For nearly half a century, America’s police forces have undergone a process of “militarization.” They've upped their cache of assault weapons and military defense gear, increasingly deployed SWAT teams to conduct ops-style missions on civilians, and inculcated a warrior attitude within their rank. While major metropolitan areas have maintained SWAT teams for decades, by the mid 2000s, 80 percent of small towns also had their own paramilitary forces.
But beyond deep reporting of individual journalists and scholars, little is known about the extent of militarization across the country. The ACLU has attempted to bridge that knowledge gap with a new report called War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.
“Our investigation is the first to conduct an analysis using raw data received directly from police departments, by looking directly at incident reports themselves,” says Kara Dansky, Senior Counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice and the primary author of the report. The ACLU sent public records requests to 260 law enforcement agencies in 25 states plus Washington D.C., asking for records of all SWAT deployments between 2011 and 2012. Below are some of its most significant findings.
1. The federal government’s war on drugs is the single greatest catalyst for local police militarization.
Far from being used for emergencies such as hostage situations, the ACLU found that 62% of all SWAT deployments were for the purpose of drug searches, and 79% were to search a person’s home with a search warrant—usually for drugs.
These deployments are usually violent and feature bands of heavily armed officers ramming down doors or chucking flash bang grenades into homes. Innocent people are often caught up, and sometimes killed, in the ensuing chaos, including Eurie Stamp, a Massachusetts grandfather who was shot dead by an officer as police attempted to locate Stamp’s girlfriend’s son for a drug offense. Other SWAT-induced tragedies abound: The ACLU found that 46 people were injured as a result of paramilitary deployment.
For decades, the federal government—in its quixotic quest to eliminate drug use— has abetted these aggressive tactics with programs that create incentives for militarization. One is called the 1033 program, which was launched in the 1980’s to create a pipeline for military equipment between the Department of Defense and local law enforcement.
From the ACLU report:
“There are few limitations or requirements imposed on agencies that participate in the 1033 Program.... In addition, equipment transferred under the 1033 Program is free to receiving agencies, though they are required to pay for transport and maintenance. The federal government requires agencies that receive 1033 equipment to use it within one year of receipt.”
Equally to blame is the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, another 80’s artifact that gives local police forces incentives to seek out low-level drug offenders in exchange for grant money.
From the ACLU report:
“Between April 2012 and March 2013, JAG grantees spent 64 percent of their JAG funding on law enforcement…state and local agencies used JAG funds to purchase hundreds of lethal and less-lethal weapons, tactical vests, and body armor.”
Kara Dansky says this complex for funneling federal money to paramilitary drug policing undermines potential reforms to the criminal justice system that US Attorney General Eric Holder has called for.
“Holder has been outspoken about the need to ensure that the police have the trust of the community, [and] it has the potential to do some really good work,” she said. “But we are concerned that if justice department continues to grant money to local police departments, money they use to engage in paramilitary weapons and tactics, the Attorney Generals’ great work will be undermined.”
2. Militarization is occurring with “almost no oversight.”
The ACLU found that there is no federal agency that keeps an accurate record of information related to SWAT proliferation. Where records are kept, the ACLU found their formats varied wildly across the country. “The records that were produced revealed an extremely troubling trend: that data collecting and reporting in the context of SWAT was at best sporadic and at worst virtually nonexistent,” according to the report.
Relatedly, there is virtually no oversight for SWAT deployment at the state level, meaning no agency or governing body tracks how, and for what purposes, SWAT teams are dispatched. There are few exceptions. Maryland passed a law mandating the state to track SWAT deployment after the mayor of a small municipality had his home raided, but that law is unlikely to be renewed this year. The Utah state legislature recently agreed on a bill to track SWAT deployment and is currently going forward with implementing the law. Local agencies usually engaged in after-action reports of SWAT use, but the ACLU found these reports were “woefully incomplete.”
The ACLU also discovered there are no uniform standards for deploying SWAT teams. Discretion ultimately rests with police officers themselves. On that point, the report notes that police were often wrong in estimating the danger of a particular mission: “SWAT teams found weapons in just over one-third of the incidents in which they predicted finding them, which suggests police are not particularly good at forecasting the presence of weapons.”
But overestimating danger may not be so surprising, given the degree of warrior indoctrination among SWAT teams. One SWAT training PowerPoint presentation uncovered by the ACLU illustrates this perfectly: The slides “urge trainees to ‘Steel Your Battlemind’ and defines ‘battlemind’ as ‘a warrior’s inner strength to face fear and adversity during combat with courage. It is the will to persevere and win. It is resilience.’”
3. Non-whites are more likely to be targeted by SWAT deployments.
It should come as no surprise that the people most persecuted by police in their communities are also more likely to have their front doors bashed down by a police battering ram.
Many of the SWAT teams examined by the ACLU “either do not record race information or record it unsystematically.” Nevertheless, the report found that for all people affected by a SWAT deployment, 37 percent were Black, 12 percent were Latino, 19 were white, and race was unknown for the rest of the people impacted.
Racial disparities were even more pronounced when examining the purpose for SWAT deployment. When SWAT was dispatched for drug raids, 68 percent of the time their targets were Blacks or Latinos, while targets were white only 38 percent of the time. Similarly, when SWAT was dispatched with warrants to search homes, non-whites were affected to a greater degree than whites. In contrast, nearly half of those affected when SWAT was deployed for emergency situations (hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios) were white, while only 23% were non-white.
Basically, non-whites were not only more likely to come into contact with paramilitary police forces, but their contact was usually prompted by drug searches rather than the sort of emergencies where you may actually want police to show up.
4. Police are secretive about their use of SWAT
Overall, the ACLU report lacks the sort of robustness you might expect for a definitive report on police militarization in America. This is largely the fault of police agencies themselves, who denied nearly half of the ACLU’s public records requests in part or in full, and who keep poor records of their own SWAT use.
Those difficulties seem to inform much of the ACLU’s recommendations to local, state and federal officials. Above all, the organization calls for a streamlined system of record keeping for SWAT deployment and equipment procurement. No such system currently exists. The ACLU also asks that standards for deployment be bolstered and unified across precincts, and that federal programs incentivizing militarization be weakened or dismantled outright.