The weapons used in the “war on terror” that destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq have made their way to local law enforcement. While police forces across the country began a process of militarization complete with SWAT teams and flash-bang grenades when President Reagan intensified the “war on drugs,” the post-9/11 “war on terror” has added fuel to the fire.
Through laws and regulations like a provision in defense budgets that authorize the Pentagon to transfer surplus military gear to police forces, local law enforcement are using weapons found on the battlefields of South Asia and the Middle East.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought more attention to police militarization when it issued a comprehensive, nearly 100-page (appendix and endnotes included) report titled,“War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” Based on public records requests to more than 260 law enforcement agencies in 26 states, the ACLU concluded that “American policing has become excessively militarized through the use of weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield” and that this militarization “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
The information contained in the ACLU report, and in other investigations into the phenomenon, is sobering. From the killing of innocent people to the lack of debate on the issue, police militarization has turned into a key issue for Americans. It is harming civil liberties, ramping up the “war on drugs,” impacting the most marginalized members of society and transforming neighborhoods into war zones. Here are 11 important–and horrifying–things you should know about the militarization of police.
1. It harms, and sometimes kills, innocent people. When you have heavily armed police officers using flash-bang grenades and armored personnel carriers, innocent people are bound to be hurt. The likelihood of people being killed is raised by the practice of SWAT teams busting down doors with no warning, which leads some people to think it may be a burglary, who could in turn try to defend themselves. The ACLU documented seven cases of civilians dying, and 46 people being injured. That’s only in the cases the civil liberties group looked at, so the number is actually higher.
Take the case of Tarika Wilson, which the ACLU summarizes. The 26-year-old biracial mother lived in Lima, Ohio. Her boyfriend, Anthony Terry, was wanted by the police on suspicion of drug dealing. So on January 4, 2008, a SWAT team busted down Wilson’s door and opened fire. A SWAT officer killed Wilson and injured her one-year-old baby, Sincere Wilson. The killing sparked rage in Lima and accusations of a racist police department, but the officer who shot Wilson, Sgt. Joe Chavalia, was found not guilty on all charges.
2. Children are impacted. As the case of Wilson shows, the police busting down doors care little about whether there’s a child in the home. Another case profiled by the ACLU shows how children are caught up the crossfire–with devastating consequences.
In May, after their Wisconsin home had burned down, the Phonesavanh family was staying with relatives in Georgia. One night, a SWAT team with assault rifles invaded the home and threw a flashbang grenade–despite the presence of kids’ toys in the front yard. The police were looking for the father’s nephew on drug charges. He wasn’t there. But a 19-month-old named Bou Bou was–and the grenade landed in his crib.
Bou Bou was wounded in the chest and had third-degree burns. He was put in a medically induced coma.
Another high-profile instance of a child being killed by paramilitary police tactics occurred in 2010, when seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed in Detroit. The city’s Special Response Team (Detroit’s SWAT) was looking for Chauncey Owens, a suspect in the killing of a teenager who lived on the second floor of the apartment Jones lived in.
Officers raided the home, threw a flash-bang grenade, and fired one shot that struck Jones in the head. The police agent who fired the fatal shot, Joseph Weekley, has so far gotten off easy: a jury trial ended in deadlock last year, though he will face charges of involuntary manslaughter in September. As The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith wrote last year after Weekley was acquitted: “What happened to Aiyana is the result of the militarization of police in this country…Part of what it means to be black in America now is watching your neighborhood become the training ground for our increasingly militarized police units.”
Bou Bou and Jones aren’t the only case of children being impacted.
According to the ACLU, “of the 818 deployments studied, 14 percent involved the presence of children and 13 percent did not.”
3. The use of SWAT teams is unnecessary. In many cases, using militarized teams of police is not needed. The ACLU report notes that the vast majority of cases where SWAT teams are deployed are in situations where a search warrant is being executed to just look for drugs. In other words, it’s not even 100% clear whether there are drugs at the place the police are going to. These situations are not why SWAT was created.
Furthermore, even when SWAT teams think there are weapons, they are often wrong. The ACLU report shows that in the cases where police thought weapons would be there, they were right only a third of the time.
4. The “war on terror” is fueling militarization. It was the “war on drugs” that introduced militarized policing to the U.S. But the “war on terror” has accelerated it.
A growing number of agencies have taken advantage of the Department of Defense’s “1033” program, which is passed every year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, the budget for the Pentagon. The number of police agencies obtaining military equipment like mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles has increased since 2009, according to USA Today, which notes that this “surplus military equipment” is “left over from U.S. military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” This equipment is largely cost-free for the police agencies who receive them.
In addition to the Pentagon budget provision, another agency created in the aftermath of 9/11 is helping militarize the police. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) own grants funnel military-style equipment to local police departments nationwide. According to a 2011 Center for Investigative Reporting story published by The Daily Beast, at least $34 billion in DHS grants have gone to police agencies to buy military-style equipment. This money has gone to purchase drones, tactical vests, bomb-disarming robots, tanks and more.
5. It’s a boon to contractor profits. The trend towards police militarization has given military contractors another lucrative market where they can shop their products. Companies like Lockheed Martin and Blackhawk Industries are making big bucks by selling their equipment to agencies flush with Department of Homeland Security grants.
In addition to the actual selling of equipment, contractors also sponsor training events for SWAT teams, like Urban Shield, a major arms expo that has attracted increasing attention from activists in recent years. SWAT teams, police agencies and military contractors converge on Urban Shield, which was held in California last year, to train and to promote equipment to buy.
6. Border militarization and police militarization go hand in hand. The “war on terror” and “war on drugs” aren’t the only wars helping police militarization. There’s also the war on undocumented immigrants.
The notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for brutal crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, is the paradigmatic example of this trend. According to the ACLU, Arpaio’s Maricopa County department has acquired a machine gun so powerful it could tear through buildings on multiple city blocks. In addition, he has 120 assault rifles, five armored vehicles and ten helicopters. Other law enforcement agencies in Arizona have obtained equipment like bomb suits and night-vision goggles.
Then there’s a non-local law enforcement agency on the border: the Border Patrol, which has obtained drones and attack helicopters. And Border Patrol agents are acting like they’re at war. A recent Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that law enforcement experts had found that that the Border Patrol has killed 19 people from January 2010-October 2012, including some of whom when the agents were under no lethal, direct threat.
7. Police are cracking down on dissent. In 1999, massive protests rocked Seattle during the World Trade Organization meeting. The police cracked down hard on the demonstrators using paramilitary tactics. Police fired tear gas at protesters, causing all hell to break loose.
Norm Stamper, the Seattle police chief at the time, criticized the militarized policing he presided over in a Nation article in 2011. “Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict,” wrote Stamper.
More than a decade after the Seattle protests, militarized policing to crack down on dissent returned with a vengeance during the wave of Occupy protests in 2011. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used to break up protests in Oakland. Scott Olsen, an Occupy Oakland protester and war veteran, was struck in the head by a police projectile, causing a fractured skull, broken neck vertebrae and brain swelling.
8. Asset forfeitures are funding police militarization. In June, AlterNet’s Aaron Cantuoutlined how civil asset forfeiture laws work.
“It’s a legal fiction spun up hundreds of years ago to give the state the power to convict a person’s property of a crime, or at least, implicate its involvement in the committing of a crime. When that happened, the property was to be legally seized by the state,” wrote Cantu. He went on to explain that law enforcement justifies the seizing of property and cash as a way to break up narcotics rings’ infrastructure. But it can also be used in cases where a person is not convicted, or even charged with, a crime.
Asset forfeitures bring in millions of dollars for police agencies, who then spend the money for their own uses. And for some police departments, it goes to militarizing their police force.
New Yorker reporter Sarah Stillman, who penned a deeply reported piece on asset forfeitures,wrote in August 2013 that“thousands of police departments nationwide have recently acquired stun grenades, armored tanks, counterattack vehicles, and other paramilitary equipment, much of it purchased with asset-forfeiture funds.” So SWAT teams have an incentive to conduct raids where they seize property and cash. That money can then go into their budgets for more weapons.
9. Dubious informants are used for raids. As the New Yorker’s Stillman wrote in another piece,informants are “the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them.” Given SWAT teams’ focus on finding drugs, it’s no surprise that informants are used to gather information that lead to military-style police raids.
A 2006 policy paper by investigative journalist Radley Balko, who has done the most reporting on militarized policing, highlighted the negative impact using informants for these raids have. Most often, informants are “people who regularly seek out drug users and dealers and tip off the police in exchange for cash rewards” and other drug dealers, who inform to gain leniency or cash from the police. But these informants are quite unreliable–and the wrong information can lead to tragic consequences.
10. There’s been little debate and oversight. Despite the galloping march towards militarization, there is little public debate or oversight of the trend. The ACLU report notes that “there does not appear to be much, if any, local oversight of law enforcement agency receipt of equipment transfers.” One of the group’s recommendations to change that is for states and local municipalities to enact laws encouraging transparency and oversight of SWAT teams.
11. Communities of color bear the brunt. Across the country, communities of color are the people most targeted by police practices. In recent years, the abuse of “stop and frisk” tactics has attracted widespread attention because of the racially discriminatory way it has been applied.
Militarized policing has also targeted communities of color. According to the ACLU report, “of all the incidents studied where the number and race of the people impacted were known, 39 percent were Black, 11 percent were Latino, 20 were white.” The majority of raids that targeted blacks and Latinos were related to drugs–another metric exposing how the “war on drugs” is racist to the core.