The American Civil Liberties Union has released a report on the militarization of local law enforcement in the United States, which shows how the vast majority of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team deployments are for executing search warrants for drugs and the federal government is incentivizing the use of military-grade weaponry.
A statistical analysis [PDF] of around 800 SWAT deployments from 2011-2012 and conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies formed the basis for most of the report. It found that, even though SWAT teams originally created to handle hostage and emergency situations, 79% of incidents the ACLU studied involved a SWAT team being deployed to conduct a search of a person’s home. More than 60% of the incidents examined involved a search for drugs.
“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,” according to the ACLU’s report. “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 than in other cases.”
The use of tactical weapons in drug searches primarily impacts people of color. Increasingly, SWAT teams are being deployed to engage in violent tactics when children are present.
For example, in 2010, 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones was killed just after midnight when a SWAT team threw a flashbang grenade into the living room where she was sleeping. The grenade burned her blanket and a member of the SWAT team burst into the home, fired a single shot and killed her.
More recently, in May 2014, a toddler in Atlanta, Georgia, “a team of SWAT officers armed with assault rifles burst into the room where the family was sleeping. Some of the kids’ toys were in the front yard, but the Habersham County and Cornelia police officers claimed they had no way of knowing children might be present. One of the officers threw a flashbang grenade into the room.”
The grenade gave 19-month-old Bou Bou third-degree burns, and he was placed into a medically-induced coma. The blast wounded him so severely that a hole in his chest exposed his ribs.
The SWAT team committed this terrible act while they were executing a “no knock warrant” in a search for the the nephew of Bou Bou’s father, who they suspected had made a $50 drug sale. There were no drugs or guns found in the family’s home.
Alecia Phonesavanh, mother of baby Bou Bou and three daughters, said, “My three little girls are terrified of the police now. They don’t want to go to sleep because they’re afraid the cops will kill them or their family,” and, when talking about the War on Drugs, “This is all about race and class. You don’t see SWAT teams going into a white collar community, throwing grenades into their homes.”
This kind of warfare in policing is enabled by federal programs like the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, grants from the Homeland Security Department and the Justice Department’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program.
Through the 1033 Program, at least 500 law enforcement agencies have obtained Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles capable of “withstanding armor-piercing roadside bombs.”
The North Little Rock, Arkansas, police currently possess “at least 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles,” as well as two MARCbots, which are robots that were designed for use in Afghanistan and are “capable of being armed.” In Bay County, Florida, police have “military-style rifles, a forklift and several utility trucks.”
Police in Maricopa County, Arizona, have massive military-grade weapons caches obtained through the 1033 Program: 32 bomb suits, 704 units of night vision equipment, 712 rifles, 42 forced entry tools, like battering rams, 830 units of surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, 13,409 personal protective equipment (PPE) or uniforms, 120 utility vehicles, 64 armored vehicles, 4 GPS devices, 17 helicopters, and over 21,000 “other” types of military equipment.
“Arming border communities for battle gives the ACLU serious cause for concern.”
Law enforcement in Concord, Keene and Manchester, each cities in New Hampshire, applied for Homeland Security grants to pruchase Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack (BearCat) vehicles. Keene stated in its application that these vehicles were for combating terrorism.
“[T]he terrorism threat is far reaching and often unforeseen. Terrorist’s [sic] goals, regardless of affiliation, usually encompass the creation of fear among the public, convincing the public that their Government is powerless to stop the terrorists, and get immediate publicity for their cause,” according to the application for military-grade equipment. But, later, a city council member in Keene admitted, “Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’sjust something you put in the grant application to get the money.”
“What red-blooded American cop isn’t going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That’s what it comes down to,” the city council member added.
Further driving this mentality is propaganda written by people like Chuck Remsberg of the Killology Research Group. For PoliceOne, Remsberg summarized a presentation at a conference of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors and warned that “preparations for attacks on American schools that will bring rivers of blood and staggering body counts are well underway in Islamic terrorist camps.”
Remsberg continued, “Police agencies aren’t used to this…We deal with acts of a criminal nature. This is an act of war, but because of our laws we can’t depend on the military to help us…[T]he US in [sic] the one nation in the world where the military is not the first line of defense against domestic terrorist attack. By law, you the police officer are our Delta Force.”
“By invoking the imagery of war, aggressively funding the enforcement of U.S. drug laws, and creating an overhyped fear of siege from within our borders,” the ACLU argues, “the federal government has justified and encouraged the militarization of local law enforcement.”
It has a real impact on communities, as reports peppered throughout the ACLU’s report demonstrate.
Tarika Wilson, a 26-year-old African-American mother, was killed when SWAT officers broke into her home in Lima, Ohio, in January 2008. She was holding her infant son when the officers “opened fire.” The baby was injured but survived. Officers had been looking for Wilson’s boyfriend and raided her home in a the “only city with a significant African-American population in a region of farmland.”
In Framingham, Massachusetts, in January 2011, a SWAT officer shot an African-American grandfather named Eurie Stamp. A SWAT team used a battering ram to break down his front door and threw a flashbang grenade into his home. Officers shouted at him to lie “facedown on the floor with his arms above his head.” He died while on the ground after one of the officers’ guns were fired. The SWAT team was looking for the girlfriend of his son, who was suspected of selling drugs, and Stamp had been sitting peacefully in his chair watching a baseball game.
When assessing the racial disparity in SWAT deployments, the ACLU found 61% of “all people impacted by SWAT raids in drug cases were minorities.”
This increased militarization of policing has taken place with virtually no oversight. Secrecy has protected law enforcement from accountability and transparency. The trend will only get worse as the war winds down in Afghanistan and leftover equipment is transferred to police departments.
The ACLU concludes, “The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics to conduct ordinary law enforcement—especially to wage the failed War on Drugs and most aggressively in communities of color—has no place in contemporary society.”
“It is not too late to change course. Through greater transparency, more oversight, policies that encourage restraint, and limitations on federal incentives, we can foster a policing culture that honors its mission to protect and serve, not to wage war.”