The rules of engagement: How militarized police units enforce the law around the world

Members of Belgium’s special forces at their headquarters in central Brussels. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
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In 1993 the Justice Department installed the 1033 program as a way to help law enforcement agencies counter drug activities during the United States’ “war on drugs.”  In 1997, the boundaries of law enforcement expanded after Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, granting police and other agencies the right to obtain weaponry for specific law enforcement purposes that would help in making arrests. Many U.S. police departments have since acquired surplus U.S. military hardware: armored vehicles, military-grade weaponry. According to Reuters, since 1996 the Defense Department has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local and state police through the 1033 program. And after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security allowed local law enforcement to inherit a surplus of military weaponry from wars abroad through federal funds to counter terrorism.

The recent clashes between heavily armed law enforcement and protesters in the wake of a police officer killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have reignited the discussion surrounding the militarization of American police forces. The rules of engagement for police or paramilitary forces abroad allows the use of lethal force using military-grade gear with relatively few restrictions. But with that is a code of conduct, a set of rules, that sharply regulates the wide latitude of law enforcement, and puts into a place a system of accountability.

Human rights monitors say police in Belgium are legally entitled to use proportionate force, after a warning, where there is no other means to achieve a legitimate objective. Police may use firearms in self-defense, to confront armed perpetrators, or in defense of persons or key facilities, but never for crowd control. In Afghanistan, “the police can use weapons or explosives against a group of people only if they it has … disturbed security by means of arms, and if the use of other means of force … has proved ineffective.” And Afghan police are required to give no fewer than six warnings — three verbal and three warning shots — before using force in this situation. In India, the Rapid Action Force (RAF) are called on for violent disorder that the police are unable to contain. They require an on-the-spot magistrate’s consent and must issue a warning before each escalation of the use of force, from verbal warning to water cannon and tear gas, then to rubber bullets or baton rounds, and then to firearms. Britain’s law states that “lethal or potentially lethal force should only be used when absolutely necessary in self-defense, or in the defense of others against the threat of death or serious injury.” In Italy, police and the paramilitary Carabinieri follow the same guidelines, which say that the use of weapons is allowed only in the line of duty, when it is an “unavoidable necessity to overcome resistance, stop violence or prevent a [serious] crime,” and that the response must be proportionate to the situation.

The series below takes a closer look at law enforcement around the world and their respective tactics.

Portions of this text were contributed by Reuters.