The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


Kevin D. Haggerty

Richard V. Ericson

Kevin Haggerty teaches at the University of Alberta and Richard Ericson at Oxford University. The summary is taken for their article in Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and the Police, edited by Peter Kraska, Boston: 2001, Northeastern University Press, pp. 43-64.

Written before the events of September 11, Afghanistan or the war in Iraq, this article provides a prescient analysis of trends in domestic policing that have expanded and intensified since the terrorist attacks. In the process, the authors point the study of ‘militarization’ in important new directions.

The concept of militarization implies that an organization acquires attributes characteristic of the military. A fairly extensive literature on militarization has explored the extent to which military models, organizational structures, metaphors, personnel and weapons have been embraced in policing and criminal justice more generally. This article suggests that this literature has inexplicably ignored the truly distinctive attribute of the contemporary military: its commitment to developing and deploying advanced computing, visualization and communication technologies. It is the movement of such military technosciences into other organizational spheres that marks a key dimension of contemporary dynamics in militarization. Developments in the United States exemplify this trend. Although the United States is clearly quite distinct militarily and politically, military and policing developments in that country tend to quickly migrate to other nations. As such, this paper is an analysis of contemporary trends in policing as well as a prediction about potential future developments.

Since World War II the defining attribute of the U.S. military has been its commitment to using advanced technology for military purposes. To that end it has funded any number of new technologies, academic institutions and individual scientists. Few technologies are now developed without being scrutinized for potential military applications. The range of technologies developed for military purposes and to military specifications is extensive and, very importantly, is not confined to lethal technologies. Hence, assorted sensors, visualization devices, electronics, communication systems, as well as nuclear energy, computers and space exploration can all be conceived of as military technologies by virtue of their genesis in military programs.

These technologies, however, do not remain confined to their military context. Most eventually move into wider society through a ‘trickle down’ process of dispersion, where corporate interests work to develop potential civilian applications of technologies with a military origin. The computer provides a paradigmatic example of such a process, as prior to World War II there was little research on computing machines. The war effort galvanized efforts to develop computers, the first of which were used for assorted military purposes. In the ensuing years refinements in computational abilities have ushered in a new military ideology that emphasizes the use of information. Computers, however, have transcended their military origins, and are now a generalized technology capable of any number of different non-martial applications.

An important beneficiary of this expanded range of military technologies has been the public police who now have a considerable volume of science and technology at their disposal. Computers in particular have become increasingly important to policing. The appeal of computerization to the police is related to how computers reinforce and augment managerial and governmental practices. Computers hold out the promise of efficiency gains in terms of managing populations and police systems. As such, they are the technological conditions of possibility for the expansion and intensification of a model of policing which accentuates the routine surveillance of populations, scrutiny of data banks and communication of risk knowledge to a host of agencies external to the police. Such technologies cohere with the mundane day-to-day reality of policing which increasingly involves the collection, processing and analysis of reams of information. As such, the computer is one example, although an important example, of the trickle-down movement of military technologies into policing.

Recent years have witnessed the development of a more self-conscious effort to direct military technosciences into criminal justice. Assorted political factors have served to position criminal justice as a market for military technoscience as never before. Most specifically, the collapse of the Soviet Union raised political talk of a peace dividend, sending trickles of anxiety through the powerful American military-industrial complex, which feared any reduction in lucrative government contracts. Very quickly a series of structures were established by the U.S. government to support ‘dual use’ technologies that would have both civilian and military applications.

With federal funding now increasingly hinging on an ability to demonstrate this dual use capacity, military officials and corporate executives turned to criminal justice as an easy way to demonstrate civilian applications of military technoscience. New military-civilian hybrids have been formalized through various memoranda of understanding between the Department of Defense and the National Institute of Justice. Funds have been dedicated to developing military technoscience as a ‘force multiplier’ in criminal justice applications. New military-law enforcement organizational hybrids have been developed, including the Rapid Prototyping Facility in Quantico, Virginia. The U.S. Department of Defense recently established a facility to monitor computer crimes which is operated jointly by the FBI and the Pentagon.

The range of military devices that are now envisioned as playing a role in criminal justice are astounding, and include assorted surveillance tools, such as remotely piloted vehicles, x-rays, video cameras and myriad sensors, tracking and personal-identification systems, computer databases, electronic networks and virtual reality training systems. Some new ‘dual use’ technologies include a diagnostic system for explosive devices, a device to detect the heartbeat of individuals hiding in vehicles, and a machine to identify airborne chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine which employs technology derived from the military’s chemical warfare detector.

The military-industrial complex has therefore turned to criminal justice as a easy source of legitimacy and funding opportunities. In the process, it is championing a more technologically sophisticated infrastructure for domestic policing. However, none of this is to suggest the imminent arrival of Robocop forms of policing. The adoption of these tools will undoubtedly be plagued by problems, inefficiencies and resistance. Nor are these new tools apt to radically transform the police mandate. Much police work already involves efforts to document myriad events for various institutional audiences and conduct routine forms of bureaucratic and optical surveillance of different populations. It is in their promise to intensify and rationalize such processes that these new technologies are apt to be most attractive to police officials.

The major impediment to the adoption of such technologies will likely be financial as many of these tools are expensive, some prohibitively so. That said there are several reasons to believe that funds will be found to support an increasingly high-technology criminal justice infrastructure. This includes the fact that the police have a history of securing comparatively generous funding, even during times of fiscal restraint. Moreover, many of these new tools will undoubtedly be presented as a means to save costs, particularly through civilianizing many routine information-processing tasks. Finally, the powerful military-industrial complex now has a vested interest in seeing that military tools are adopted in domestic applications, and it has a remarkable track record of securing government funds.