Pubdate: Fall 1997
Source: Covert Action Quarterly 
Contact:  2025
Author: Peter Cassidy

The Rise in Paramilitary Policing

At 4:30 a.m., the first wave of SWAT teams clothed in battle dress
uniforms (BDUs) with black hoods and wielding submachine guns  swarmed
into nine homes in a rural community in Washington state. Some 150 officers
executed search warrants in 1994, alleging that the residents were running
a massive international drug cooperative and harvesting marijuana in
underground farms.

The multijurisdictional SWAT team members came from 13 separate police
agencies including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau
of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms, the Washington Air National Guard, the
Washington State Patrol, three county sheriff's SWAT teams, and four small
city police departments.

A massive, essentially military operation, the raid netted a few arrests
for possession and 54 marijuana plants. It also terrorized eight children
asleep in their beds when hooded figures burst in, guns ready. One officer
put a gun to the head of a threeyear old, according to witnesses, and
ordered him down on the floor. Because the police were masked, had no badge
numbers, and represented so many different agencies, the victims decided to
settle out of court.

That July, on the other side of the country, another SWAT team ran amok. As
Cleave Atwater tended to his customers at his club and pool room in Chapel
Hill, North Caroline, the door suddenly splintered open and a mob of men in
ninja hoods and fatigues waving automatic rifles rushed in and shouted for
people onto the floor. Terrified, Atwater slipped out while his bar
assistant sprawled face down in a pool of his own terrorprovoked urine. On
reaching the street, Atwater entered a surreal landscape in which
paramilitarystyle police taking part in a "Operation ReadiRock" were
selectively stopping and searching black people.

Atwater, proprietor of the Village Connection, had called the police months
before to complain about drug trafficking near his Graham Street business.
But when the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's Special
Response Team (SRT) and the local police that held the warrant for the
blockwide raid finally arrived in full battle dress, they brought little
comfort or remedy.

The victims of North Carolina's Operation RediRock raids survived their
ordeals. In another incident, In Oak City, about 70 miles north of Chapel
Hill, Jean Wiggins, a cleaning woman, was less fortunate. The SRT team that
went into Graham Street put seven rounds through her body as she ran from a
bank where she had been held hostage for 15 hours after a robbery attempt.
In less that two years, a single paramilitary police team destroyed a lot
of public trust and claimed the life of a woman who should have had every
reason to expect she would be safer with the police than with her captors.

Occupied Territories USA

Atwater, Wiggins and the Washingtonians were witnesses to a fundamental
shift in policing: the militarization of local law enforcement. This
transformation is largely a consequence of a drug war that has
incrementally evolved into a real domestic offensive with all the
accouterments and ordnance of war.

Increasingly, America's neighborhoods, especially within minority
communities, are being treated like occupied territories. In the past 25
years, police agencies have organized paramilitary units (PPUs) variously
called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) or SRT (Special Response Team),
outfits that go to work in battle dress uniforms with automatic assault
rifles, percussion flashbang grenades, CS gas  and even armored personnel
carriers. The number of these unites and the situations in which they are
been deployed are rapidly expanding. With predictable results: "civilian
casualties"; police killed by friendly fire; and a growing, uneasy
antagonism between the "peacekeepers" and the kept. Within the police, the
elite, highly militarized unites have fueled a culture of violence and
racial antagonism.

A landmark study by Professors Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler at Eastern
Kentucky's School of Police Studies revealed the depth of saturation that
these paramilitary units have achieved in US communities. For one thing,
they are no longer confined to big cities. In 1982, 59 percent of police
departments had an active paramilitary police unit. Fifteen years later, in
a huge increase, nearly 90 percent of the 548 responding departments funded
such units.

More troubling, however, Kraska and Kappeler found that police paramilitary
units are now called in to perform relatively mundane police work  such as
patrolling city streets and serving warrants. Indeed, with the
mainstreaming of police paramilitary units, cities including Fresno,
California, and Indianapolis, Indiana, send police to patrol nonemergency
situations in full battle dress  giving these communities all the ambience
of the West Bank. Of 487 departments answering questions about deployment
scenarios, more than 20 percent said that their tactical teams were used
for community patrols. Ironically, the rise in the number of PPUs is
occurring at the same time as the concept of "community policing" is
gaining popularity.

One commander of a paramilitary unit in a midwestern town of 75,000
described how his team patrols in BDU, cruising the streets in an armored
personnel carrier. "We stop anything that moves. We'll sometimes even
surround suspicious homes and bring out the MP5s (an automatic weapon
manufactured by gun manufacturer Heckler and Koch and favored by military
special forces teams). We usually don't have any problems with crackheads

Just 15 years ago, city departments called out their tactical units little
more than once a month on average, usually for those rarest of situations 
hostage situations, terrorist events, or barricaded suspects. The mean
number of callouts for these unites rose precipitously to 83 events  or
about 7 a month  in 1995. Of that sample, more than 75 percent were for
thrilling, noknock drug raids like Operation RediRock.

Lt. Tom Gabor of the Culver City, California Police Department contends
that PPU callouts have "less to do with officer or citizen safety issues
than with justifying the costs of maintaining units ... There exist
literally thousands of unnecessary units." Moreover, he claims that regular
police officers could have handled 99 percent of the cases in which SWAT
units were utilized.

Targeting Blacks

One of the greatest costs of this militarization of local law enforcement,
says Joseph McNamara, a research fellow in the Hoover Institution at
Stanford University, has been the loss of public trust in police
institutions, alienating communities from those resources. According to
McNamara, a rotation onto these units is often given as a reward. "When you
have police in military uniforms with military weapons  sometimes with
tanks and armored personnel carriers, this reinforces the idea that the
police are an occupation army as opposed to partners in the community,"
said McNamara. "People often feel these raids do not take place in white
middle class neighborhoods and, by and large, that is accurate."

Nowhere has that alienation been more profound than in African American
communities. In "Operations ReadiRock" an entire block of an
AfricanAmerican neighborhood was raided and nearly 100 people were
searched and detained. After Operation ReadiRock, plaintiffs in a
successful lawsuit claimed that all those arrests were black  whites were
allowed to leave the area. No prosecutions resulted from the raid. The
survey by Kraska and Kappeler substantiated that black urban communities in
the US are bearing the brunt of paramilitary police activity. In some 126
followup telephone interviews in his survey, Krask found, "First and
foremost most of the paramilitary activity we found was focused on a very
small part of the black community  gangs and drug dealers."

Kraska also found racism within the ranks of one of these paramilitary
units, apparently amplified by its culture and experiences. In response to
Kraska and Kappeler's survey, a PPU commander wrote of his patrols: "When
the soldiers ride in, you should see those blacks scatter." At one
"training" session, the researcher observed members of three police
agencies  including the state police  from a large industrial "heartland"
state as they were developing a multijurisdictional paramilitary unit.
(Officers shot automatic weapons at "headsized" jugs of water.) One of the
officers there was casually  and, apparently, unremarkably  attired in a
Tshirt embossed with a drawing of a burning city; the caption read:
"Operation Ghetto Storm."

In terms of public policy, the arrival of police ninja corps was preceded
by a number of factors that initially had little relation to one another.
Paramilitary police units in the US were established in two separate waves.
The first modern urban police paramilitary team was put together by
thenLos Angeles Police Commissioner Daryl Gates when he founded the
country's first local SWAT team in the mid1960s. Los Angeles and other big
cities that followed its example created paramilitary units in response to
civil disturbances of the 1960s and 1970s. At first, these teams were eyed
with suspicion and used sparingly.

The War at Home

Then came the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s. Suddenly, there was a new
rationale for aggressive use of statesponsored violence since  any
teenage moviegoer knows by now  drug dealers are wanton, diabolically
violent characters, armed to the teeth, eager to fight to the death, and
stereotypically nonwhite. From 1985 to 1995, the survey found, a second
wave of paramilitary units was established  most in the smaller, less
populous jurisdictions  to fight the drug war.

Starting in the 1970s, the military had been only casually involved in drug
interdiction activities. Its participation sparked court cases charging
violations of the Posse Comitatus Act, which was passed to end the state of
martial law that existed in occupied southern states after the Civil War.
During that period of repression, in which internal passports, arbitrary
search and arrest, public beatings and lynchings were the norm, and the
line between military and policing functions was routinely blurred. The
Posse Comitatus Act became a guiding tenet of American democratic
governance: the military is designed to engage in war, and the civilian
police are charged with enforcing the law.

Then two changes in the law, first in 1983 and then in 1989, brought the
military and police institutions side by side  formally and legally  at
exactly the same time that the postCold War military was looking for a new
mission. After those amendments to Posse Comitatus, the military could
provide intelligence, materiel, transport services and training, as well as
participate in drug interdiction efforts in almost every way short of
direct search, seizure and arrest. 

Subsequently, through programs including Joint Task Force Six at Ft. Bliss
in El Passo , Texas, local police began receiving some of the same kind of
military training as the Special Forces units. More than 20 of the
respondents in Kraska and Kappeler's survey reported their paramilitary
teams were trained by Army Rangers of Navy SEALS, military units that
specialize in commando tactics. One commander told Kraska in a followup
interview: "We've had teams of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers come here and
teach us everything. We just have to use our own judgment and exclude the
information like: 'at this point we bring in the mortars and blow up the

The similarities between police and military operations have raised serious
questions about civil liberties. In May 1997, Marines conducting a border
control "antidrug" training mission shot dead a goat herder tending to his
flock in Texas at the Mexico border. The four soldiers, dressed in
camouflage, claimed that the herder  armed with a World War II era
singleshot rifle, as is usual when protecting livestock in rattlesnake and
coyote territory  had fired on them But where police would be required by
law to announce their presence and fire only when their lives were in
danger, the soldiers remained hidden and unannounced as they stalked high
school student Ezequiel Hernandez for several hours.

As the army assumes civilian police functions, the police are acting  and
looking  more like soldiers. McNamara, who served as a police chief in San
Jose and Kansas City after 15 years in the new York City police department,
partially blamed the militarization of police forces on the proliferation
of assault weapons: "I predicted a long time ago, the failure to control
militarystyle weapons into the general population would lead to further
militarization of police." The drive toward hightech weaponry was
facilitated soon after the end of the Cold War when military spending
reductions brought cheap warsurplus materiel into the market. (St.
Petersburg, Florida, just bought its first armored personnel carrier this
Spring  for $1,000  from the US military.) Gun companies, perceiving a
profitable trend, began aggressively marketing automatic weapons to local
police departments, holding seminars, and sending out color brochures
redolent with ninjastyle imagery.

This confluence of experiences with martialstyle ordnance, immersion into
military culture, and popular media imagery quickly conspired to create a
new hybrid agent of statesponsored force that behaves much more like a
warmaking soldier than a constable on patrol. Almost immediately after
type of "elite" training and ordnance became available to local police,
fellow officers, bystanders and suspects alike started dying under bizarre
circumstances surrounded by heavily armed, cinematically attired cops in
military drag.

When police SWAT and Navy SEAL units teamed up in Albuquerque in 1990, they
used a tow truck to tear the door off an apartment building, fire twice and
kill the suspect, who had all of two marijuana joints on the premises. A
1994 SWAT raid at the wrong address precipitated the death of Accelyne
Williams, a 75year old retired minister in Boston who was chased to his
death in his own apartment and died handcuffed, face down, his heart
palpitating to its last. A March 1996 tactical raid in Oxnard, California,
ended in the "friendly fire" death of a tactical team member in the
confusion following the explosion of a flashbang grenade. Last year, a
Reno SWAT team member died in a parachute jump from a Navy helicopter.
Every month it seems, another overzealous paramilitary gang kills another
cop, a bystander or suspect  or settles a subsequent suit with the survivors.

Martialing Resources

How long this trend in policing continues is contingent on America's
tolerance of policesponsored violence in the name of crime prevention 
and how long the public will continue misreading crime rates. Politicians
eager for votes, police hoping to expand their budgets and turf, military
planners seeking postCold War missions, and arms and training companies
looking for profits, all have an interest in exaggerating the threat to the
public posed by street crime.

Thus, while crime rates in most areas are falling, public fear that crime
is spiraling out of control is increasing  as are demands to remedy the
threat by extraordinary, even martial, measure. Neither the police nor the
public is wellserved by these misconceptions which promote empty,
cinematically inspired displays of force over the unglamorous, longterm
community policing schemes that put officers face to face with the people
they are charged to serve. Such communitybased law enforcement helps to
build the unspoken covenant of trust that is the basis of effective, humane

Kraska is not optimistic about which approach will triumph. he sees martial
force being answered by greater force by lawbreakers and fears a Cold
Warstyle escalation of armaments in the streets of America. For besieged
communities  often underserved by routine policing  the paramilitary
teams are often seen as bringing relief.

Joseph McNamara believes that crime reduction associated with the
deployment of PPUs is temporary because these units must always maintain
pressure on the communities. The greatest concern is that these
paramilitary forces will eventually be seen and perceived as an occupation
army. How long can a community be, in effect, garrisoned? Tension kept this
high, Kraska predicts, could lead to a flashpoint. "All it takes is one kid
taken out by a submachine gun."

Philosophically, America has arrived at this threshold through its own
militarism, its pathological puritanism, and its unshakable racism. After a
decadeslong national addiction to waging war on drugs  framed largely as
a war against "unruly minority ethnics"  the deployment of cops dressed
like extras in a Stallone movie waving automatic weapons around poor
neighborhoods seems almost inevitable. And after 50 years of living as a
nation in a peacetime state of emergency managed by the military, the sight
of cops cruising the streets in warsurplus armored personnel carriers to
remedy social, cultural, and economic problems shouldn't be such a shock.