[News] New ACLU report takes a snapshot of police militarization in the United States

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jun 27 15:38:09 EDT 2014

*New ACLU report takes a snapshot of police militarization in the United 

/(The ACLU Executive Summary Follows this Washington Post story)/

By Radley Balko <http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/radley-balko> June 24

The American Civil Liberties Union has released the results 
of its year-long study of police militarization. The study looked at 800 
deployments of SWAT teams among 20 local, state and federal police 
agencies in 2011-2012. Among the notable findings:

  * 62 percent of the SWAT raids surveyed were to conduct searches for
  * Just under 80 percent were to serve a search warrant, meaning eight
    in 10 SWAT raids were not initiated to apprehend a school shooter,
    hostage taker, or escaped felon (the common justification for these
    tactics), but to investigate someone still only suspected of
    committing a crime.
  * In fact, just 7 percent of SWAT raids were "for hostage, barricade,
    or active shooter scenarios."
  * In at least 36 percent of the SWAT raids studies, /no contraband of
    any kind/ was found. The report notes that due to incomplete police
    reports on these raids this figure could be as high as 65 percent.
  * SWAT tactics are disproportionately used on people of color.
  * 65 percent of SWAT deployments resulted in some sort of forced entry
    into a private home, by way of a battering ram, boot, or some sort
    of explosive device. In over half those raids, the police failed to
    find any sort of weapon, the presence of which was cited as the
    reason for the violent tactics.
  * Ironically (or perhaps not), searches to serve warrants on people
    suspected of drug crimes were more likely to result in forced entry
    than raids conducted for other purposes.
  * Though often justified for rare incidents like school shootings or
    terrorist situations, the armored personnel vehicles police
    departments are getting from the Pentagon and through grants from
    the Department of Homeland Security are commonly used on drug raids.

Jefferson County, Alabama SWAT team members move down a hallway during 
an active shooter training exercise at a school in Ketona, Ala., 
Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (AP Photo/ AL.com, Mark Almond)

In other words, where violent, volatile SWAT tactics were once used only 
in limited situations where someone was in the process of or about to 
commit a violent crime --- where the police were using violence only to 
defuse an already violent situation --- SWAT teams today are 
overwhelmingly used to investigate people who are still only suspected 
of committing nonviolent consensual crimes. And because these raids 
often involve forced entry into homes, often at night, they're actually 
/creating/ violence and confrontation where there was none before.

*(Read more: Massachusetts SWAT teams claim they are private 

When SWAT teams are used in a way that's consistent with their original 
purpose, they're used carefully and cautiously. The ACLU report finds 
that, "In nearly every deployment involving a barricade, hostage, or 
active shooter, the SWAT report provided specific facts that gave the 
SWAT team reason to believe there was an armed and often dangerous 
suspect." By contrast . . .

      . . . incident reports for search warrant executions, especially
    in drug investigations, often contained no information about why the
    SWAT team was being sent in, other than to note that the warrant was
    "high risk," or else provided otherwise unsubstantiated information
    such as "suspect is believed to be armed." In case after case
    that the ACLU examined, when a SWAT team was deployed to search a
    person's home for drugs, officers determined that a person was
    "likely to be armed" on the basis of suspected but unfounded gang
    affiliations, past weapons convictions, or some other factor that
    did not truly indicate a basis for believing that the person in
    question was likely to be armed at the moment of the SWAT
    deployment. Of course, a reasonable belief that weapons are present
    should not by itself justify a SWAT deployment. Given that almost
    half of American households have guns, use of a SWAT team could
    almost always be justified if this were the sole factor.

But we've already seen cases in which the mere factor that the resident 
of a home was a /legal/ gun owner --- in some cases by virtue of the 
fact that the owner had obtained some sort of state license --- was used 
as an excuse to execute a full-on SWAT raid to serve a warrant for an 
otherwise nonviolent crime. Of the SWAT raids the ACLU studied in which 
police cited the possibility of finding a weapon in the home, they 
actually found a weapon just 35 percent of the time.


*American Civil Liberties Union*

Across the country, heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) 
teams are forcing their way into people's homes in the middle of the 
night, often deploying explosive devices such as flashbang grenades to 
temporarily blind and deafen residents, simply to serve a search warrant 
on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of 
drugs. Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should 
not be treating us like wartime enemies. However, the ACLU encountered 
this type of story over and over when studying the militarization of 
state and local law enforcement agencies.

This investigation gave us data to corroborate a trend we have been 
noticing nationwide: American policing has become unnecessarily and 
dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that 
have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and 
tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight. Using 
these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have 
amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, 
the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities 
of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for 
communities. Instead, the use of hyper- aggressive tools and tactics 
results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk 
of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual 

This report provides a snapshot of the realities of paramilitary 
policing, building on a body of existing work demonstrating that police 
militarization is a pervasive problem. Analyzing both existing secondary 
source materials and primary source data uncovered through the ACLU's 
public records investigation, this report examines the use of SWAT teams 
by state and local law enforcement agencies and other aspects of 
militaristic policing. As explained in the Methodology section, our 
statistical analysis included more than 800 SWAT deployments conducted 
by 20 law enforcement agencies during the years


SWAT was created to deal with emergency situations such as hostage, 
barricade and active shooter scenarios. Over time, however, law 
enforcement agencies have moved away from this original purpose and are 
increasingly using these paramilitary squads to search people's homes 
for drugs.

Aggressive enforcement of the War on Drugs has lost its public mandate, 
as 67 percent of Americans think the government should focus more on 
treatment than on policing and prosecuting drug users. This waning 
public support is warranted, as evidence continues to document how the 
War on Drugs has destroyed millions of lives, unfairly impacted 
communities of color, made drugs cheaper and more potent, caused 
countless deaths of innocent people caught up in drug war-related armed 
conflict, and failed to eliminate drug dependence and addiction. The 
routine use of heavily armed SWAT teams to search people's homes for 
drugs, therefore, means that law enforcement agencies across the country 
are using this hyper-aggressive form of domestic policing to fight a war 
that has waning public support and has harmed, much more than helped, 

SWAT raids are undoubtedly violent events: numerous (often 20 or more) 
officers armed with assault rifles and grenades approach a home, break 
down doors and windows (often causing property damage), and scream for 
the people inside to get on the floor (often pointing their guns at 
them). During the course of this investigation, the ACLU determined that 
SWAT deployments often and unnecessarily entailed the use of violent 
tactics and equipment, including Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), and 
that the use of these tactics and equipment often increased the risk of 
property damage and bodily harm.

Unnecessarily aggressive SWAT raids can have disastrous consequences, 
including injury and death. The ACLU also uncovered numerous instances 
in which SWAT teams deployed when there were children present (and some 
in which the SWAT team knew in advance that children would be present).

To scale back the militarization of police, it is important to document 
how law enforcement agencies have stockpiled their arsenals. Law 
enforcement agencies have become equipped to carry out these SWAT 
missions in part by federal programs such as the Department of Defense's 
1033 Program, the Department of Homeland Security's grants to local law 
enforcement agencies, and the Department of

Justice's Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, 
each of which is examined in this report.

De-escalating militarized policing will also require analysis of how the 
presence of these weapons and tactics has impacted policing culture. Our 
analysis shows that the militarization of American policing is evident 
in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to 
adopt a "warrior" mentality and think of the people they are supposed to 
serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as 
battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs. This shift in culture has 
been buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court's weakening of the Fourth 
Amendment (which protects the right to privacy in one's home) through a 
series of decisions that have given the police increased authority to 
force their way into people's homes, often in drug cases.

Additionally, solving the problem of police militarization requires 
discussion of how SWAT teams should be appropriately used and when their 
deployment is counterproductive and dangerous. Even though paramilitary 
policing in the form of SWAT teams was created to deal with emergency 
scenarios such as hostage or barricade situations, the use of SWAT to 
execute search warrants in drug investigations has become commonplace 
and made up the overwhelming majority of incidents the ACLU 
reviewed---79 percent of the incidents the ACLU studied involved the use 
of a SWAT team to search a person's home, and more than 60 percent of 
the cases involved searches for drugs. The use of a SWAT team to execute 
a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics 
to conduct domestic criminal investigations in searches of people's homes.

The use of SWAT teams to serve search warrants could perhaps be 
justified if there were reason to believe that these situations truly 
presented a genuine threat to officer safety, but that did not appear to 
be the case from the documents that the ACLU examined; of the incidents 
in which officers believed a weapon would be present, a weapon 
(typically a firearm such as a handgun but rarely an assault rifle) was 
actually found at the scene in only 35 percent of cases. Even when 
officers believed a weapon was likely to be present, that belief was 
often unsubstantiated. Unfortunately, reasonable standards for deploying 
SWAT teams appear to be virtually nonexistent. Further, given that 
almost half of American households have guns, use of a SWAT team could 
almost always be justified if the "presence of a firearm" was the sole 
factor determining whether to deploy. However, because the use of SWAT 
increases the likelihood that the occupants will use weapons to defend 
themselves, which increases the risk of violence, presence of a weapon 
alone should not automatically result in a SWAT deployment.

These problems have been allowed to occur in the absence of public 
oversight. Data collection has been sparse and inadequate: among the law 
enforcement agencies studied, the ACLU found that data collecting and 
reporting in the context of SWAT was at best sporadic and at worst 
virtually nonexistent.

In addition, there is typically no single entity at the local, state, or 
federal level responsible for ensuring that SWAT is appropriately 
restrained and that policing does not become excessively militarized. 
Maryland passed a law in 2010 requiring local law enforcement agencies 
to submit regular reports on their use of SWAT, but that law will sunset 
this year. Utah passed a similar law this year, which looks promising, 
but much more oversight is needed.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., has announced broad criminal 
justice reforms, including guidelines to curtail the use of mandatory 
minimum sentencing laws by federal prosecutors in certain drug cases and 
a $4.75 million project funded by the federal government and designed to 
ease mistrust between local police departments and minority communities 
by collecting and studying data on searches, arrests, and case outcomes 
in order to help assess the impact of possible bias. These developments 
have real potential to reduce America's excessive reliance on overly 
aggressive approaches to policing and punishing drug crimes, but there 
is a danger that these federally-funded efforts could be undermined by 
the federal government's role in subsidizing the use of paramilitary 
weapons and tactics in localities, particularly in many communities of 
color. Without rethinking its role in militarizing local police 
departments, the federal government may end up sabotaging the very same 
reforms it is championing.

 From our review of both primary and secondary source materials, we are 
able to present two sets of findings: one set of general findings based 
on our review of the existing research, which our data supports, and one 
set of time- bound specific findings from our statistical analysis of 
the raw data we collected in connection with our investigation.

Our general findings, based on our review of existing research and 
supported by our data, are the following:


Policing---particularly through the use of paramilitary teams---in the 
United States today has become excessively militarized, mainly through 
federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to 
use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the 
battlefield. For example, the ACLU documented a total of 15,054 items of 
battle uniforms or personal protective equipment received by 63 
responding agencies during the relevant time period, and it is estimated 
that 500 law enforcement agencies have received Mine Resistant Ambush 
Protected (MRAP) vehicles built to withstand armor- piercing roadside 
bombs through the Department of Defense's 1033 Program.

2. The militarization of policing in the United States has occurred with 
almost no public oversight. Not a single law enforcement agency in this 
investigation provided records containing all of the information that 
the ACLU believes is necessary to undertake a thorough examination of 
police militarization. Some agencies provided records that were nearly 
totally lacking in important information. Agencies that monitor and 
provide oversight over the militarization of policing are virtually 

Our more specific findings from the statistical analysis we conducted of 
time-bound raw data received in connection with this investigation are 
the following:

3. SWAT teams were often deployed---unnecessarily and aggressively---to 
execute search warrants in low-level drug investigations; deployments 
for hostage or barricade scenarios occurred in only a small number of 
incidents. The majority (79 percent) of SWAT deployments the ACLU 
studied were for the purpose of executing a search warrant, most 
commonly in drug investigations. Only a small handful of deployments (7 
percent) were for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.

4. The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people 
of color; when paramilitary tactics were used in drug searches, the 
primary targets were people of color, whereas when paramilitary tactics 
were used in hostage or barricade scenarios, the primary targets were 
white. Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to 
execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were

Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for 
warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities. Of the deployments in 
which all the people impacted were minorities, 68 percent were in drug 
cases, and 61 percent of all the people impacted by SWAT raids in drug 
cases were minorities. In addition, the incidents we studied revealed 
stark, often extreme, racial disparities in the use of SWAT locally, 
especially in cases involving search warrants.

5. SWAT deployments often and unnecessarily entailed the use of violent 
tactics and equipment, including armored personnel carriers; use of 
violent tactics and equipment was shown to increase the risk of bodily 
harm and property damage. Of the incidents studied in which SWAT was 
deployed to search for drugs in a person's home, the SWAT teams either 
forced or probably forced entry into a person's home using a battering 
ram or other breaching device 65 percent of the time. For drug 
investigations, the SWAT teams studied were almost twice as likely to 
force entry into a person's home than not, and they were more than twice 
as likely to use forced entry in drug investigations as in other cases. 
In some instances, the use of violent tactics and equipment caused 
property damage, injury, and/or death.

Reform must be systemic; the problems of overly aggressive policing are 
cultural and cannot be solved by merely identifying a few "bad apples" 
or dismissing the problem as a few isolated incidents.

To begin to solve the problem of overly militarized policing, reform 
must happen at all levels of government that have contributed to this trend.

The federal government should take the lead by reining in the programs 
that create incentives for local police to engage in excessively 
militarized tactics, especially in drug cases. The federal government 
holds the purse strings, and easing the flow of federal funds and 
military-grade equipment into states and localities would have a 
significant impact on the overuse of hyper-aggressive tactics and 
military-grade tools in local communities.

Additionally, state legislatures and municipalities should impose 
meaningful restraints on the use of SWAT. SWAT deployments should be 
limited to the kinds of scenarios for which these aggressive measures 
were originally intended: barricade, hostage, and active shooter 
situations. Rather than allow a SWAT deployment in any case that is 
deemed (for whatever reason the officers determine) to be "high risk," 
the better practice would be for law enforcement agencies to have in 
place clear standards limiting SWAT deployments to scenarios that are 
truly "high risk."

SWAT teams should never be deployed based solely on probable cause to 
believe drugs are present, even if they have a warrant to search a home. 
In addition, SWAT teams should not equate the suspected presence of 
drugs with a threat of violence. SWAT deployment for warrant service is 
appropriate only if the police can demonstrate, before deployment, that 
ordinary law enforcement officers cannot safely execute a warrant 
without facing an imminent threat of serious bodily harm. In making 
these determinations, it is important to take into consideration the 
fact that use of a SWAT team can escalate rather than ameliorate 
potential violence; law enforcement should take appropriate precautions 
to avoid the use of SWAT whenever possible. In addition, all SWAT 
deployments, regardless of the underlying purpose, should be 
proportional---not all situations call for a SWAT deployment consisting 
of 20 heavily armed officers in an APC, and partial deployments should 
be encouraged when appropriate.

Local police departments should develop their own internal policies 
calling for appropriate restraints on the use of SWAT and should avoid 
all training programs that encourage a "warrior" mindset.

Finally, the public has a right to know how law enforcement agencies are 
policing its communities and spending its tax dollars. The 
militarization of American policing has occurred with almost no 
oversight, and it is time to shine a bright light on the policies, 
practices, and weaponry that have turned too many of our neighborhoods 
into war zones.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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