American Police Training and Political Violence

"In the police you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos." — George Orwell, Shooting An Elephant and Other Essays.

"The police interrogation rooms smelled of urine and injustice." — Graham Greene, The Quiet American.


As the U.S. expands the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration has placed a premium on police training programs. The stated aim is to provide security to the population so as to enable local forces to gradually take over from the military in completing the pacification process. A similar strategy has been pursued by the United States in Iraq.  In both, American-backed forces have been implicated in sectarian violence, death squad activity and torture. At the same time, the weaponry and equipment that the U.S. provided has frequently found its way into the hands of insurgents, many of whom have infiltrated the state security apparatus, contributing to the long-drawn out nature of both conflicts.

Ignored in mainstream media commentary and "think tank" analyses is the fact that the destructive consequences of American strategy in the Middle-East and Central Asia today are consistent with practices honed over more than a century in the poor nations of the periphery. Police training has been central to American attempts to expand its reach from the conquest of the Philippines at the dawn of the 20th century through the Cold War era to today. Presented to the public in both the target country and the United States as humanitarian initiatives designed to strengthen democratic development and public security, these programs achieved neither, but were critical to securing the power base of local elites amenable to U.S. economic and political interests and contributed to massive human rights violations. They helped to facilitate the rise of powerful anti-democratic forces, which operated above the law, contributing to endemic violence, state terrorism and corruption.1

Quite consistently across time and space, American policy-makers have supported police suppression of radical and nationalist movements as a cost-effective and covert means precluding costly military intervention which was more likely to arouse public opposition. During the mid 1960s, the Director of United States Agency of International Development (USAID) David Bell commented in congressional testimony that "the police are a most sensitive point of contact between the government and people, close to the focal points of unrest, and more acceptable than the army as keepers of order over long periods of time. The police are frequently better trained and equipped than the military to deal with minor forms of violence, conspiracy and subversion."2 Robert W. Komer who served as a National Security Council advisor to President John F. Kennedy further stressed that the police were "more valuable than Special Forces in our global counter-insurgency efforts" and particularly useful in fighting urban insurrections. "We get more from the police in terms of preventative medicine than from any single U.S. program," he said. "They are cost effective, while not going for fancy military hardware. They provide the first line of defense against demonstrations, riots and local insurrections. Only when the situation gets out of hand (as in South Vietnam) does the military have to be called in."3 These remarks illuminate the underlying geo-strategic imperatives shaping the growth of the programs and the mobilization of police for political and military ends, which accounted for widespread human rights abuses.

This article, drawing on declassified U.S. government archives, examines some of the landmark instances in the historical development of American police training programs to highlight the origins of current policies in the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Over years, as U.S. imperial attention has shifted from one region to another, police training and financing has remained an unobserved constant, evolving with new strategies and weapons innovations but always retaining the same strategic goals and tactical elements. Staffed by military and police officers who valued order and discipline over the protection of civil liberties, the programs were designed to empower pro-U.S. regimes committed to free-market capitalist development and helped to create elaborate intelligence networks, which facilitated the suppression of dissident groups in a more surgical way. The United States in effect helped to modernize intelligence gathering and political policing operations in its far-flung empire, thus magnifying their impact. They further helped to militarize the police and fostered, through rigorous ideological conditioning, the dehumanization of political adversaries.4 The result was a reign of torture and terror as part of police practice in countries subject to U.S. influence, the devolution of police forces into brutal oppressors of the indigenous population, and the growth of corruption levels pushing regimes towards kleptocracy.

In his trilogy on the American empire, Chalmers Johnson demonstrates how the United States has historically projected its global power through a variety of means, including economic blackmail and the manipulation of financial institutions, covert operations, arms sales, and most importantly, through the development of a global network of military bases whose scale dwarfs all previous empires, including Rome.5 This article seeks to add another important structural dimension of U.S. power, namely the training of police and paramilitary units under the guise of humanitarian assistance, which preceded and continued through the era of global military bases.

"Breaking Up Bands of Political Plotters:" Colonial Policing and State Terror in the Philippines

In 1898, seeking access to the vast "China market" and building the foundation of its seizure of Hawaii, the United States entered the great "imperial game" through its colonization of the Philippines. From 1899-1902, the U.S. military waged a relentless campaign to suppress the nationalist movement for independence, resulting in the death of perhaps two million Filipinos and the destruction of the societal fabric. As the fighting waned, the Philippines Commission under future president William H. Taft focused on building an indigenous police force, officered by Americans, which was capable of finishing off the insurgents and establishing order. The constabulary engaged in patrols for over a decade to suppress nationalist and messianic peasant revolts in the countryside. It frequently employed scorched earth tactics and presided over numerous massacres, including killing hundreds of civilians at Bud Dajo in the Moro province of Mindanao, where Muslims refused to acquiesce to American power and rule.

As Alfred W. McCoy documents in his outstanding new book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, the constabulary’s success in serving US imperial interests owed largely to the role of military intelligence officers in imparting pioneering methods of data management and covert techniques of surveillance, which were appropriated by domestic policing agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), during the 1st Red Scare. Under the command of Harry H. Bandholtz, the constabulary’s secret service became especially effective in adopting psychological warfare techniques, such as the wearing of disguises, fabricating disinformation and recruiting paid informants and saboteurs in their efforts to "break up bands of political plotters." They monitored the press, carried out periodic assassinations and compiled dossiers on thousands of individuals as well as information on the corruption of America’s Filipino proxies as means to keep them tied to the occupation.

One of the major technical achievements was an alarm system, which ended dependence on the public telephone. American advisors further imparted new administrative and fingerprinting techniques, which allowed for an expansion of the police’s social control capabilities. The declaration of martial law ensured minimal governmental oversight and facilitated surveillance and arrests without due process. Torture, including the notorious water cure, was widely employed.6

After the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Cavite and Batangas due to heavy guerrilla activity, William Cameron Forbes, a grandson of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who served as Commissioner of Commerce and Police from 1904 to 1908 and Governor General from 1909-1913, noted in his journal that "the constabulary was now free to run in the suspects. A lot of innocent people will be put in jail for a while, but it will also mean that some guilty ones will be caught and the cancer will be cut."7 These comments exemplify the ends justifies the means philosophy underpinning the abuse of human rights, which was characteristic of later interventions as well. Racism was another prominent factor. Henry T. Allen, the first chief of the constabulary, characteristically referred to Filipinos resisting the United States as suffering from "intense ignorance" and the "fanatical" characteristics of "semi-savagery." He added, in a letter to Taft, that "education and roads will effect what is desired, but while awaiting these, drastic measures are obligatory…The only remedy is killing and for the same reason that a rabid dog must be disposed of."8

In his memoir, Bullets and Bolos, constabulary officer John R. White, who went on to serve with the U.S. military in World War I, recounts how his men razed houses, "plundered all that they could carry away" and destroyed sugar and other foodstuffs in the attempt to isolate and starve the Moro enemy in Mindanao. In the end, they left the pretty plateau a "burned and scarred sore." This was hard," he wrote, "but necessary for we did not want the job of taking Mindanao again."9 The tactics pioneered in the Philippines paved the way for later American action under the Strategic Hamlet program in South Vietnam.

The constabulary ultimately succeeded in infiltrating and sowing dissension within radical organizations, including an incipient labor movement, contributing to their implosion. It even played a role in apostolic succession by undermining the influence of Bishop Gregorio Aglipay through the spread of disinformation. He was a nationalist with socialist sympathies whose services were attended by thousands of the urban poor. The legacy of political repression and corruption survived long after the Philippines was granted independence in the mid 1930s. The constabulary and police have maintained their notoriety for brutality, right up to the present, as new waves of repression and violence are being launched under the guise of the "War on Terror."

"Popping Off Cacos:" The U.S. Gendarmerie and Racial Slaughter in Haiti

American policies in the Philippines were replicated in the Caribbean during the colonial occupations of the 1910s and 1920s, where they contributed to the spread of considerable violence and repression. In Haiti, the Gendarmerie was the brainchild of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, influenced by his cousin, Teddy, viewed the creation of a local police force as a cost-effective means of advancing U.S. reach. The Gendarmerie was mobilized primarily to fight against nationalist rebels, known as the Cacos, and to oversee brutal forced labor regiments imposed by the United States.11 As in the Philippines, the United States provided modern police technologies, including communications equipment and fingerprinting techniques, and worked to improve administration and records collection to aid in the monitoring of dissident activity. In a prelude to the Cold War, riot control training was also provided to facilitate the crack down on urban demonstrations and strikes. American officers taunted people using racial epithets an

Leave a comment