Report documents “Excessive Militarization of American Policing”

ACLU Report: War Comes Home
ACLU Report: War Comes Home

In May, the Wisconsin Daily Independent reported that the Green Bay Police Department has a military assault vehicle which was last used for disruptive behavior and disorderly teenagers. This week, the ACLU released its report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Police.

The chilling report reveals a disturbing trend: “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”

The report “provides a snapshot of the realities of paramilitary policing, building on a body of existing work demonstrating that police militarization is a pervasive problem. Analyzing both existing secondary source materials and primary source data uncovered through the ACLU’s public records investigation, this report examines the use of SWAT teams by state and local law enforcement agencies and other aspects of militaristic policing.”

The ACLU’s “statistical analysis included more than 800 SWAT deployments conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies during the years 2011-2012.”

According to the report, “law enforcement agencies have stockpiled their arsenals. Law enforcement agencies have become equipped to carry out these SWAT missions in part by federal programs such as the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, the Department of Homeland Security’s grants to local law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Justice’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program..”

The ACLU claims that the “presence of these weapons and tactics has impacted policing culture.” The argue that the “training that police officers receive” encourages them to adopt a “warrior” mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has “weakened the Fourth Amendment (which protects the right to privacy in one’s home) through a series of decisions that have given the police increased authority to force their way into people’s homes…”

The report found: “Even though paramilitary policing in the form of SWAT teams was created to deal with emergency scenarios such as hostage or barricade situations, the use of SWAT to execute search warrants in drug investigations has become commonplace and made up the overwhelming majority of incidents the ACLU reviewed—79 percent of the incidents the ACLU studied involved the use of a SWAT team to search a person’s home, and more than 60 percent of the cases involved searches for drugs. The use of a SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use of paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic criminal investigations in searches of people’s homes.”

The ACLU asserts that our neighborhoods “are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies,” but that appears to be exactly what is happening.

When the Green Bay Police brought out the “Armadillo” it earned little public attention except ridicule. In the neighborhoods where it was deployed, the vast majority of residents seemed relieved. On Facebook, they reacted positively to the Police Chief’s post in which he wrote, “If you see the Armadillo in your neighborhood it means that we are working on other long-term solutions to restore the peace. -Capt. Bongle”

While the presence of law enforcement might restore the peace in a neighborhood, it can erode the peace of mind that comes from knowing your basic rights cannot be infringed. The peace of mind that was nearly shattered in communities like Tucson, Arizona after a video was released showing a botched SWAT raid by the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, which resulted in the death of Jose Guerna, a young father and former Marine.

The report found:

“The ACLU determined that SWAT deployments often and unnecessarily entailed the use of violent tactics and equipment, including Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), and that the use of these tactics and equipment often increased the risk of property damage and bodily harm.”

Unnecessarily aggressive SWAT raids can have disastrous consequences, including injury and death. The ACLU also uncovered numerous instances in which SWAT teams deployed when there were children present (and some in which the SWAT team knew in advance that children would be present).

The investigation gave us data to corroborate a trend we have been noticing nationwide: American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.

Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.

The use of SWAT teams to serve search warrants could perhaps be justified if there were reason to believe that these situations truly presented a genuine threat to officer safety, but that did not appear to be the case from the documents that the ACLU examined; of the incidents in which officers believed a weapon would be present, a weapon (typically a firearm such as a handgun but rarely an assault rifle) was actually found at the scene in only 35 percent of cases. Even when officers believed a weapon was likely to be present, that belief was often unsubstantiated. Unfortunately, reasonable standards for deploying SWAT teams appear to be virtually nonexistent.

These problems have been allowed to occur in the absence of public oversight. Data collection has been sparse and inadequate: among the law enforcement agencies studied, the ACLU found that data collecting and reporting in the context of SWAT was at best sporadic and at worst virtually nonexistent.

Check back tomorrow, for a report on militarized law enforcement in Arizona.

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