War Zone on Main Street: How the Defense Lobby Profits by Arming America's Cops
June 29, 2014
Sadhbh Walshe / The Guardian
We're winding down conflicts abroad, but America's militarized police forces have access to a veritable firearms sale funneling from Washington on down to the local station house. We're living in the age of the "warrior cop" and, as one victim of police violence observes: "The police are already pretty brutal. The last thing they need is [a] big piece of military equipment to make them think they're soldiers."
The Pentagon's Slush Fund Is Arming a War Zone on Main Street
Let's end the local-cop addiction to backyard battle
Sadhbh Walshe / The Guardian
NEW HAMPSHIRE (June 26, 2014) -- A few years ago, the police chief in Keene, New Hampshire (population: 23,000) announced plans to patrol the hamlet's "Pumpkin Festival and other dangerous situations" with a 19,000-pound armored vehicle called the BearCat (price tag: $285,933, courtesy of a federal Homeland Security grant).
The cops in nearby Nashua had already purchased one of the so-called "rescue vehicles" -- typically reserved for Swat missions and, you know, IEDs -- with hundreds of thousands in drug forfeiture money, but given that the town of Keene has had just three homicides in the last 11 years, some locals thought the gun ports, rotating hatch, battering ram and tear-gas deployment nozzle all might just be a little much.
"The police are already pretty brutal," said one resident. "The last thing they need is this big piece of military equipment to make them think they're soldiers."
What many other communities across America have learned since is that we're living in what the writer Radley Balko calls the age of the "warrior cop". And when warrior cops want a straight-outta-Baghdad toy, it's increasingly and unnecessarily simple for them to use a federally enabled slush-fund to wreak havoc -- particularly against minorities, and even at a pumpkin festival.
It's also pretty simple to start accounting for all the high-tech violence.
"Before another small town's police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage," Rep Hank Johnson of Georgia told me this week, "we need to press pause and revisit the merits of a militarized America."
But when a heavily armed Swat team enters through a suburban backyard with military might -- battering rams, explosive devices designed to temporarily blind suspects or other weapons designed for heavy combat zones -- it's hard to see how that merits issuing a warrants to a potential drug offender. It's a wonder there are any merits at all.
The ACLU released a devastating report this week examining more than 800 incidents of Swat team deployments conducted by 20 law enforcement agencies between 2010 and 2013. It's a small sample of the estimated 45,000 deployments that occur in the US each year (up from 1,400% from the '80s), but the report reveals a picture of law enforcement as flash-bang assault unit, with hardly an actual suspect in harm's way:
• pandemonium in a baby's crib;
• a grandfather of 12 killed by a discharged gun;
• Swat officers gunning down a mother as she died, child in her arms.
According to the ACLU study, 79% of the incidents surveyed involved a Swat team searching a person's home, and more than 62% of the cases involved searches for drugs. That's not what Swat teams were made for.
America is winding down wars abroad -- depending on what the hell happens in Iraq, of course -- but we are fueling an addiction to armed conflict here at home.
As Balko notes in his book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop, "America's cops have increasingly come to resemble ground troops." . . .
But the federal government has been enabling even more localized branches of law enforcement to get its hands on heavy-duty artillery for the last 20 years, when the Reagan administration formalized the Pentagon's so-called 1033 Program.
It sends "excess" military equipment to local police departments, and combined with the Homeland Security operation that provides grants to purchase such equipment, we've got a veritable firearms sale funnelling from Washington on down to the local station house. And when local law enforcement is making hundreds of thousands of dollars off seized drug money -- sometimes illegally -- you've got the makings of a War Zone on Main Street.
Rep Johnson has plans to introduce a bill that would reform the 1033 Program, which donated at least $500 billion per year in military gear to virtually every police department in the country.
"We not only lack serious oversight and accountability," Johnson wrote me in an email on Tuesday, "but we need some parameters put in place for what is appropriate." His legislation would put limitations on the transfer of certain kinds of military-grade equipment, and require the Pentagon to account for transfers of all such equipment in an annual report to Congress.
Because for every BearCat in a backyard, there might be an assault rifle gone missing. And Congress shouldn't be allowing any federal funds to purchase those through Homeland's gun fund either.
The ACLU also made several recommendations in its report -- state laws to restrain Swat teams, plus transparency and strict oversight -- that all make sense, as do training sessions for more of our trigger-happy "rescue" officers. But this was perhaps the most endemic part of that report:
Overall, 42% of people impacted by a Swat deployment to execute a search warrant were black and 12% were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54% were minorities.
Whether this is by accident or design, the racial reality of America's militarized law enforcement offers yet another compelling reason why the dangerous trend of warrior-style policing needs to be re-examined -- and then reversed.
When the first Swat team was deployed in the late '60s, its target was a single remaining cell of the Black Panthers. Nearly half a century later, all the nation's a theater, and we are merely the pumpkin eaters -- with half a million bucks worth of smashing, exploding, high-artillery gear for the taking.
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