Pubdate: Fri, 19 Jul 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Radley Balko
Note: Mr. Balko is the author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop," published 
this month by Public Affairs.

The Saturday Essay


Is It Time to Reconsider the Militarization of American Policing?

On Jan. 4 of last year, a local narcotics strike force conducted a 
raid on the Ogden, Utah, home of Matthew David Stewart at 8:40 p.m. 
The 12 officers were acting on a tip from Mr. Stewart's former 
girlfriend, who said that he was growing marijuana in his basement. 
Mr. Stewart awoke, naked, to the sound of a battering ram taking down 
his door. Thinking that he was being invaded by criminals, as he 
later claimed, he grabbed his 9-millimeter Beretta pistol.

The police say that they knocked and identified themselves, though 
Mr. Stewart and his neighbors said they heard no such announcement. 
Mr. Stewart fired 31 rounds, the police more than 250. Six of the 
officers were wounded, and Officer Jared Francom was killed. Mr. 
Stewart himself was shot twice before he was arrested. He was charged 
with several crimes, including the murder of Officer Francom.

The police found 16 small marijuana plants in Mr. Stewart's basement. 
There was no evidence that Mr. Stewart, a U.S. military veteran with 
no prior criminal record, was selling marijuana. Mr. Stewart's father 
said that his son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and 
may have smoked the marijuana to self-medicate.

Early this year, the Ogden city council heard complaints from dozens 
of citizens about the way drug warrants are served in the city. As 
for Mr. Stewart, his trial was scheduled for next April, and 
prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. But after losing a 
hearing last May on the legality of the search warrant, Mr. Stewart 
hanged himself in his jail cell.

The police tactics at issue in the Stewart case are no anomaly. Since 
the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, 
law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of 
government, have been blurring the line between police officer and 
soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of 
military-style equipment-from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored 
personnel carriers-American police forces have often adopted a 
mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs 
and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a 
new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop-armed to the teeth, 
ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat 
to familiar American liberties.

The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Such police 
units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special 
forces in the military. They learn to break into homes with battering 
rams and to use incendiary devices called flashbang grenades, which 
are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby. Their usual aim is to 
"clear" a building-that is, to remove any threats and distractions 
(including pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.

The country's first official SWAT team started in the late 1960s in 
Los Angeles. By 1975, there were approximately 500 such units. Today, 
there are thousands. According to surveys conducted by the 
criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, just 13% 
of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team in 1983. By 
2005, the figure was up to 80%.

The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown 
accordingly. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred a year; by 
the early 1980s, there were some 3,000 a year. In 2005 (the last year 
for which Dr. Kraska collected data), there were approximately 50,000 raids.

A number of federal agencies also now have their own SWAT teams, 
including the Fish & Wildlife Service, NASA, the Consumer Products 
Safety Commission and the Department of the Interior. In 2011, the 
Department of Education's SWAT team bungled a raid on a woman who was 
initially reported to be under investigation for not paying her 
student loans, though the agency later said she was suspected of 
defrauding the federal student loan program.

The details of the case aside, the story generated headlines because 
of the revelation that the Department of Education had such a unit. 
None of these federal departments has responded to my requests for 
information about why they consider such high-powered military-style 
teams necessary.

Americans have long been wary of using the military for domestic 
policing. Concerns about potential abuse date back to the creation of 
the Constitution, when the founders worried about standing armies and 
the intimidation of the people at large by an overzealous executive, 
who might choose to follow the unhappy precedents set by Europe's 
emperors and monarchs.

The idea for the first SWAT team in Los Angeles arose during the 
domestic strife and civil unrest of the mid-1960s. Daryl Gates, then 
an inspector with the Los Angeles Police Department, had grown 
frustrated with his department's inability to respond effectively to 
incidents like the 1965 Watts riots. So his thoughts turned to the 
military. He was drawn in particular to Marine Special Forces and 
began to envision an elite group of police officers who could respond 
in a similar manner to dangerous domestic disturbances.

Mr. Gates initially had difficulty getting his idea accepted. Los 
Angeles Police Chief William Parker thought the concept risked a 
breach in the divide between the military and law enforcement. But 
with the arrival of a new chief, Thomas Reddin, in 1966, Mr. Gates 
got the green light to start training a unit. By 1969, his SWAT team 
was ready for its maiden raid against a holdout cell of the Black Panthers.

At about the same time, President Richard Nixon was declaring war on 
drugs. Among the new, tough-minded law-enforcement measures included 
in this campaign was the no-knock raid-a policy that allowed drug 
cops to break into homes without the traditional knock and 
announcement. After fierce debate, Congress passed a bill authorizing 
no-knock raids for federal narcotics agents in 1970.

Over the next several years, stories emerged of federal agents 
breaking down the doors of private homes (often without a warrant) 
and terrorizing innocent citizens and families. Congress repealed the 
no-knock law in 1974, but the policy would soon make a comeback 
(without congressional authorization).

During the Reagan administration, SWAT-team methods converged with 
the drug war. By the end of the 1980s, joint task forces brought 
together police officers and soldiers for drug interdiction. National 
Guard helicopters and U-2 spy planes flew the California skies in 
search of marijuana plants. When suspects were identified, 
battle-clad troops from the National Guard, the DEA and other federal 
and local law enforcement agencies would swoop in to eradicate the 
plants and capture the people growing them.

Advocates of these tactics said that drug dealers were acquiring ever 
bigger weapons and the police needed to stay a step ahead in the arms 
race. There were indeed a few high-profile incidents in which police 
were outgunned, but no data exist suggesting that it was a widespread 
problem. A study done in 1991 by the libertarian-leaning Independence 
Institute found that less than one-eighth of 1% of homicides in the 
U.S. were committed with a military-grade weapon. Subsequent studies 
by the Justice Department in 1995 and the National Institute for 
Justice in 2004 came to similar conclusions: The overwhelming 
majority of serious crimes are committed with handguns, and not 
particularly powerful ones.

The new century brought the war on terror and, with it, new 
rationales and new resources for militarizing police forces. 
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Department 
of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants since its 
creation in 2002, with much of the money going to purchase military 
gear such as armored personnel carriers. In 2011 alone, a Pentagon 
program for bolstering the capabilities of local law enforcement gave 
away $500 million of equipment, an all-time high.

The past decade also has seen an alarming degree of mission creep for 
U.S. SWAT teams. When the craze for poker kicked into high gear, a 
number of police departments responded by deploying SWAT teams to 
raid games in garages, basements and VFW halls where illegal gambling 
was suspected. According to news reports and conversations with poker 
organizations, there have been dozens of these raids, in cities such 
as Baltimore, Charleston, S.C., and Dallas.

In 2006, 38-year-old optometrist Sal Culosi was shot and killed by a 
Fairfax County, Va., SWAT officer. The investigation began when an 
undercover detective overheard Mr. Culosi wagering on college 
football games with some buddies at a bar. The department sent a SWAT 
team after Mr. Culosi, who had no prior criminal record or any 
history of violence. As the SWAT team descended, one officer fired a 
single bullet that pierced Mr. Culosi's heart. The police say that 
the shot was an accident. Mr. Culosi's family suspects the officer 
saw Mr. Culosi reaching for his cellphone and thought he had a gun.

Assault-style raids have even been used in recent years to enforce 
regulatory law. Armed federal agents from the Fish & Wildlife Service 
raided the floor of the Gibson Guitar factory in Nashville in 2009, 
on suspicion of using hardwoods that had been illegally harvested in 
Madagascar. Gibson settled in 2012, paying a $300,000 fine and 
admitting to violating the Lacey Act. In 2010, the police department 
in New Haven, Conn., sent its SWAT team to raid a bar where police 
believed there was underage drinking. For sheer absurdity, it is hard 
to beat the 2006 story about the Tibetan monks who had overstayed 
their visas while visiting America on a peace mission. In Iowa, the 
hapless holy men were apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear.

Unfortunately, the activities of aggressive, heavily armed SWAT units 
often result in needless bloodshed: Innocent bystanders have lost 
their lives and so, too, have police officers who were thought to be 
assailants and were fired on, as (allegedly) in the case of Matthew 
David Stewart.

In my own research, I have collected over 50 examples in which 
innocent people were killed in raids to enforce warrants for crimes 
that are either nonviolent or consensual (that is, crimes such as 
drug use or gambling, in which all parties participate voluntarily). 
These victims were bystanders, or the police later found no evidence 
of the crime for which the victim was being investigated. They 
include Katherine Johnston, a 92-year-old woman killed by an Atlanta 
narcotics team acting on a bad tip from an informant in 2006; Alberto 
Sepulveda, an 11-year-old accidentally shot by a California SWAT 
officer during a 2000 drug raid; and Eurie Stamps, killed in a 2011 
raid on his home in Framingham, Mass., when an officer says his gun 
mistakenly discharged. Mr. Stamps wasn't a suspect in the investigation.

What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The 
obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that 
encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for 
the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of 
militarization in American law enforcement.

Consider today's police recruitment videos (widely available on 
YouTube), which often feature cops rappelling from helicopters, 
shooting big guns, kicking down doors and tackling suspects. Such 
campaigns embody an American policing culture that has become too 
isolated, confrontational and militaristic, and they tend to attract 
recruits for the wrong reasons.

If you browse online police discussion boards, or chat with younger 
cops today, you will often encounter some version of the phrase, 
"Whatever I need to do to get home safe." It is a sentiment that 
suggests that every interaction with a citizen may be the officer's 
last. Nor does it help when political leaders lend support to this 
militaristic self-image, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did 
in 2011 by declaring, "I have my own army in the NYPD-the seventh 
largest army in the world."

The motivation of the average American cop should not focus on just 
making it to the end of his shift. The LAPD may have given us the 
first SWAT team, but its motto is still exactly the right ideal for 
American police officers: To protect and serve.

SWAT teams have their place, of course, but they should be saved for 
those relatively rare situations when police-initiated violence is 
the only hope to prevent the loss of life. They certainly have no 
place as modern-day vice squads.

Many longtime and retired law-enforcement officers have told me of 
their worry that the trend toward militarization is too far gone. 
Those who think there is still a chance at reform tend to embrace the 
idea of community policing, an approach that depends more on civil 
society than on brute force.

In this very different view of policing, cops walk beats, interact 
with citizens and consider themselves part of the neighborhoods they 
patrol-and therefore have a stake in those communities. It's all 
about a baton-twirling "Officer Friendly" rather than a Taser-toting RoboCop.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom