[News] How the Excessive Militarization of the Police is Turning Cops Into Counterinsurgents

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 14 10:51:16 EDT 2014

*To Terrify and Occupy: *
*How the Excessive Militarization of the Police is Turning Cops Into 
By Matthew Harwood <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/matthewharwood>

Jason Westcott was afraid.

One night last fall, he discovered via Facebook that a friend of a 
friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. 
They were intent on stealing Wescott's handgun and a couple of TV sets. 
According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on "burning" 
Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.

According to the /Tampa Bay Times 
the investigating officers responding to Westcott's call had a simple 
message for him: "If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and 
shoot to kill."

Around 7:30 pm on May 27th, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the 
officers' advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing 
it at the intruders.  They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to 
shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic.  He was hit three times, 
once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival 
at the hospital.

The intruders, however, weren't small-time crooks looking to make a 
small score. Rather they were members of the Tampa Bay Police 
Department's SWAT team, which was executing a search warrant on 
suspicion that Westcott and his partner were marijuana dealers. They had 
been tipped off by a confidential informant, whom they drove to 
Westcott's home four times between February and May to purchase small 
amounts of marijuana, at $20-$60 a pop. The informer notified police 
that he saw two handguns in the home, which was why the Tampa Bay police 
deployed a SWAT team to execute the search warrant.

In the end, the same police department that told Westcott to protect his 
home with defensive force killed him when he did. After searching his 
small rental, the cops indeed found weed, two dollars' worth, and one 
legal handgun -- the one he was clutching when the bullets ripped into him.

Welcome to a new era of American policing, where cops increasingly see 
themselves as soldiers occupying enemy territory, often with the help of 
Uncle Sam's armory, and where even nonviolent crimes are met with 
overwhelming force and brutality.

*The War on Your Doorstep*

The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the 
body politic.  It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special 
Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to 
that decade's turbulent mix of riots, disturbances, and senseless 
violence like Charles Whitman's infamous clock-tower rampage 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman> in Austin, Texas.

While SWAT isn't the only indicator that the militarization of American 
policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation 
of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have 
spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in 
these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the 
and Los Angeles Police Departments 
it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide.  
Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely 
dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or 
large-scale disturbances.

Nearly a half-century later, that's no longer true.

In 1984, according to Radley Balko's /Rise of the Warrior Cop/ 
about 26% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT 
teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80% and it's still rising, 
though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.

As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. 
Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids 
in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern 
Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 
137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants 
and the surrounding community into terror.

*Upping the Racial Profiling Ante*

In a recently released report, "War Comes Home 
the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 
80% of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to 
execute a search warrant.

Pause here a moment and consider that these violent home invasions are 
routinely used against people who are only suspected of a crime. 
Up-armored paramilitary teams now regularly bash down doors in search of 
evidence of a possible crime. In other words, police departments 
increasingly choose a tactic that often results in injury and property 
damage as its first option, not the one of last resort. In more than 60% 
of the raids the ACLU investigated, SWAT members rammed down doors in 
search of possible drugs, not to save a hostage, respond to a barricade 
situation, or neutralize an active shooter.

On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are 
blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person 
or people whose home was being broken into, 68% of the SWAT raids 
against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search 
of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38%, despite 
the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at 
roughly the same rates 
SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately 
applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.

Think of this as racial profiling on steroids in which the humiliation 
of stop and frisk is raised to a terrifying new level.

*Everyday Militarization*

Don't think, however, that the military mentality and equipment 
associated with SWAT operations are confined to those elite units. 
Increasingly, they're permeating all forms of policing.

As Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Department's 
Community Policing Services office, observes 
police across America are being trained in a way that emphasizes force 
and aggression. He notes 
that recruit training favors a stress-based regimen that's modeled on 
military boot camp rather than on the more relaxed academic setting a 
minority of police departments still employ. The result, he suggests, is 
young officers who believe policing is about kicking ass rather than 
working with the community to make neighborhoods safer. Or as comedian 
Bill Maher reminded <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVywCqvmC0E> 
officers recently: "The words on your car, 'protect and serve,' refer to 
us, not you."

This authoritarian streak runs counter to the core philosophy that 
supposedly dominates twenty-first-century American thinking: community 
Its emphasis is on a mission of "keeping the peace" by creating and 
maintaining partnerships of trust with and in the communities served. 
Under the community model <https://ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/114213.pdf>, 
which happens to be the official policing philosophy 
<http://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/may_2008/policing_Ds.htm> of the 
U.S. government, officers are protectors but also problem solvers who 
are supposed to care, first and foremost, about how their communities 
see them. They don't command respect, the theory goes: they earn it. 
Fear isn't supposed to be their currency. Trust is.

Nevertheless, police recruiting videos, as in those from California's 
Newport Beach Police Department 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_rKA6ROAVk> and New Mexico's Hobbs 
Police Department <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=im66lCgZrbc>, 
actively play up not the community angle but militarization as a way of 
attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and 
high-tech toys. Policing, according to recruiting videos like these, 
isn't about calmly solving problems; it's about you and your boys 
breaking down doors in the middle of the night.

SWAT's influence reaches well beyond that.  Take the increasing adoption 
<http://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/11-2012/bdus-community-policing.asp> of 
battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) for patrol officers. These militaristic, 
often black, jumpsuits, Bickel fears, make them less approachable and 
possibly also more aggressive in their interactions with the citizens 
they're supposed to protect.

A small project at Johns Hopkins University seemed to bear this out. 
People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional 
uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much 
rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. 
Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes 
"The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news 
stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our 
police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, 
instead of trusted community protectors."

*Where Do They Get Those Wonderful Toys?*

"I wonder if I can get in trouble for doing this," the young man says to 
his buddy in the passenger seat as they film the Saginaw County Sheriff 
Office's new toy: a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. As 
they film the MRAP from behind, their amateur video 
<http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=8d5_1394417559> has a /Red Dawn/ 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_I4WgBfETc>-esque feel, as if an 
occupying military were now patrolling this Michigan county's streets. 
"This is getting ready for f**king crazy times, dude," one young man 
comments. "Why," his friend replies, "has our city gotten that f**king bad?"

In fact, nothing happening in Saginaw County warranted the deployment of 
an armored vehicle capable of withstanding bullets and the sort of 
improvised explosive devices that insurgent forces have regularly 
planted along roads in America's recent war zones. Sheriff William 
Federspiel, however, fears the worst. "As sheriff of the county, I have 
to put ourselves in the best position to protect our citizens and 
protect our property," he told 
reporter. "I have to prepare for something disastrous."

Lucky for Federspiel, his exercise in paranoid disaster preparedness 
didn't cost his office a penny. That $425,000 MRAP 
came as a gift, courtesy of Uncle Sam, from one of our far-flung 
counterinsurgency wars. The nasty little secret of policing's 
militarization is that taxpayers are subsidizing it through programs 
overseen by the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the 
Justice Department.

Take the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) may be an 
obscure agency within the Department of Defense, but through the 1033 
program, which it oversees, it's one of the core enablers of American 
policing's excessive militarization. Beginning in 1990, 
the Pentagon to transfer its surplus property free of charge to federal, 
state, and local police departments to wage the war on drugs. In 1997, 
Congress expanded the purpose 
<http://www.nps.gov/legal/laws/104th/104-201.pdf> of the program to 
include counterterrorism in section 1033 of the defense authorization 
bill. In one single page of a 450-page law, Congress helped sow the 
seeds of today's warrior cops.

The amount of military hardware transferred through the program has 
grown astronomically over the years. In 1990, the Pentagon gave $1 
million worth of equipment to U.S. law enforcement. That number had 
jumped to nearly $450 million in 2013. Overall, the program has shipped 
off more than $4.3 billion worth of materiel to state and local cops, 
according to the DLA 

In its recent report, the ACLU found a disturbing range of military gear 
being transferred to civilian police departments nationwide. Police in 
North Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, received 34 automatic and 
semi-automatic rifles, two robots that can be armed, military helmets, 
and a Mamba tactical vehicle. Police in Gwinnet County, Georgia, 
received 57 semi-automatic rifles, mostly M-16s and M-14s. The Utah 
Highway Patrol, according to a /Salt Lake City Tribune /investigation 
got an MRAP from the 1033 program, and Utah police received 1,230 rifles 
and four grenade launchers. After South Carolina's Columbia Police 
Department received its very own MRAP worth $658,000, its SWAT Commander 
Captain E.M. Marsh noted 
500 similar vehicles had been distributed to law enforcement 
organizations across the country.

Astoundingly, one-third of all war materiel parceled out to state, 
local, and tribal police agencies is brand new. This raises further 
disconcerting questions: Is the Pentagon simply wasteful when it 
purchases military weapons and equipment with taxpayer dollars? Or could 
this be another downstream, subsidized market for defense contractors? 
Whatever the answer, the Pentagon is actively distributing weaponry and 
equipment made for U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns abroad to police who 
patrol American streets and this is considered sound policy in 
Washington. The message seems striking enough: what might be necessary 
for Kabul might also be necessary for DeKalb County.

In other words, the twenty-first-century war on terror has melded 
thoroughly with the twentieth-century war on drugs, and the result 
couldn't be anymore disturbing: police forces that increasingly look and 
act like occupying armies.

*How the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice 
Are Up-Armoring the Police*

When police departments look to muscle up their arms and tactics, the 
Pentagon isn't the only game in town. Civilian agencies are in on it, too.

During a 2011 investigation 
reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz discovered that, since 9/11, 
police departments watching over some of the safest places in America 
have used $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland 
Security (DHS) to militarize in the name of counterterrorism.

In Fargo, North Dakota, for example, the city and its surrounding county 
went on an $8 million spending spree with federal money, according to 
Becker and Schulz. Although the area averaged less than two murders a 
year since 2005, every squad car is now armed with an assault rifle. 
Police also have access to Kevlar helmets that can stop heavy firepower 
as well as an armored truck worth approximately $250,000. In 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1,500 beat cops have been trained to use 
AR-15 assault rifles with homeland security grant funding.

As with the 1033 program, neither DHS nor state and local governments 
account for how the equipment, including body armor and drones, is used. 
While the rationale behind stocking up on these military-grade supplies 
is invariably the possibility of a terrorist attack, school shooting, or 
some other horrific event, the gear is normally used to conduct 
paramilitary drug raids, as Balko notes.

Still, the most startling source of police militarization is the 
Department of Justice, the very agency officially dedicated to spreading 
the community policing model through its Community Oriented Policing 
Services office.

In 1988, Congress authorized 
<http://www.ncpc.org/cms-upload/ncpc/File/Byrne%20JAG%20history.pdf> the 
Byrne grant programs in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act,**which gave state and 
local police federal funds to enlist in the government's drug war. That 
grant program, according to Balko, led to the creation of regional and 
multi-jurisdictional narcotics task forces, which gorged themselves on 
federal money and, with little federal, state, or local oversight, spent 
it beefing up their weapons and tactics. In 2011, 585 of these task 
forces operated 
off of Byrne grant funding.

The grants, Balko reports, also incentivized the type of policing that 
has made the war on drugs such a destructive force in American society. 
The Justice Department doled out Byrne grants based on how many arrests 
officers made, how much property they seized, and how many warrants they 
served. The very things these narcotics task forces did very well. "As a 
result," Balko writes, "we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with 
SWAT gear, who get money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, 
and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability 
if they get out of line."

Regardless of whether this militarization has occurred due to federal 
incentives or executive decision-making in police departments or both, 
police across the nation are up-armoring with little or no public 
debate. In fact, when the ACLU requested SWAT records from 255 law 
enforcement agencies as part of its investigation, 114 denied them. The 
justifications for such denials varied, but included arguments that the 
documents contained "trade secrets" or that the cost of complying with 
the request would be prohibitive. Communities have a right to know how 
the police do their jobs, but more often than not, police departments 
think otherwise.

*Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry*

Report by report, evidence is mounting that America's militarized police 
are a threat to public safety. But in a country where the cops 
increasingly look upon themselves as soldiers doing battle day in, day 
out, there's no need for public accountability or even an apology when 
things go grievously wrong.

If community policing rests on mutual trust between the police and the 
people, militarized policing operates on the assumption of "officer 
safety" at all costs and contempt for anyone who sees things 
differently. The result is an "us versus them" mentality.

Just ask the parents of Bou Bou Phonesavanh. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 
28th, the Habersham County Special Response Team conducted a no-knock 
raid at a relative's home near Cornelia, Georgia, where the family was 
staying. The officers were looking for the homeowner's son, whom they 
suspected of selling $50 worth of drugs to a confidential informant.  As 
it happened, he no longer lived there.

Despite evidence that children were present -- a minivan in the 
driveway, children's toys littering the yard, and a Pack 'n Play next to 
the door -- a SWAT officer tossed a "flashbang" grenade 
the home. It landed in 19-month-old Bou Bou's crib and exploded, 
critically wounding the toddler. When his distraught mother tried to 
reach him, officers screamed at her to sit down and shut up, telling her 
that her child was fine and had just lost a tooth. In fact, his nose was 
hanging off his face, his body had been severely burned, and he had a 
hole in his chest. Rushed to the hospital, Bou Bou had to be put into a 
medically induced coma.

The police claimed that it was all a mistake and that there had been no 
evidence children were present. "There was no malicious act performed," 
Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told 
the /Atlanta Journal-Constitution/. "It was a terrible accident that was 
never supposed to happen." The Phonesavanhs have yet to receive an 
apology from the sheriff's office. "Nothing. Nothing for our son. No 
card. No balloon. Not a phone call. Not anything," Bou Bou's mother, 
Alecia Phonesavanh, told <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiijlS6th50> CNN.

Similarly, Tampa Bay Police Chief Jane Castor continues to insist that 
Jay Westcott's death in the militarized raid on his house was his own 
fault.  "Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at 
police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the 
picture," Castor said 
"If there's an indication that there is armed trafficking going on -- 
someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to 
use a firearm -- then the tactical response team will do the initial entry."

In her defense of the SWAT raid, Castor simply dismissed any 
responsibility for Westcott's death. "They did everything they could to 
serve this warrant in a safe manner," she wrote 
the/Tampa Bay Times --/ "everything," that is, but find an alternative 
to storming the home of a man they knew feared for his life.

Almost half of all American households report having a gun, as the ACLU 
in its report. That means the police always have a ready-made excuse for 
using SWAT teams to execute warrants when less confrontational and less 
violent alternatives exist.

In other words, if police believe you're selling drugs, beware. 
Suspicion is all they need to turn your world upside down. And if 
they're wrong, don't worry; the intent couldn't have been better.

*Voices in the Wilderness*

The militarization of the police shouldn't be surprising. As Hubert 
Williams, a former police director of Newark, New Jersey, and Patrick V. 
Murphy, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, put 
it <https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/121019.pdf> nearly 25 years ago, 
police are "barometers of the society in which they operate." In 
post-9/11 America, that means police forces imbued with the "hooah" 
mentality of soldiers and acting as if they are fighting an insurgency 
in their own backyard.

While the pace of police militarization has quickened, there has at 
least been some pushback from current and former police officials who 
see the trend for what it is: the destruction of community policing. In 
Spokane, Washington, Councilman Mike Fagan, a former police detective, 
ispushing back 
against police officers wearing BDUs, calling the get-up "intimidating" 
to citizens. In Utah, the legislature passed 
<http://le.utah.gov/%7E2014/bills/static/hb0070.html> a bill requiring 
probable cause before police could execute a no-knock raid. Salt Lake 
City Police Chief Chris Burbank has been a vocal critic of 
militarization, telling 
local paper, "We're not the military. Nor should we look like an 
invading force coming in." Just recently, Chief Charlie Beck of the Los 
Angeles Police Department**agreed 
with the ACLU and the /Los Angeles Times/ editorial board that "the 
lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be 

Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has also become an outspoken 
critic of militarizing police forces, noting "most of what police are 
called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy, and 
interpersonal skills." In other words, community policing. Stamper is 
the chief who green-lighted a militarized response to World Trade 
Organization protests in his city in 1999 ("The Battle in Seattle 
It's a decision he would like to take back. "My support for a 
militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose," he wrote 
in the/Nation/. "Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows 
were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the 
streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging 
the conflict."

These former policemen and law enforcement officials understand that 
police officers shouldn't be breaking down any citizen's door at 3 a.m. 
armed with AR-15s and flashbang grenades in search of a small amount of 
drugs, while an MRAP idles in the driveway. The anti-militarists, 
however, are in the minority right now. And until that changes, violent 
paramilitary police raids will continue to break down the doors of 
nearly 1,000 American households a week.

War, once started, can rarely be contained.

/Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties 
Union and a //TomDispatch regular/ 
You can follow him on Twitter @mharwood31 
<https://twitter.com/mharwood31>. /

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
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