Creeping militarization : Why are Canada’s police officers looking increasingly like soldiers?

Branka Marijan Conventional Weapons, Defence & Human Security Leave a Comment

Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 1 Spring 2016

Police militarization has long been perceived as an American phenomenon. According to a National Public Radio investigation, since 2006 the U.S. military has given local police services in the United States equipment worth $1.9-billion (U.S.), including 79,288 assault rifles and 206 grenade launchers (Rezvani 2014).

For Canadian observers, the extent of the militarization of U.S. police was particularly visible during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown (Globe and Mail 2014). Images of heavily armed police facing protestors further highlighted what journalist Radley Balko (2013) has termed the “rise of the warrior cop”—the heavily armed military-like figure in U.S. policing. While Balko’s description of the warrior cop remains particular to the United States, concern over creeping militarization of the police has been growing in Canada.

Tanks and sound cannons
Police services across Canada have been acquiring military equipment ranging from Cougar light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to military-style rifles.
In 2014 the Canadian Forces (CF) handed over a decommissioned LAV—essentially a tank—to the Windsor, Ontario police department for a symbolic $1. The police then spent $13,000 fixing and disarming it (Wilhelm 2014). A year earlier the police in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia had received a similar CF discard (Boutilier 2014).

Some Canadian police services, including those in Ottawa and Winnipeg, have purchased armoured vehicles. As University of Ottawa criminologist Michael Kempa points out, these acquisitions have not been subjected to public discussion and oversight (Ottawa Citizen 2014). For example, the Winnipeg police budgeted $350,000 to purchase their vehicle. They notified the Winnipeg Police Board after the purchase. The Winnipeg Police Board responded with a policy that any future purchases over $100,000 would require prior Board approval.

Windsor and Toronto police forces, among others, have purchased military-style Colt C8 patrol carbines made in Kitchener (Boutilier 2014). The Toronto police purchased four sound cannons—Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD)—before the G8 and G20 summits in 2010 (Yang 2010). The Vancouver police acquired LRADs prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics (Mahoney 2010). In 2014 the Montreal police purchased two LRADs (Zapirain 2014).

Although domestic police services have bought LRADs to deal with public disorder or protests, the device was originally developed for the U.S. Navy by U.S. defence contractor LRAD Corporation after a 2000 al-Qaeda bombing attack on the USS Cole while it was being refueled in Yemen (Foege 2009). The LRAD has kept vessels away from U.S. ships and destroyers, particularly in the pirate-ridden Gulf of Aden, and was used by U.S. troops in Iraq to control crowds (Foege 2009).

The volume of sound generated by sound cannons ranges from 135 to 143 decibels, and the piercing alert function can cause permanent hearing loss (Yang 2010). According to The Economist (2004) the LRAD incapacitates anyone within 300 meters, causing instant headaches.

When the Toronto police purchased LRADs, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed an injunction with the Ontario Superior Court to ban the alert function (Mahoney 2010). As a result of the ruling by Justice David Brown, the Toronto police can only use the voice function. Vancouver and Montreal police have chosen to use only this function as well (Halais 2014). Interestingly, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) restrict the use of LRADs to marine operations (Freeze 2010).

Strategy and tactics
Military strategy and tactics are trickling down to police services. Vancouver’s Military Liaison Unit (MLU) was meant to coordinate CF troops assigned to secure the 2010 Winter Olympics. However, the MLU continued after the games and now trains, with other Canadian police services, with the U.S. National Guard in the state of Washington (Lorinc 2014). Researcher Adam Molnar discovered that there was little public awareness of the MLU, its interaction with the Canadian Forces, or the essentially “military instruction” it was receiving during training (Lorinc 2014).

Kevin Welby, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, noted that the police “use strategy and language to refer to supposed threats that resembles that military personnel use” (Csanady 2014). According to Welby, crowd control tactics at the G20 in Toronto reflected this militarized strategy, while an increased use of digital surveillance brought this militarized approach to everyday policing (Csanady 2014).

Police perspective
Some police believe that a heightened risk of terrorist attacks and attacks on police warrants the new equipment and that worries about the creeping militarization of policing are overstated. The global threat of terrorism encourages a closer relationship between the military and police, who then adopt a more military style. But the Canadian context has so far kept this under control.

Canadian policing has a different starting point than its U.S. counterpart. Canadian policing is based on a 19th-century community-policing model developed by Sir Robert Peel (Csanady 2014). Having roots in the community affects the interaction of police services with the public.

Special police units and police using military equipment are more often seen in the United States than in Canada. In Canada, surplus military equipment is likelier to end up in “museums, than police hands” (Boutilier 2014).

But, while Windsor police chief Al Frederick insisted that their tank would be used “sparingly,” only in high-risk situations, and not to “quell protests” (Wilhelm 2014), police in Canada are not immune to the appeal of military equipment and preparedness. In interviews police rarely consider concerns about creeping militarization, using the contemporary security environment to justify the equipment and tactics.

Possible responses
The rate of serious crime in Canada is the lowest since 1969 and has been falling steadily for the last 11 years. So what is really needed now? Canada needs much more public oversight of the police services. Civil society, including Project Ploughshares, should pay closer attention to the purchase of military-style equipment. Local community organizations should engage with the police and voice concern over excessive use of force or tactics that seem more suited to a conflict zone than their local neighbourhoods.

Declining crime rates and declining police budgets require more innovative approaches to preventing and solving crime (Globe and Mail 2016). Consider, for example, the Community Mobilization model started in 2011 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (Clarke 2013). Its two components—the “Hub” and the Centre of Responsibility (COR)—bring together different agencies to address problems before they require the full criminal justice system. The “Hub” responds to individual cases, while the COR deals with broader societal issues. Police officers work in partnership with the organization to tackle the social factors that lead to crime and violence. This approach is also being adopted in North Bay, Ontario and has been recommended to other Canadian police services.

We don’t need more military equipment and tactics. We need more community policing.


Balko, Radley. 2013. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York: PublicAffairs.

Bauer, Shane. 2014. The making of the warrior cop: Do police really need grenade launchers? Mother Jones.

Boutilier, Alex. 2014. Canada’s surplus military gear goes mostly to museums, not police. The Toronto Star, September 29.

Clarke, Tyler. 2013. Ontario city adopts Prince Albert crime prevention model and its key proponent. Prince Albert Daily Herald, October 8.

Csanady, Ashley. 2014. Police militarization is already in Canada as surveillance on the rise., August 15.

Economist, The. 2004. The future of crowd control. December 2.

Foege, Alec. 2009. Inventor’s killer sounds scatter pirates. CNN Money, March 19.

Freeze, Colin. 2010. Mounties shun “sound cannons” in urban settings ahead of G20. The Globe and Mail, June 3.

Globe and Mail, The. 2016. The solution to an ever-increasing police budget? Fewer cops. February 18.

_____. 2014, August 15. The nine commandments of policing –which Ferguson police forgot. August 15.

Halais, Flavie. 2014. Canadian police forces want to protect you with military battle gear. Vice, June 9.

Lorinc, John. 2014. Armed and dangerous: How mission creep is turning out cops into warriors. The Walrus, December.

Mahoney, Jill. 2010. Police can use sound cannons, but with limits: judge. The Globe and Mail, June 25.

Spread the Word

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.