One of the problems people have cited about the situation in Ferguson is the militarized police. Why are they decked out in military gear when they’re police officers? Why are they using tear gas? What about those armored vehicles? Why are they using a sound cannon? Police officers shouldn’t be using weapons and paraphernalia of war. The police are not at war with the citizens of the United States. We should not be treated like we are ‘the enemy’. Our streets should not be treated like a warzone. Unfortunately more and more, law enforcement in the United States is treating the streets like a warzone and citizens as enemy combatants, especially when it comes to the War on Drugs:
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.
You can read the rest here.
It’s scary to think that getting stoned can get you threatened, shot at, and even killed. Something as harmless as smoking weed has become something the government has deemed such an extreme problem that military tactics must be deployed to solve the problem.
But are they solving problems or making things worse? And how did we get to the point where the police treat the citizenry like criminals at best and enemy combatants at worst?
The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the body politic. It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to that decade's turbulent mix of riots, disturbances, and senseless violence like Charles Whitman's infamous clock-tower rampage in Austin, Texas.
While SWAT isn't the only indicator that the militarization of American policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide. Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or large-scale disturbances.
Nearly a half-century later, that's no longer true.
In 1984, according to Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80% and it's still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.
As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.
Upping the Racial Profiling Ante
In a recently released report, "War Comes Home," the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 80% of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to execute a search warrant.
Pause here a moment and consider that these violent home invasions are routinely used against people who are only suspected of a crime. Up-armored paramilitary teams now regularly bash down doors in search of evidence of a possible crime. In other words, police departments increasingly choose a tactic that often results in injury and property damage as its first option, not the one of last resort. In more than 60% of the raids the ACLU investigated, SWAT members rammed down doors in search of possible drugs, not to save a hostage, respond to a barricade situation, or neutralize an active shooter.
On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person or people whose home was being broken into, 68% of the SWAT raids against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38%, despite the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at roughly the same rates. SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.
Think of this as racial profiling on steroids in which the humiliation of stop and frisk is raised to a terrifying new level.
Don't think, however, that the military mentality and equipment associated with SWAT operations are confined to those elite units. Increasingly, they're permeating all forms of policing.
As Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Department's Community Policing Services office, observes, police across America are being trained in a way that emphasizes force and aggression. He notes that recruit training favors a stress-based regimen that's modeled on military boot camp rather than on the more relaxed academic setting a minority of police departments still employ. The result, he suggests, is young officers who believe policing is about kicking ass rather than working with the community to make neighborhoods safer. Or as comedian Bill Maher reminded officers recently: "The words on your car, ‘protect and serve,' refer to us, not you."
This authoritarian streak runs counter to the core philosophy that supposedly dominates twenty-first-century American thinking:community policing. Its emphasis is on a mission of "keeping the peace" by creating and maintaining partnerships of trust with and in the communities served. Under the community model, which happens to be the official policing philosophy of the US government, officers are protectors but also problem solvers who are supposed to care, first and foremost, about how their communities see them. They don't command respect, the theory goes: they earn it. Fear isn't supposed to be their currency. Trust is.
Nevertheless, police recruiting videos, as in those from California's Newport Beach Police Department and New Mexico's Hobbs Police Department, actively play up not the community angle but militarization as a way of attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and high-tech toys. Policing, according to recruiting videos like these, isn't about calmly solving problems; it's about you and your boys breaking down doors in the middle of the night.
SWAT's influence reaches well beyond that. Take the increasing adoption of battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) for patrol officers. These militaristic, often black, jumpsuits, Bickel fears, make them less approachable and possibly also more aggressive in their interactions with the citizens they're supposed to protect.
A small project at Johns Hopkins University seemed to bear this out. People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes, "The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors."
Read the rest here.
Surely if law enforcement agencies in the US are engaged in such extreme tactics, they have produced positive results, no? Not so much. The ‘War on Drugs’ has been an abysmal failure:
The global "war on drugs" has been a catastrophic failure and world leaders must rethink their approach, a group including five Nobel prize-winning economists, Britain's deputy prime minister and a former US secretary of state has said.
An academic report published on Tuesday by the London School of Economics (LSE), called Ending the Drug Wars, pointed to violence in Afghanistan, Latin America and other regions as evidence of the need for a new approach.
"It is time to end the 'war on drugs' and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies undered by rigorous economic analysis," the authors said in a foreword to the report.
"The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global 'war on drugs' strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage."
Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its "repressive, one-size-fits-all approach" to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.
The UN is due to hold a drug policy summit in 2016. Debate on the merits of drugs liberalisation is already growing, Reuters news agency reported.
The report said "rigorously monitored" experiments with legalisation and a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade, were key ways of tackling the problem instead.
It was signed by George Shultz, the US secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Nobel Economics prize winners Kenneth Arrow (1972), Christopher Pissarides (2010), Thomas Schelling (2005) Vernon Smith (2002) and Oliver Williamson (2009) also signed the reports.
I guess the US government hasn’t gotten that memorandum yet. They’re still busy fighting a losing war.
But what about police departments in the US? Since they’re tasked with fighting this ‘War on Drugs’, surely they’re all taking advantage of all this wonderful military grade weaponry and supplies, no? Not all of them:
Between May 2010 and March 2014, the Seattle Police Department received a laundry list of equipment from the Defense Department through its controversial 1033 grant program, gear that Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, the agency's spokesman, accurately labeled "very boring."
The department has posted the list, complete with pictures, on its SPD Blotter website. It includes floatation vests and binoculars, signage and gloves, pistol holders, a radiation detector and rifle sights "used by the approximately 130 officers who have passed the department's rifle-certification program."
"We have equipment that we feel is necessary for a city of our size," Whitcomb told The Times. "The equipment we have serves a police purpose. Our No. 1 priorities are protecting people's lives and looking after their well-being. Our second most important is looking after possessions and property.
The department’s SWAT team does use a BearCat - an armored truck for situations where there may be gunfire, Whitcomb said, but such a vehicle is standard operating procedure for modern police departments.
"It's used to get our personnel in and out safely, so we can rescue people and evacuate if necessary," Whitcomb said. "You cannot do that in a sedan. Though we have put some armored plating on the doors in our cars. We also have purchased ballistic shields. It all goes back to the problem of gun violence in our country. ... But ultimately we are a police service. We are not the military."
On using BearCats, he said: "If you’ve got a potential for gun violence at a school, university, business complex, mall and you don't have one of these, you’re not providing adequate police services. ... In a post-Columbine era, you are not doing your job if you don't have one."
Seattle police vehicles no longer automatically carry shotguns. Instead, shotguns and rifles are assigned to officers trained in their use.
"Being more strategic with our equipment," Whitcomb said, is "an absolute good thing."
The department's tactics have evolved through the years, from the 1999 protests surrounding the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, in which police response was vilified internationally as heavy-handed and what then-Chief Norm Stamper has described as "the worst mistake of my career."
The Seattle Police Department is currently operating under a federal consent decree designed to ensure constitutional policing in Seattle. The Justice Department began investigating the department in 2011, and reached a settlement with the city in 2012, which led to the federal oversight.
Whitcomb declined to comment on the situation in Ferguson, but he did talk about one measure his police department employs that was sorely lacking during most of the week in the small, troubled Missouri town – transparency.
“We promise to be open and transparent and share information with the public as these things unfold,” Whitcomb said. “So not only are we going to provide the public safety services and respond to these critical incidents, we will explain to you what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
--Maria L. La Ganga
The police department in Nashville has been closely following developments in Ferguson, said Don Aaron, the department’s public affairs manager.
What stands out, he said, is the "lack of communication to the community and, conversely, to the rest of the country" by police officials in Ferguson.
Unlike police involved in the Ferguson unrest, the Nashville force has never used its SWAT team for crowd control, Aaron said. The department generally uses its horse-mounted police officers for that purpose.
Nor has the department deployed either of its two armored vehicles - it calls them rescue vehicles - for crowd control, Aaron said. The vehicles are used to rescue civilians or police officers threatened by gunfire.
"You never say never, but we have not used an armored vehicle in a crowd-control situation," he said. "It’s just not the type of situation where you would use that type of vehicle."
Aaron said the department did not rely on military weapons or equipment, with only a relative handful of items provided by the military.
One armored vehicle was provided by the Air Force years ago. A more modern vehicle, a civilian-made model called a BearCat, was provided about 10 years ago through a Department of Homeland Security grant, Aaron said.
The department’s SWAT team, which is issued semiautomatic rifles, is deployed primarily in dangerous situations such as hostage rescue, barricaded suspects or an active shooter, Aaron said. A Special Response Team within the SWAT unit carries semiautomatic rifles to serve outstanding felony arrest warrants, often against people wanted for violent crimes.
The department received eight military OH-58 observation helicopters around 1997, Aaron said. Four were repainted and used for police work, and four have been used for spare parts. The force also has 10 boats it received from the military that Aaron said were crucial in helping rescue people stranded during devastating floods in Nashville in 2010.
In January 2013, the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department began allowing officers who undergo training and pass certification tests to carry privately-owned semiautomatic rifles as backup weapons while on patrol. The weapons are not to be used for routine patrol work, Aaron said.
"Deadly events across the United States over the past few years ... demonstrate the high-powered weapons with which criminals are arming themselves,’’ a department news release said at the time. "It has become increasingly clear that a pistol and a shotgun may not be enough for an officer to stop a threat to innocent civilians."
The rifles are not intended for crowd control. "Officers are to retrieve their rifles only when it is clear that a tactical advantage over a criminal suspect is warranted," the release said.
New York City
Alex S. Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and a senior policy advisor to the Police Reform Organizing Project, looked at police response to Occupy protests, and said that it was frequently small and mid-sized departments that often deployed military equipment.
“Boston, New York, Los Angeles, most of the big cities, did not have the militarized response” to Occupy protesters, he said. “It was the medium and small cities that were in some ways worst offenders.”
Denver, for instance, deployed military equipment it received during the 2008 Democratic National Convention to break up Occupy protests; Tampa, Fla., police used a tank to break up similar protests.
Because much of the equipment comes from Homeland Security grants, he said, the equipment is spread over nearly every congressional district, city and state.
“You’ve got towns with 100,000 people that have as much hardware as New York City,” he said.
For the police departments, it makes sense to get the equipment - after all, it’s free, and is good for officer morale. But it serves “almost no considerable law enforcement purpose,” he said.
But surprisingly, big cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia seem to be much less likely to use the military gear, he said. Vitale has written a book about the New York Police Department, “City of Unrest,” but says the NYPD generally uses the equipment only when there’s a legitimate need for it. When the U.N. General Assembly is in session, for instance, a few armored jeeps will be deployed by the U.N. Counter-terrorism officers have assault weapons, but don’t usually parade them around the streets.
Sometimes, though, the department can't seem to help itself: During a recent demonstration near the Israeli Consulate, the NYPD stationed two officers to keep the peace with AR-15s.
So larger cities in the United States do not necessarily feel the need to acquire military grade weaponry and some of them even feel it is the duty of the police to protect the citizenry. Moreover, some of them even feel that communicating with the people in a community is hugely important in doing their job.
Well then, Ferguson, what the fuck is your problem?