Laboratories of Empire

Will Meyer

Stuart Schrader’s Badges Without Borders is available from UC Press.
Todd Miller’s Empire of Borders is available from Verso Books.

During last year’s furious protests over the public murder of George Floyd, and, more broadly, the status quo of American policing, it came to light that the Minneapolis Police Department that killed him was, actually, a model of police reform—or so we had been told. Officers had received training on de-escalation, crisis intervention, implicit bias, and even mindfulness, based on recommendations from the Obama-era “Commission on 21st Century Policing.” In response to the Black Lives Matter protests that began to sweep the country after Mike Brown’s murder in 2014, the Obama administration had done what liberals do best and proposed a set of technocratic procedural reforms via this Commission. Better trainings, more body cameras, and better transparency, the Commission’s authors suggested, could improve trust between police and the policed. Unsurprisingly, the tweaks proposed by the Commission failed to constrain police power.

This meddling around the edges, of course, also failed to prevent Derek Chauvin from choking Floyd to death., Chauvin himself had acted as a “training officer” to more junior recruits, despite his extensive record of misconduct, including on-duty shootings. This fact helped fuel an increasing public conviction that no amount of anti-bias workshops will actually quell the violence of the police. Even the most upstanding police departments—that is, departments that are professionally trained, collaborate closely with their latte-guzzling liberal mayor, and express superficial remorse about their own profession’s cruel brutality—are still tasked with waging a militarized war against the poor, people of color, the unhoused, drug users, political dissidents, and any other group that threatens capital’s perpetual expansion.  

Reforms failed to stop the police from tear-gassing protestors in Seattle after the substance was banned. Body cameras, a study revealed, didn’t change the behavior of police in Washington D.C.. The barbaric police response to protesters in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the Chauvin trial shows that little has improved since past uprisings sparked by the case of Freddie Gray, or of Rodney King, for that matter. With each backlash to the despotism, lawmakers offer paltry reforms that ultimately maintain sadistic police powers. This dynamic has been in evidence since the 1960s, when police were tasked with repressing the Civil Rights movement.

“The racist military police force occupies our community just like the foreign American troops in Vietnam.” These are the words of Black Panther Bobby Seale, who wrote them in 1967, when Black radicals were describing the “internal colonialism” taking place in their cities. Seale’s words were “prescient,” according to historian Stuart Schrader, because he was able to articulate a two-way relationship between foreign and domestic policing. The war in Vietnam and the political unrest in the United States reinforced one another—but not only in the way you might think. Seale understood that the forces in Vietnam were “just like” the ones containing Black uprisings in Chicago, Newark, and Detroit.

As Schrader relates in his 2019 book, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, the policing techniques that were used to quell the riots of the ‘60s in the United States were first developed and deployed to suppress the spread of communism in the Global South under the dubious cover of “counterinsurgency.” One such technique perfected in this era was the use of tear gas. The chemical weapon was justified domestically due to its purported effectiveness in Vietnam, and justified in Vietnam because of its success on the streets back home.

In Badges Without Borders, Schrader turns his gaze to the rise of international police “modernization” campaigns, carried out by a cadre of U.S. training agencies that were unleashed on the world. The rise in police professionalization coincided with decolonization of the Global South after WWII. To sustain a type of empire—one that maintained “order” and suppressed “crime” as well as communism—U.S. authorities believed it was best not to merely depend on military force. Instead, they opted to field foreign police assistance, which funded, supplied, and trained cops and government agencies to strengthen the hand of allied regimes and client states. 

The use of cops that ostensibly operated under the aegis of local governments was intended to confer them greater legitimacy, supplanting the reliance on a more traditional occupation-style militarism that could backfire. As Schrader’s meticulous history aims to show, the transnational policing apparatus broached new, previously unimaginable frontiers, developing in such a way that global and domestic power became completely intertwined. 

Indeed, they were mutually reinforcing: at once these agencies both consolidated power in Washington and developed policing techniques—from mundane traffic control and record-keeping to riot control and SWAT operations—that could be deployed in California or Caracas. The “internal colonialism” analogy was apt, too; as countries gained independence, they had to be “pacified,” just as movements for civil rights in the United States required a kind of suppression that would ultimately result in the policies that would lead to mass incarceration. 

In addition to tracking the rise of international professional policing, Badges Without Borders also investigates what one might call the “reactionary mind” of police development. Schrader often looks to professional police magazines as a source, which indicate how police and their methods are always adapting. One of Badges Without Borders’s greatest strengths is in following the sometimes conflicting, always-shifting rationales for police legitimacy—riots were better quelled with tear gas than bullets; it wasn’t political unrest that needed containment but rather the politically neutral category known as crime; it wasn’t crime, but rather narcotics. The response would always require a properly trained professional police force to maintain order, conduct surveillance, and so on, but the rationales would be tweaked according to the ideological constructs of the time.

Schrader’s story of police professionalization goes back to a man named August Vollmer, who, after returning from serving in the Philippines in 1898 (part of American imperialism’s debut tour), rose through the ranks in the Berkeley Police Department. From his perch, Vollmer became a type of police-professionalization proselytizer, whirling around the country giving talks about how to button up and reform departments. His expertise—and thus, credibility—stemmed, in part, from his efforts to turn the Berkeley Police Department into the first mobile police force, outfitting it with bicycles and later squad cars.

Evangelizing about these professional reforms, Vollmer gave talks from Kansas City to Havana. In Los Angeles, he told attendees, “For years, ever since Spanish-American War days, I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks.” He would go on to head the IACP (the International Association of Chiefs of Police), a professional agency that helped train both foreign and domestic police. The professionalization of police forces that Vollmer advanced helped divorce cops from the politics of corrupt party machines. But the advent of professionalization meant that policing developed its own political rationales instead, unifying cops around a self-sustaining incentive of winning funding and furthering the justifications for ever more policing. 

Schrader devotes considerable space to the career of Byron Engle, who, after cutting his teeth in the Kansas City Police Department, went on to lead the Office of Public Safety, “a small outfit with a large impact” funded by the CIA and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). The machinations of the OPS, which was active from 1962-1974, anchor the narrative of Badges Without Borders. The agency provided assistance to some fifty-two countries, with the self-assured belief that it was the state’s strongest weapon against communism and crime—until it was shut down after a backlash against its alleged role in spreading torture and death squads. When questioned by a Senator about whether the agency played a part in the spread of death squads, a “top [OPS] official” denied that they advised police who employed such draconian tactics. 

Still, the former president of the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, speaking from exile, blamed OPS for the formation of “La Banda,” a Dominican death squad which was founded in the early 1970s. As Schrader elaborates, a director of the Dominican Republic’s public safety “mission” explained that “when political disorder erupted, ‘foreign capital runs like scared cats.’” It was the mission of the OPS to assist governments with the pacification of dissent in order to protect foreign investments, no matter the cost. Although the training manuals and syllabi that Schrader reviewed didn’t reveal a direct OPS role in creating death squads, he concludes that: “Ultimately, the history of OPS, ended because of accusations of lessons in torture, shows that despotic power undermines its goal.” 

The new arrangements and objectives of police and military assistance, now a staple export of U.S. empire, began to take shape during the Cold War. As Badges shows, the global policing juggernaut rapidly expanded and solidified its mores and practices at a time in history when anxiety was high about communism, Vietnam, and rebellion at home. As Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, put it in 1955, “The importance of police and other internal security forces in this work has become more and more evident in many parts of the world… Where countries are subject to communist subversive tactics, the internal security forces must generally be the first line of defense.” Yet, despite Dulles’s prescriptive assessment that the role of security forces was to protect against counterinsurgency, it took time for these efforts to be formalized into the agencies and funding mechanisms that would later facilitate such operations. 

The federal bureaucracy that greased the gears of this craze for global police reform and assistance was, in those years, as experimental as it was reactionary. One of the crucial players in stitching together these disparate threads—of how to best use policing to accomplish the United States’s now-changing foreign policy imperatives—was Robert Komer, a CIA official with experience in aiding police in Vietnam. After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, Komer lobbied vigorously for the expansion of police assistance to accomplish what hamfisted military interventions could not. It was with Byron Engle under his wing that Komer advocated for and founded OPS. Engle would then lead it until 1973, one year before it was shut down. 

The launch of OPS took place in the context of a changing domestic climate as well. The federal government, taking a new interest in repressive methods to quell civil rights protests, acted as a kind of switchboard, a central dispatch for disseminating the methods of professional policing as well as a source of funding streams. As part of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts in his “War on Crime,” the president signed two bills that disbursed significant federal money to local departments. First came the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965, and, later, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, an arm of the Justice Department that expanded its ability to make grants to local police forces.

This arrangement increased capacity at the municipal, state, and county level “without diminishing local autonomy,” assuaging fears of federal control while allowing local jurisdictions to use federal money, Schrader notes, to ultimately build a decentralized prison state. This style of federalism was pioneered by OPS, which also had experience dispatching funds around the world. The federal programs launched as part of the War on Crime—which Schrader’s original research shows were directly modeled on OPS—help to illustrate the dynamic relationship between the domestic and the global that Badges Without Borders takes as its subject. 

Perhaps the book’s largest contribution is compiling and exposing the intersecting police methods that were both imported and exported—at times simultaneously—during this era. Schrader includes chapters on riot suppression tactics, tear gas, and SWAT teams that shed light on policing’s international development. Although some of the exported police techniques—assistance in record keeping, handcuffs and uniforms, classroom hours, and economic assistance—may seem pedestrian in comparison to death squads, they all served a higher goal: expanding police legitimacy to ensure the U.S.’s sway over peripheral zones of the empire, both internal and external. 

One of the subtler exports is what Schrader dubs a “cost-benefit counterinsurgency.” Looking to reports by the RAND Corporation, which consulted for OPS, Schrader describes how economic imperatives and methods like “rational choice theory” were folded into OPS strategy. In addition to merely suppressing threats, corporate researchers investigated how to make people to fall in line with U.S. objectives more broadly. This would, at times, include various forms of material aid, used to legitimize whatever police regime the U.S. was propping up. “The goal was simple,” Schrader writes: “draw support away from the communists by offering a better, more targeted carrot and then continue to support those who took that carrot, to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.” This all led to a kind of “order maintenance policing,” a concept that preceded the “Broken Windows” paradigm shift of the 1980s, which posited that policing should be proactive, attending to small infractions, rather than purely reactive in nature. Instead of merely quelling riots—”counterinsurgency”—the cops would enforce small infractions and become more deeply involved in neighborhood affairs. As Schrader puts it: “Both [Broken Windows theory and the earlier “rational choice” planks] were consonant with longstanding global policing practices pursued under the auspices of the public safety program.”

OPS was shuttered after anti-imperialist social movements called attention to its abuses. As a result, Congress passed a law constraining international police assistance, supposedly to end the practice. Yet, as Schrader points out in the book’s conclusion, these reforms included major carve-outs. By the time the agency’s sunset had begun, its operators were aligning with the Treasury Department and U.S. Customs and were entering a new arena: narcotics. Notably, “narcotics suppression was not included in the legislative prohibition [against further police assistance].” And so, naturally, “in a few years,” the funding for “overseas narcotics control” snowballed some 600 percent.

As Schrader tells it, “The DEA, along with a new State Department program, became in many respects the successor to OPS. Ultimately, five OPS advisors remained overseas in official capacities after the phase-out of police assistance, now as ‘narcotics advisors.’ All they had to do was change signs on office doors from counterinsurgency to narcotics control.” Like OPS, which tested new policing techniques abroad (including an emergency call program in Caracas that would inform 911), the DEA carried on this legacy of law enforcement “innovation.” In 1992, the agency experimented with a new call records program: they started logging “virtually all of the calls made to what would ultimately become 116 countries. This, of course, was the “blueprint” for the NSA’s “collect it all” bulk data harvesting regime, as digital privacy scholar Alvaro Bedoya wrote in Slate

The NSA, as is now widely known, rapidly expanded its unconstitutional spying apparatus after 9/11—at the same time that, Schrader notes in his final paragraphs, global police assistance would bulk up “dramatically.” The growth (both outward and inward) of law enforcement assistance in the post-9/11 security state would “exceed what Engle could have imagined.” 

Buried in the 2003 9/11 Commission Report is a sentence that conveys the multidimensional relationship between foreign and domestic law enforcement that facilitates U.S. objectives: “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against Americans ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we just as we regard terrorism against Americans ‘over here’”—echoing Schrader’s thesis. Schrader closes Badges Without Borders by noting that “security” is the “forever self-justifying” logic of empire’s internal and external expanses. Another line from the 9/11 Commission report summarizes this logic: “In this same sense the American homeland is the planet.” It is this notion that journalist Todd Miller addresses in his 2019 book Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World.

Miller picks up right where Schrader leaves off, taking readers on a global tour—Kenya, Syria, Israel, Guatemala, Mexico, and Puerto Rico—to track the widening footprint of U.S. empire’s new boots. His first chapter considers what anthropologist Jeff Halper calls a “securocratic war”: a war that is waged to contain not insurgencies per se, but rather global inequality. Miller posits that the proliferation of borders acts as a kind of scaffolding to manage a vastly unequal distribution of resources. Securocratic wars, he suggests, are fought “to protect and secure not individual nations but the international class of wealthy nations,” with the United States leading the charge. And these wars take form as “wars on drugs, on terror, on immigrants… often along borders.” As Miller notes, “the ratio of per capita GDP between the richest and poorest nations went from a ratio of 22:1 at the beginning of the twentieth century to 267:1 by the year 2000.” Miller also quotes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who, without intending to, put the logic of securocratic war succinctly in 1999: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.”

Paralleling Schrader’s discussion of OPS, Miller also sheds light on the infrastructure of border police training and assistance. Although politicians and news media referred to the unmarked troops who snatched up protesters in Portland last summer as “Trump’s secret police,” it was soon revealed that the entity was in fact BORTAC, an elite CBP unit that Miller examines in his book. Founded in the ‘80s to fight the War on Drugs, the unit was deployed in 1992 to quell the Rodney King uprisings in Los Angeles and has provided tactical assistance and training in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, Haiti, Peru, Panama, Belize, Mexico, Kenya, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Kosovo, Argentina, Honduras, Ecuador, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Guatemala.  The mandate and scope of these agencies to deploy repressive tactics with impunity continues to grow, both domestically and internationally.

The continuity between Schrader and Miller’s books doesn’t end with the logic of security. After OPS ceased operations, another loophole that police assistance agencies exploited was to privatize their services, bypassing the mandates of the new legislation. One of the most telling manifestations of frontier border-building is in the Philippines, where, in 2015, the ribbon was cut at the “Raytheon Watch Center on Manila Bay.” This maritime surveillance center is designed to deliver “integrated end-to-end border security solutions,” according to a Raytheon document Miller quotes. The Massachusetts-based company is building “host nation capability” as it cashes in on the global border-building bonanza, highlighting the role of privatization in perpetuating the dynamics described by Schrader. Raytheon has provided their so-called “solutions” to some 24 countries, “covering more than 10,000 miles of both land and maritime borders”—via training, surveillance infrastructure, and the building of “sustainment centers.” 

The location of the Manila outpost, though, has particular geopolitical and historical resonance. The Philippines, first invaded in the 1890s, has been an important asset to the United States ever since. Since as far back as the Spanish-American War, it has been used as a type of laboratory to develop various “pacification” and surveillance techniques. In another example of such tactics coming home to roost, Miller notes that when 10,000 mineworkers went on strike in West Virginia in 1921, it was “psychological tactics learned in the Philippines [that were used] to quell the uprising.” And it was, as mentioned, August Vollmer—the “grandfather” of professional policing, per Schrader—whose time in that war deeply informed how he approached reforming police departments at home. 

One of the most noxious trends that Miller’s Empire of Borders points to is the proliferation of Israeli cybersecurity start-ups now conducting operations in southern Arizona: “Companies could test their technologies… right in the border zone itself, maybe on real people.” Testing on real people is something Israeli tech companies have plenty of experience with. As Miller reports from a border tech conference in El Paso, five blocks from the actual border, an Israeli general—now hawking security tech—told the crowd, “We have learned a lot from Gaza… It’s a great laboratory.” The relationship runs deep. The IDF trains ICE, and Israeli companies make surveillance towers, drones, and sensors for use at the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere. 

Miller also writes about the “elastic” nature of the border. Borders can extend far beyond the actual boundary that authorities are “protecting.” ICE has more than twenty “attache” agencies (manifesting most frequently at various airport checkpoints), and ICE agents carry out raids deep in the U.S. heartland. A CBP report describes a “multilayered” approach to border enforcement by pushing resources to borders further afield. An example is the U.S.’s massive investment in building and supporting a strong Mexico-Guatemala border, with checkpoints strung all the way through Mexico, designed to catch people traveling north. “American borders are the last line of defense, not the first,” CBP commissioner Robert Bonner explained in 2004. 

Furthermore, U.S. law enforcement has expanded its biometric capabilities, creating vast databases of facial scans. Since Miller’s book came out, the Justice Department has announced a plan to collect DNA from traveling migrants. As imperatives of both repression and profit cause the border apparatus to swell, seemingly without end, it is continually justified by vilification of the people the state deems criminal—oftentimes, the same people most impacted by U.S. policies of domestic austerity and murderous foreign intervention. They are also the people most impacted by Western carbon emissions—and a heating climate will only further incentivize border militarization and control. 

Both Schrader’s Badges Without Borders and Miller’s Empire of Borders ask readers to reconsider the fault lines of empire by focusing their gaze on its under-discussed operators, expanding and complicating our understanding of its logics, methods, and practices. As imperial mouthpiece Henry Kissinger put it, “Europe and others should focus on their regional interests, while the United States, which has global interests and responsibilities, will manage the global framework of order, serving as the respected and legitimate law enforcer that the world needs.” Whether by deploying police assistance or acting to strengthen international border regimes, the institution of such a “global framework,” designed to neutralize any challenge to hegemonic neocolonial power and, above all, protect capitalist profit, has always been the aim of the empire of the United States.♦



Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, Longreads, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. Twitter is @willinabucket. 

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