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