US Police Have Killed Over 5,000 Civilians Since 9/11
November 12, 2013
Katie Rucke / MintPress News & Radley Balko / Wall Street Journal
Statistically speaking, Americans should be more fearful of local cops than "terrorists." 500 innocent Americans are murdered by police every year -- 5,000 since 9/11. In 1994, the US Government passed a law authorizing the Pentagon to donate surplus Cold War-era military equipment to local police departments. In the 20 years since, weaponry designed for use on a foreign battlefields has been handed over for use on US streets against US citizens.
Release Us -- A short film on police brutality by Charles Shaw
(October 28, 2013) -- Statistically speaking, Americans should be more fearful of the local cops than "terrorists." On average, 500 innocent Americans are murdered by police every year (US Department of Justice). 5,000 since 9/11, equal to the number of US soldiers lost in Iraq.
In 1994, the US Government passed a law authorizing the Pentagon to donate surplus Cold War era military equipment to local police departments. In the 20 years since, weaponry designed for use on a foreign battlefield, has been handed over for use on American citizens.
US Police Have Killed Over 5,000 Civilians Since 9/11
Katie Rucke / MintPress News
(November 10, 2013) -- Though Americans commonly believe law enforcement's role in society is to protect them and ensure peace and stability within the community, the sad reality is that police departments are often more focused on enforcing laws, making arrests and issuing citations.
As a result of this as well as an increase in militarized policing techniques, Americans are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist, estimates a Washington's Blog report based on official statistical data.
Though the US government does not have a database collecting information about the total number of police involved shootings each year, it's estimated that between 500 and 1,000 Americans are killed by police officers each year. Since 9/11, about 5,000 Americans have been killed by US police officers, which is almost equivalent to the number of US soldiers who have been killed in the line of duty in Iraq.
Because individual police departments are not required to submit information regarding the use of deadly force by its officers, some bloggers have taken it upon themselves to aggregate that data. Wikipedia also has a list of "justifiable homicides" in the US, which was created by documenting publicized deaths.
Mike Prysner, one of the local directors of the Los Angeles chapter for ANSWER -- an advocacy group that asks the public to Act Now to Stop War and End Racism -- told Mint Press News earlier this year that the "epidemic" of police harassment and violence is a nationwide issue.
He said groups like ANSWER are trying to hold officers accountable for abuse of power. "[Police brutality] has been an issue for a very long time," Prysner said, explaining that in May, 13 people were killed in Southern California by police.
As Mint Press News previously reported, each year there are thousands of claims of police misconduct. According to the CATO Institute's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, in 2010 there were 4,861 unique reports of police misconduct involving 6,613 sworn officers and 6,826 alleged victims.
Most of those allegations of police brutality involved officers who punched or hit victims with batons, but about one-quarter of the reported cases involved firearms or stun guns.
A big element in the police killings, Prysner says, is racism. "A big majority of those killed are Latinos and Black people," while the police officers are mostly White, he said. "It's a badge of honor to shoot gang members so [the police] go out and shoot people who look like gang members," Prysner argued, giving the example of 34-year-old Rigoberto Arceo, who was killed by police on May 11.
According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, Arceo, who was a biomedical technician at St. Francis Medical Center, was shot and killed after getting out of his sister's van. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says Arceo "advanced on the deputy and attempted to take the deputy's gun." However, Arceo's sister and 53-year-old Armando Garcia -- who was barbecuing in his yard when the incident happened -- say that Arceo had his hands above his head the entire time.
Prysner is not alone in his assertion that race is a major factor in officer-related violence. This past May, a study from the the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an anti-racist activist organization, found that police officers, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes killed at least 313 Black people in 2012 -- meaning one Black person was killed in the US by law enforcement roughly every 28 hours.
Prysner said the relationship between police departments and community members needs to change and that when police shoot an unarmed person with their arms in the air over their head, the officer should be punished.
Culture of Misconduct
"You cannot have a police force that is investigating and punishing itself," Prysner said, adding that taxpayer money should be invested into the community instead of given to police to buy more guns, assault rifles and body armor.
Dissatisfied with police departments' internal review policies, some citizens have formed volunteer police watch groups to prevent the so-called "Blue Code of Silence" effect and encourage police officers to speak out against misconduct occurring within their department.
As Mint Press News previously reported, a report released earlier this year found that of the 439 cases of police misconduct that then had been brought before the Minneapolis's year-old misconduct review board, not one of the police officers involved has been disciplined.
Although the city of Minneapolis spent $14 million in payouts for alleged police misconduct between 2006 and 2012, despite the fact that the Minneapolis Police Department often concluded that the officers involved in those cases did nothing wrong.
Other departments have begun banning equipment such as Tasers, but those decisions were likely more about protecting the individual departments from lawsuits than ensuring that officers are not equipped with weapons that cause serious and sometimes fatal injuries when used.
To ensure officers are properly educated on how to use their weapons and are aware of police ethics, conflict resolution and varying cultures within a community, police departments have historically held training programs for all officers. But due to tighter budgets and a shift in priorities, many departments have not provided the proper continuing education training programs for their officers.
Charles Ramsey, president of both the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Executive Research Forum, called that a big mistake, explaining that it is essential officers are trained and prepared for high-stress situations:
"Not everybody is going to be able to make those kinds of good decisions under pressure, but I do think that the more reality-based training that we provide, the more we put people in stressful situations to make them respond and make them react."
GI Joe replaces Carl Winslow
In order to help local police officers protect themselves while fighting the largely unsuccessful War on Drugs, the federal government passed legislation in 1994 allowing the Pentagon to donate surplus military equipment from the Cold War to local police departments. Meaning that "weaponry designed for use on a foreign battlefield has been handed over for use on American streets Š against American citizens."
So while the US military fights the War on Terror abroad, local police departments are fighting another war at home with some of the same equipment as US troops, and protocol that largely favors officers in such tactics as no-knock raids.
Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in August:
"Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the US, at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier.
"Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment-from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers-American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.
The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the US scene: the warrior cop-armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties."
As Mint Press News previously reported, statistics from an FBI report released in September reveal that a person is arrested on marijuana-related charges in the US every 48 seconds, on average -- most were for simple possession charges.
According to the FBI's report, there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for the violent crimes of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- 658,231 compared with 521,196 arrests.
While groups that advocate against police brutality recognize and believe that law enforcement officials should be protected while on duty, many say that local police officers do not need to wear body armor, Kevlar helmets and tactical equipment vests -- all while carrying assault weapons.
"We want the police to keep up with the latest technology. That's critical," American Civil Liberties Union senior counsel Kara Danskysaid. "But policing should be about protection, not combat."
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there are more than 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States. In 2012, 120 officers were killed in the line of duty. The deadliest day in law enforcement history was reportedly Sept. 11, 2001, when 72 officers were killed.
Despite far fewer officers dying in the line of duty compared with American citizens, police departments are not only increasing their use of protective and highly volatile gear, but are increasingly setting aside a portion of their budget to invest in new technology such as drones, night vision goggles, remote robots, surveillance cameras, license plate readers and armored vehicles that amount to unarmed tanks.
Though some officers are on board with the increased militarization and attend conferences such as the annual Urban Shield event, others have expressed concern with the direction the profession is heading.
For example, former Arizona police officer Jon W. McBride said police concerns about being "outgunned" were likely a "self-fulfilling prophecy." He added that "if not expressly prohibited, police managers will continually push the arms race," because "their professional literature is predominately [sic] based on the acquiring and use of newer weapons and more aggressive techniques to physically overwhelm the public. In many cases, however, this is the opposite of smart policing."
"Coupled with the paramilitary design of the police bureaucracy itself, the police give in to what is already a serious problem in the ranks: the belief that the increasing use of power against a citizen is always justified no matter the violation. The police don't understand that in many instances they are the cause of the escalation and bear more responsibility during an adverse outcome.
"The suspects I encountered as a former police officer and federal agent in nearly all cases granted permission for me to search their property when asked, often despite unconcealed contraband.
"Now, instead of making a simple request of a violator, many in law enforcement seem to take a more difficult and confrontational path, fearing personal risk. In many circumstances they inflame the citizens they are engaging, thereby needlessly putting themselves in real and increased jeopardy."
Another former police officer who wished to remain anonymous agreed with McBride and told Balko,
"American policing really needs to return to a more traditional role of cops keeping the peace; getting out of police cars, talking to people, and not being prone to overreaction with the use of firearms, tasers, or pepper spray.... Don't get me wrong, I've been in more than my share tussles and certainly appreciate the dangers of police work, but as Joseph Wambaugh famously said, the real danger is psychological, not physical."
Rise of the Warrior Cop
Is it time to reconsider the militarization of American policing?
Radley Balko / Wall Street Journal
(August 7, 2013) -- On Jan. 4 of last year, a local narcotics strike force conducted a raid on the Ogden, Utah, home of Matthew David Stewart at 8:40 p.m. The 12 officers were acting on a tip from Mr. Stewart's former girlfriend, who said that he was growing marijuana in his basement.
Mr. Stewart awoke, naked, to the sound of a battering ram taking down his door. Thinking that he was being invaded by criminals, as he later claimed, he grabbed his 9-millimeter Beretta pistol.
The police say that they knocked and identified themselves, though Mr. Stewart and his neighbors said they heard no such announcement. Mr. Stewart fired 31 rounds, the police more than 250. Six of the officers were wounded, and Officer Jared Francom was killed. Mr. Stewart himself was shot twice before he was arrested. He was charged with several crimes, including the murder of Officer Francom.
The police found 16 small marijuana plants in Mr. Stewart's basement. There was no evidence that Mr. Stewart, a U.S. military veteran with no prior criminal record, was selling marijuana. Mr. Stewart's father said that his son suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and may have smoked the marijuana to self-medicate.
Early this year, the Ogden city council heard complaints from dozens of citizens about the way drug warrants are served in the city. As for Mr. Stewart, his trial was scheduled for next April, and prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. But after losing a hearing last May on the legality of the search warrant, Mr. Stewart hanged himself in his jail cell.
The police tactics at issue in the Stewart case are no anomaly. Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier.
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment -- from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers -- American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.
The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop -- armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Such police units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special forces in the military.
They learn to break into homes with battering rams and to use incendiary devices called flashbang grenades, which are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby. Their usual aim is to "clear" a building -- that is, to remove any threats and distractions (including pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.
The country's first official SWAT team started in the late 1960s in Los Angeles. By 1975, there were approximately 500 such units. Today, there are thousands. According to surveys conducted by the criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University, just 13% of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team in 1983. By 2005, the figure was up to 80%.
The number of raids conducted by SWAT-like police units has grown accordingly. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred a year; by the early 1980s, there were some 3,000 a year. In 2005 (the last year for which Dr. Kraska collected data), there were approximately 50,000 raids. Some federal agencies also now have their own SWAT teams, including NASA and the Department of the Interior.
Americans have long been wary of using the military for domestic policing. Concerns about potential abuse date back to the creation of the Constitution, when the founders worried about standing armies and the intimidation of the people at large by an overzealous executive, who might choose to follow the unhappy precedents set by Europe's emperors and monarchs.
The idea for the first SWAT team in Los Angeles arose during the domestic strife and civil unrest of the mid-1960s. Daryl Gates, then an inspector with the Los Angeles Police Department, had grown frustrated with his department's inability to respond effectively to incidents like the 1965 Watts riots. So his thoughts turned to the military.
He was drawn in particular to Marine Special Forces and began to envision an elite group of police officers who could respond in a similar manner to dangerous domestic disturbances.
Mr. Gates initially had difficulty getting his idea accepted. Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker thought the concept risked a breach in the divide between the military and law enforcement. But with the arrival of a new chief, Thomas Reddin, in 1966, Mr. Gates got the green light to start training a unit. By 1969, his SWAT team was ready for its maiden raid against a holdout cell of the Black Panthers.
At about the same time, President Richard Nixon was declaring war on drugs. Among the new, tough-minded law-enforcement measures included in this campaign was the no-knock raid -- a policy that allowed drug cops to break into homes without the traditional knock and announcement. After fierce debate, Congress passed a bill authorizing no-knock raids for federal narcotics agents in 1970.
Over the next several years, stories emerged of federal agents breaking down the doors of private homes (often without a warrant) and terrorizing innocent citizens and families. Congress repealed the no-knock law in 1974, but the policy would soon make a comeback (without congressional authorization).
During the Reagan administration, SWAT-team methods converged with the drug war. By the end of the 1980s, joint task forces brought together police officers and soldiers for drug interdiction.
National Guard helicopters and U-2 spy planes flew the California skies in search of marijuana plants. When suspects were identified, battle-clad troops from the National Guard, the DEA and other federal and local law enforcement agencies would swoop in to eradicate the plants and capture the people growing them.
Advocates of these tactics said that drug dealers were acquiring ever bigger weapons and the police needed to stay a step ahead in the arms race. There were indeed a few high-profile incidents in which police were outgunned, but no data exist suggesting that it was a widespread problem.
A study done in 1991 by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute found that less than one-eighth of 1% of homicides in the US were committed with a military-grade weapon. Subsequent studies by the Justice Department in 1995 and the National Institute for Justice in 2004 came to similar conclusions: The overwhelming majority of serious crimes are committed with handguns, and not particularly powerful ones.
The new century brought the war on terror and, with it, new rationales and new resources for militarizing police forces. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants since its creation in 2002, with much of the money going to purchase military gear such as armored personnel carriers.
In 2011 alone, a Pentagon program for bolstering the capabilities of local law enforcement gave away $500 million of equipment, an all-time high.
The past decade also has seen an alarming degree of mission creep for US SWAT teams. When the craze for poker kicked into high gear, a number of police departments responded by deploying SWAT teams to raid games in garages, basements and VFW halls where illegal gambling was suspected. According to news reports and conversations with poker organizations, there have been dozens of these raids, in cities such as Baltimore, Charleston, S.C., and Dallas.
In 2006, 38-year-old optometrist Sal Culosi was shot and killed by a Fairfax County, Va., SWAT officer. The investigation began when an undercover detective overheard Mr. Culosi wagering on college football games with some buddies at a bar.
The department sent a SWAT team after Mr. Culosi, who had no prior criminal record or any history of violence. As the SWAT team descended, one officer fired a single bullet that pierced Mr. Culosi's heart. The police say that the shot was an accident. Mr. Culosi's family suspects the officer saw Mr. Culosi reaching for his cellphone and thought he had a gun.
In 2010, the police department in New Haven, Conn., sent its SWAT team to raid a bar where police believed there was underage drinking. For sheer absurdity, it is hard to beat the 2006 story about the Tibetan monks who had overstayed their visas while visiting America on a peace mission. In Iowa, the hapless holy men were apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear.
Unfortunately, the activities of aggressive, heavily armed SWAT units often result in needless bloodshed: Innocent bystanders have lost their lives and so, too, have police officers who were thought to be assailants and were fired on, as (allegedly) in the case of Matthew David Stewart.
In my own research, I have collected over 50 examples in which innocent people were killed in raids to enforce warrants for crimes that are either nonviolent or consensual (that is, crimes such as drug use or gambling, in which all parties participate voluntarily).
These victims were bystanders, or the police later found no evidence of the crime for which the victim was being investigated. They include Katherine Johnston, a 92-year-old woman killed by an Atlanta narcotics team acting on a bad tip from an informant in 2006; Alberto Sepulveda, an 11-year-old accidentally shot by a California SWAT officer during a 2000 drug raid; and Eurie Stamps, killed in a 2011 raid on his home in Framingham, Mass., when an officer says his gun mistakenly discharged. Mr. Stamps wasn't a suspect in the investigation.
What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.
Consider today's police recruitment videos (widely available on YouTube), which often feature cops rappelling from helicopters, shooting big guns, kicking down doors and tackling suspects. Such campaigns embody an American policing culture that has become too isolated, confrontational and militaristic, and they tend to attract recruits for the wrong reasons.
If you browse online police discussion boards, or chat with younger cops today, you will often encounter some version of the phrase, "Whatever I need to do to get home safe." It is a sentiment that suggests that every interaction with a citizen may be the officer's last.
Nor does it help when political leaders lend support to this militaristic self-image, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did in 2011 by declaring, "I have my own army in the NYPD -- the seventh largest army in the world."
The motivation of the average American cop should not focus on just making it to the end of his shift. The LAPD may have given us the first SWAT team, but its motto is still exactly the right ideal for American police officers: To protect and serve.
SWAT teams have their place, of course, but they should be saved for those relatively rare situations when police-initiated violence is the only hope to prevent the loss of life. They certainly have no place as modern-day vice squads.
Many longtime and retired law-enforcement officers have told me of their worry that the trend toward militarization is too far gone. Those who think there is still a chance at reform tend to embrace the idea of community policing, an approach that depends more on civil society than on brute force.
In this very different view of policing, cops walk beats, interact with citizens and consider themselves part of the neighborhoods they patrol -- and therefore have a stake in those communities. It's all about a baton-twirling "Officer Friendly" rather than a Taser-toting RoboCop.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Consumer Products Safety Commission does not have a SWAT team. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that it does. Also, the U.S. Department of Education and the Fish and Wildlife Service have law-enforcement divisions, but the agencies say they don't receive tactical or military training and don't operate as SWAT teams.
An earlier version of this essay incorrectly said that the agencies have SWAT teams. In addition, the earlier version incorrectly described the execution of two search warrants. In the first case, the FWS says that its officers' weapons weren't drawn when it searched a Gibson Guitar factory in 2009.
The essay incorrectly called it an "assault-style raid." In the second case, the Department of Education says its search of the residence of alleged members of a student-loan fraud ring was successfully executed. The essay incorrectly described the search as "bungled" and incorrectly implied that the home was searched because a resident had failed to repay her student loan.
Finally, Mr. Balko says that he sought comment from the US government agencies mentioned in the essay while researching a book in 2012. The essay incorrectly implied that the agencies had failed to respond to recent requests for comment.
Mr. Balko is the author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop," published this month by PublicAffairs.
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