Pubdate: Sat, 28 Jun 2014
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2014 The News and Observer Publishing Company


Police are supposed to serve and protect, but increasingly special 
police units are being used to attack with military-style raids to 
serve search warrants or look for drugs. Sometimes these pumped-up 
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) operations target the wrong house 
or injure children living with a suspect.

Last month in Georgia, for instance, a SWAT team looking for drugs 
battered down the door of a home in the middle of the night and 
tossed in a stun grenade that landed in a playpen where a 
19-month-old boy was sleeping. The toddler, whose family was visiting 
the home, suffered serious injury and was put in a medically-induced 
coma. No drugs were found.

In a report issued this week, the American Civil Liberties Union 
focused on the rising militarization of local police units.

The ACLU reviewed more than 800 SWAT raids in 20 states, including 
North Carolina. The ALCU's analysis found evidence of excessive force 
and a pattern of raids predominantly on homes where the occupants are 
minorities. In Chatham County, one of several North Carolina counties 
reviewed, the ACLU found that black residents were 15 times more 
likely than whites to be affected when the sheriff's Special Incident 
Response Team was deployed in a drug case.

The report builds on the work of Dr. Peter Kraska, professor of 
Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, who surveyed police 
departments across the country on their use of SWAT teams. Kraska 
found that SWAT teams, once limited to large police departments, are 
now also a common element of small town forces. By Kraska's estimate, 
the number of SWAT raids per year grew from 3,000 in the 1980s to 
45,000 in the mid-2000s.

That growth would be one thing if it was in response to rising 
criminal violence or a war on drugs. But violent crime has declined 
in the United States and the war on drugs has less support among the 
public. Marijuana, for instance, is being legalized or decriminalized 
in small amounts and draconian sentences for crack cocaine are being 
reduced. Yet most of the high-powered raids are undertaken to serve 
warrants in drug cases.

The increase in police using tank-like vehicles, wearing body armor 
and carrying high-powered assault rifles reflects an increasing flow 
of federal funding for such equipment.

The Department of Defense has long provided surplus weapons and 
equipment to police, but funding for more military-style equipment 
grew after the Sept. 11 terror attacks as the Department of Homeland 
Security began providing funds for fighting terror at the local 
level. Local police, naturally, will take and use free and powerful 
equipment even if there isn't any local terrorism to fight.

"We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme 
emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic 
police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of 
drugs," said Kara Dansky of the ACLU's Center for Justice.

SWAT teams are needed for especially hazardous situations, but such 
units can be set up on a regional basis and called in for those 
relatively rare occasions. Meanwhile, the federal government should 
send money instead of armaments so police can afford to do more to 
serve and protect. That involves more community policing that puts 
more officers on the beat who know the community. It also means 
programs to help drug abusers and mentor teens. Armored vehicles, 
high-powered rifles and battering rams should be a last resort.
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