Category Archives: Militarisation of the police

How Cops Became Soldiers

How Cops Became Soldiers:

An Interview with Police Militarization Expert Radley Balko

By Michael Arria

In 2007, journalist Radley Balko told a House subcommittee that one criminologist detected a 1,500% increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades. That’s reflective of a larger trend, fueled by the wars on drugs and terror, of police forces becoming heavily militarized.

Balko, an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and author of the definitive report on paramilitary policing in the United States, has a forthcoming book on the topic, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police ForcesHe was kind enough to answer some questions about how our police turned into soldiers as well as the challenges of large-scale reform.

Motherboard: When did the shift towards militarized police forces begin in America? Is it as simple as saying it began with the War on Drugs or can we detect gradual signs of change when we look back at previous policies?

There’s certainly a lot of overlap between the war on drugs and police militarization. But if we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were two trends developing simultaneously. The first was the development and spread of SWAT teams. Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969. By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country. They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.

At the same time, Nixon was declaring an “all-out war on drugs.” He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.

But for the first decade or so after Gates invented them, SWAT teams were largely only used in emergency situations. There usually needed to be an immediate, deadly threat to send the SWAT guys. It wasn’t until the early 1980s under Reagan that the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis — mostly to serve drug warrants.

Balko, via the Cato Institute

During the police clashes with Occupy protestors, there seemed to be a focus on isolated incidents of violence, as opposed to an overall examination of how this kind of policing exacerbates situations. What conclusions did your research lead you to on this topic?

I actually think that the Occupy protests gave the broader militarization issue more attention than it’s had in a very long time. For 25 years, the primary “beneficiaries” of police militarization have been poor people in high-crime areas — people who generally haven’t had the power or platform to speak up. The Occupy protesters were largely affluent, white, and deft at using cell phones and social media to document and publicize incidents of excessive force.

We’re also seeing interest in this issue from new quarters as SWAT teams have fallen victim to mission creep in recent years and begun raiding poker games, bars, and even people suspected of white collar crimes. So far, the only state that has passed any meaningful reform legislation in reaction to a SWAT raid gone wrong is Maryland, which passed a transparency bill after the mistaken raid on Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo.

I suppose that may be the “it needs to get worse before it will get better” good news, here. As governments at all levels continue to expand the list of crimes for which they’re willing to send the SWAT team, we’ll inevitably see these tactics used against more people with more clout and stature to push for reform. It’s an unfortunate bit of realpolitik, but it’s undoubtedly true.

Deborah Blum has written that we refer to oleoresin capsicum as “pepper spray” because “that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen.” How did the use of these kinds of weapons become so commonplace? 

I think part of the reason is that it has happened gradually. We got here by way of a number of political decisions and policies passed over 40 years. There was never a single law or policy that militarized our police departments — so there was never really a public debate over whether this was a good or bad thing.

But there were other contributors. For about a generation, politicians from both parties were tripping over themselves to see who could come up with the tougher anti-crime policies. We’re finally seeing some push-back on issues like incarceration, the drug war, and over-criminalization. But not on police. No politician wants to look anti-cop. Conservatives want to look tough on crime. Liberals love to throw money at police departments. So for now, rolling back police militarization is still a non-starter in Congress and state legislatures.

It won’t be long before we see pro-militarization lobbying and pressure groups. Say hello to the police-industrial complex.

The other problem is that political factions decry police militarization when it’s used against them, but tend to fall somewhere between indifferent and gleeful when it’s used against people they don’t like. Conservatives, remember, were furious over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and a host of BATF abuses against gun owners in the 1990s — and rightly so. Liberals mocked them for it.

Liberals were furious at the aggressive response to the occupy protests — and rightly so. And conservatives mocked them. Liberals are rightly angry about militarized immigration raids — conservatives don’t much care. Conservatives were mad about the heavy-handed raid on the Gibson Guitar factory. Liberals blew it off. Just a few weeks ago, Rachel Maddow resurrected the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents in a segment about gun control — and was dismissive of people who thought the government’s actions were excessive. Of course, Maddow was also fuming about the treatment of Occupy protesters.

Until partisans are willing to denounce excessive force when it’s used against people whose politics offend them — or at least refrain from endorsing it — it’s hard to see how there will ever be a consensus for reform.

How did 9/11 alter the domestic relationship between the military and police?

It really just accelerated a process that had already been in motion for 20 years. The main effect of 9/11 on domestic policing is the DHS grant program, which writes huge checks to local police departments across the country to purchase machine guns, helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. The Pentagon had already been giving away the same weapons and equipment for about a decade, but the DHS grants make that program look tiny.

But probably of more concern is the ancillary effect of those grants. DHS grants are lucrative enough that many defense contractors are now turning their attention to police agencies — and some companies have sprung up solely to sell military-grade weaponry to police agencies who get those grants. That means we’re now building a new industry whose sole function is to militarize domestic police departments. Which means it won’t be long before we see pro-militarization lobbying and pressure groups with lots of (taxpayer) money to spend to fight reform. That’s a corner it will be difficult to un-turn. We’re probably there already. Say hello to the police-industrial complex.

Is police reform a battle that will have to be won legally? From the outside looking in, much of this seems to violate The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Are there other ways to change these policies? Can you envision a blueprint?

It won’t be won legally. The Supreme Court has been gutting the Fourth Amendment in the name of the drug war since the early 1980s, and I don’t think there’s any reason to think the current Court will change any of that. The Posse Comitatus Act is often misunderstood. Technically, it only prohibits federal marshals (and, arguably, local sheriffs and police chiefs) from enlisting active-duty soldiers for domestic law enforcement. The president or Congress could still pass a law or executive order tomorrow ordering U.S. troops to, say, begin enforcing the drug laws, and it wouldn’t violate the Constitution or the Posse Comitatus Act. The only barrier would be selling the idea to the public.

That said, I think the current state of police militarization probably violates the spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act, and probably more pertinent, the spirit and sentiment behind the Third Amendment. (Yes — the one no one ever talks about.) When the country was founded, there were no organized police departments, and wouldn’t be for another 50 to60 years. Public order was maintained through private means, in worst cases by calling up the militia.

The Founders were quite wary of standing armies and the threat they pose to liberty. They ultimately concluded — reluctantly — that the country needed an army for national defense. But they most feared the idea of troops patrolling city streets — a fear colored by much of human history, and more immediately by the the antagonism between British troops and residents of Boston in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The Founders could never have envisioned police as they exist today. And I think it’s safe to say they’d have been absolutely appalled at the idea of a team of police, dressed and armed like soldiers, breaking into private homes in the middle of the night for the purpose of preventing the use of mind-altering drugs.

The Founders would have been appalled at the idea of a team of police, dressed and armed like soldiers, breaking into private homes in the middle of the night.

As for change, the good news is that I think the public is finally waking up to this problem. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed more skepticism, for example, in the comment sections to stories about SWAT raids. I’ve also noticed more skepticism in much of the media coverage of these raids. And again, I think the fact that these tactics are now being used against people who have the means and status to speak out is drawing new attention to police militarization, and causing more people to question the wisdom of all of this. But again, there are some major political hurdles in the way of reform.

The gear and weapons and tanks are a problem. But I think a much deeper problem is the effect all of this war talk and battle rhetoric has had on policing as a profession. In much of the country today, police officers are psychologically isolated from the communities they serve. It’s all about us vs. them. There are lots of reasons for that, which I describe in the book but are too involved to get into here. But it’s really destructive.

I make a number of specific suggestions in the book about how to change that mindset — most of which came from interviews with long-time cops and former police chiefs. But generally speaking, cops should be a part of the communities in which they work. They should walk beats. They should know the names of the school principals, 7-11 managers, and Boys and Girls Club and community center staffers. When your only interaction with the community is antagonistic — responding to calls, conducting stop & frisks, questioning people — your relationship with the community will be antagonistic. Cops are public servants. Their job is to keep the peace while protecting and observing our constitutional rights. Somewhere in the process constantly declaring war on things, we’ve lost sight of that.

For 30 years, politicians and public officials have been arming, training, and dressing cops as if they’re fighting a war. They’ve been dehumanizing drug offenders and criminal suspects as the enemy. And of course they’ve explicitly and repeatedly told them they’re fighting a war. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that a lot of cops have started to believe it.

Swat-team nation

SWAT-Team Nation

Posted by
The New Yorker, August 8, 2013
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/08/swat-team-nation.html
swat

The moment the assault rifles surrounded her, Angie Wong was standing in a leafy art-gallery courtyard with her boyfriend, a lawyer named Paul Kaiser. It was just past 2 A.M., in May, 2008. Wong was twenty-two years old and was dressed for an evening out, in crisp white jeans, a white top, and tall heels that made it difficult not to wobble. The couple had stopped by a regular event hosted by the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), a red brick gallery with the aim of “turning Detroit into a model city,” and arrived to find a tipsy, jubilant scene: inside, gallerygoers were looking at art and dancing to a d.j.; outside, on the patio, several young women were goofily belting out the lyrics to “Hakuna Matata,” from “The Lion King”:

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase.
It means no worries for the rest of your days.
It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata!

Only then did masked figures with guns storm the crowd, shouting, “Get on the fucking ground! Get down, get down!” (I document the basic details of what happened in my story, in this week’s magazine, about the police’s use and abuse of civil-asset-forfeiture laws.) Some forty Detroit police officers dressed in commando gear ordered the gallery attendees to line up on their knees, then took their car keys and confiscated their vehicles, largely on the grounds that the gallery lacked the proper permits for dancing and drinking. (More than forty cars were seized, and owners paid around a thousand dollars each to get them back.) “I was so scared,” Wong told me. At first, she thought the raid was an armed robbery. “Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Paul getting kicked in the face.” In the dimly lit security footage, the scene looks like something out of a thriller about Navy SEALs. Paul said, “I was scared for my life.”

In my magazine article, I focus on one key question about the raid, and about countless others like it across America: Does it make sense that civil-forfeiture laws, which allow police to confiscate and keep property that is allegedly tied to criminal activity, are often enforced at gunpoint against, say, nonviolent partygoers? But there’s another important question, highlighted by the operation at CAID: What, fundamentally, are SWAT teams for? When does it make sense to use machine guns, armored vehicles, and flash-bang grenades on a crowd of people or on a family, and how are these warfare-inspired approaches to law enforcement changing America?

In 1972, America conducted only a few hundred paramilitary drug raids a year, according to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” By the early nineteen-eighties, there were three thousand a year; by 2001, Alexander notes, the annual count had skyrocketed to forty thousand. Today, even that number seems impossibly low; with one annual count of combat-style home raids hovers around eighty thousand. (The title of Alexander’s book reflects the racially disparate impacts of these policies.)

In some cases, the rationale for using military weapons and tactics on domestic soil seems obvious: look no further, proponents argue, than the recent hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston Marathon bombings. But what’s remarkable is how routine these tactics have become as a means of pursuing nonviolent suspects and low-level investigations, particularly in the war on drugs. Thousands of police departments nationwide have recently acquired stun grenades, armored tanks, counterattack vehicles, and other paramilitary equipment, much of it purchased with asset-forfeiture funds. In addition, as ABC reports, a U.S. Department of Defense program, often called the Pentagon Pipeline, has redistributed billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military gear to local police forces, a significant portion of it repurposed from Iraq and Afghanistan. (For example, a Humvee was used to patrol a school campus.) These acquisitions have no doubt helped to transform full-scale, bust-down-the-door raids on homes and businesses from red-alert rarities, reserved for life-threatening scenarios, to commonplace occurrences.

Few people understand this change as well as Radley Balko, the author of a fascinating and at times wrenching new book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” For years, Balko has been an incisive chronicler of the drug war. In the course of the past few months, on the Huffington Post, he’s featured the “raid of the day,” cataloguing examples of SWAT operations gone hauntingly wrong. (One involved an unarmed twenty-one-year-old named Trevon Cole, who was shot dead during a botched drug raid on his Las Vegas apartment; his name had been confused with that of another man. In another case, a forty-one-year-old computer engineer named Cheryl Ann Stillwell was killed during a SWAT raid in Florida, based on a tip alleging the sale of two Oxycontin pills.) Balko’s raid taxonomy seems almost endless, and, indeed, his book situates these violent incidents in a history that stretches back to the years preceding the American Revolution. The Founders, Balko notes, evinced a clear “wariness of standing armies … born of experience and a study of history,” and they designed the Constitution expressly to guard against the home raids, property seizures, and other routine indignities to which the Britain subjected its colonists. “If even the earlier attempts at centralized police forces would have alarmed the Founders, today’s policing would have terrified them,” Balko writes.

“This is not an anti-cop book,” Balko stresses more than once in “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” His point, rather, is that “systems governed by bad policies and motivated by incentives will produce bad outcomes.”

There is still a lot that we don’t know about what these policies and their outcomes look like. Transparency has been mostly lacking. In March, affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union filed more than two hundred and sixty public-records requests in twenty-five states, seeking information from law-enforcement agencies and National Guard offices on how federal funding has helped to drive the militarization of local and state police departments. Kara Dansky, the senior counsel of the A.C.L.U.’s Center for Justice, told me that the resulting data have just begun to pour in, and many agencies have proved to be coöperative. The biggest surprise thus far, Dansky says, is how little uniformity and clarity there is about when officers are advised to use extreme SWAT tactics, particularly in cases where mentally ill or suicidal individuals are the targets. “One major trend that we’re seeing is that police departments across the country vary tremendously in terms of how, if at all, they document information pertaining to their SWAT deployments,” Dansky said. “We have very little doubt that there are circumstances where the use of military tactics or equipment would be an appropriate response to a domestic law-enforcement situation.… But there aren’t always clear standards in place for when certain tactics are appropriate.”

One thing that is in place is a growing cadre of citizens who are willing to document their own daily encounters with militarization, and, in some regions, police are willing to engage in critical dialogue about it. (The new film “Fruitvale Station” begins with cell-phone footage of Oscar Grant’s shooting, in San Francisco.) In several of the cases I write about in this week’s magazine, individuals who felt unfairly subjected to hyperaggressive law-enforcement tactics and to racial profiling snuck recording devices into their cars or documented the damage later, with cell-phone cameras. Groups like Copwatch are encouraging people to think of their cell phones as devices for capturing these experiences; there is already a proliferation of such videos on YouTube and elsewhere on the Web.

The raid at CAID took place in the dark, at a moment when cell-phone-camera footage was not yet standard currency. Today, the watched can watch back, on repeat. The next time a young woman starts singing “Hakuna Matata” in a courtyard somewhere, then finds herself thrown to the ground with an assault rifle to her head in the name of public safety, we may be able to see footage of it, and to ask ourselves: Does this approach to keeping the peace make sense?

Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty.