Monday, August 18, 2014

The Dangers of Over-Arming Local Law Enforcement

Updated May 2015

It appears that the militarization of the police forces throughout America has finally received attention from the mainstream media.  A recent study by the ACLU, "War Comes Home" examines the increased arming of state and local law enforcement agencies by the federal government and the impact that this is having on police actions.  Here are a few of the highlights noting that the study looks at more than 800 SWAT deployments conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies over the 2011 - 2012 timeframe.  Please note that the ACLU requested public records from more than 255 law enforcement agencies out of the more than 17,000 nationwide and their request for information on SWAT team activities was denied in whole or part by 114 agencies.

Special Weapons and Tactics or SWAT teams were originally created to deal with very specific, high-risk incidents, including situations where there was an active shooter or during hostage situations where their specialized training would allow them to perform actions that ordinary street officers could or did not.  The Los Angeles Police Department was among the first to organize SWAT teams in the latter part of 1966 in response to the Texas Tower shootings at the University of Texas where gunman, Charles Whitman, killed 14 people and wounded 31 on August 1, 1966.  The number of SWAT teams has mushroomed over the past decades; by the mid-2000s, 80 percent of small towns in America had SWAT teams, up from 20 percent in the 1980s and among larger cities, by the late 1990s, nearly 90 percent had SWAT teams.  The growth in the number of SWAT teams is accompanied by growth in the number of SWAT raids; from 3000 annually in the 1980s to 45,000 annually in the mid-2000s.

The authors found that the use of SWAT teams has evolved; rather than being used under very specific conditions, heavily armed SWAT teams are now being used for drug-related searches as shown on this graphic:

In total, 79 percent of SWAT deployments were for the purpose of executing a search warrant, often a "no-knock warrant", and a very insignificant 7 percent of deployments were for high-risk incidents that were the original mandate of SWAT teams.  In addition, in 65 percent of the incidents studied by the ACLU, SWAT teams used a battering ram or other device to force their way into a home.   Interestingly, in 54 percent of the cases where SWAT teams forced their way into a private residence, no drugs were found. Another device often used by SWAT teams is a "flashbang" grenade, an explosive device that distracts the occupants of a building while SWAT members gain access.  In both cases, significant damage to a home can be the result of SWAT activities.

In large part, law enforcement agencies have been able to add what would otherwise be considered military equipment to their arsenal of law and order tools under three programs:

1.) The Department of Defense's 1033 Program which has transferred $4.3 billion worth of Department of Defense surplus property to more than 17000 federal and data law enforcement agencies across America.  In 2013 alone, nearly $450 million worth of property was transferred.  As an example, Gwinnett County in Georgia received at least 57 semi-automatic M-16s and M-14s as well as Kevlar helmets and vests in 2011 - 2012.  North Little Rock police in Arkansas revved at least 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles and two MARCbot robots that were designed for use in Afghanistan and can be used to identify potential explosives/IEDs.  Each system costs around $10,000 but was free to the North Little Rock police.  Here's a list of the items received by Maricopa County, Arizona, mainly through the 1033 Program:

 In addition, Maricopa County has 120 assault rifles, five armoured vehicles, ten helicopters and a .50 calliper machine gun that can do this:

2.) The Department of Homeland Security's grants to local law enforcement agencies, including the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative which allow municipalities to prepare for potential terrorism.  In some cases, the DHS grants have been used to purchase an armoured BearCat armoured personnel carrier as noted below.  In New Hampshire, the Concord Police Department, on behalf of 20 surrounding communities with a total population of 150,000, has purchased a BearCat.  Here is Concord's Police Department justification for the purchase:

Note that the projected cost of the BearCat was $258,024, a substantial investment for a small city, even excluding ongoing maintenance and training requirements.  Forttnately, the BearCat has the ability to protect police occupants from .50 caliber ammunition, blast fragments and has the option to be outfitted with a radiation package that can detect alpha, beta and gamma radiation.

3.) The Department of Justice's Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program which has often been used to fund equipment and salary costs for drug task forces. 

During the 2011 - 2012 period, the ACLU found that a total of 15,054 items of battle dress uniforms or personal protective gear was received by 63 law enforcement agencies and 500 law enforcement agencies have been given Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, built to withstand roadside bombs such as those found in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2007, the United States spent $50 billion to produce 27,000 MRAPs; now that those are not needed overseas, they are finding their way into the hands of local law enforcement agencies including the Ohio State University Police that looks like this:

Armoured personnel carriers, particularly the Ballistic Engineered Armoured Response Counter Attack or BearCat APC is also another popular choice.  It is manufactured by Lenco Industries and looks like this:

Despite all of this militarization of America's law enforcement agencies, their success rate in the War on Drugs is less than stellar.  When SWAT was deployed for a drug offence, they found drugs in 35 percent of cases but not in 36 percent of cases with an additional 29 percent of cases being "unknown".  As well, SWAT deployments tend to have a race bias as shown on this pie chart:

Here is a chart showing the SWAT impact rates for several law enforcement agencies, showing the racial breakdowns for the serving of search warrants, taking into account the local population:

Of the total number of people that were served a search warrant by a SWAT team, 54 percent were minorities with 42 percent being Black and 12 percent being Latino.

It's not terribly surprising to see that the aforementioned militarization of local law enforcement agencies creates an "us against them", "guilty until proven innocent" attitude within law enforcement personnel, particularly those who have received the military-style training that is part of being a member of a SWAT team.  All non-police are regarded as a threat by police and law enforcement is increasingly regarded as thugs by civilians.  While the policies of the 1033 Program and the DHS funding of local police in an attempt to guard against terrorism may have been a good idea on paper, it is becoming increasingly clear that it has led to increasingly bad behaviour by some police officers who have convinced themselves that it's their way or you'll pay the price.

1 comment:

  1. "Thugs" is a good way to refer to the police. One time I came across a kid who was Over dosing (turned out to be heroin) but at the time it was unknown and just that is wasn't breathing and turned purple. When the first cop showed up the first thing he did was kick the kid in the thigh hard enough to leave a bruise for sure. Then he poked the kid again a few times lighter force in the ribs with his boot. Then radioed for the ambulance to hurry as the kid didn't look too good. Then he began to go through the kids pocket. At no point until the EMS people arrived did he do anything to check a pulse or give CPR or even position his head in any way. Protect and Serve my ass.