technologies, and security forces demanding use of new technologies for controlling and managing state borders.

Pedro Rios

On May 28, 2015, in San Diego, California, hundreds gathered for an evening rally and march to commemorate the National Day of Action to Stop Border Brutality. The San Diego activity was part of a coordinated set of non-violent actions where organizations at nine cities across the United States convened various events to raise their voices against increased impunity by border agents who have been implicated in at least 39 deaths since 2010. Led by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, comprised of over 65 organizations working along the US-Mexico border, the coordinated rallies, marches, and film screenings also highlighted the 5th year anniversary of the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a father of five who in 2010 was tortured to death by over a dozen border agents at the San Ysidro Port-of-Entry in San Diego.

A new domestic security bill giving draconian powers to the police has recently been put into force in Turkey. Expanding police power enormously and granting the police some extrajudicial authority, the bill does not allow citizens appropriate measures with which to protect themselves from abuse of this power.

Laura Pollecutt

During the years of apartheid, discussions were ongoing both inside and outside the country, about how state security institutions would function in a post-apartheid democratic state. These discussions intensified in the dying years of apartheid.

Subscribe to Blurring the lines between the police and the military