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Monday, August 25, 2014

The Militarization of American Law Enforcement

     About half of the nation's SWAT officers are trained by active-duty commandos from Navy Seal and Army Ranger units. Police officers with special operation backgrounds in the military train the rest. When fully outfitted in Kevlar helmets, goggles, "ninja" style hoods, combat boots, body armor, and black or camouflage fatigues, and carrying fully automatic rifles and machine guns, these police officers not only look like military troops geared up for battle, they feel that way.

     These elite paramilitary teams--composed of commanders, tactical team leaders, scouts, rearguards, snipers, flashbang grenade officers, and paramedics--are organized like combat units and are just as lethal. But unlike troops in battle, SWAT police don't encounter mortar fire, granade-propelled rockets, homemade bombs, land mines, and highly trained enemy soldiers.

     A vast majority of SWAT raids, conducted after midnight, are targeted against private homes inhabited by unarmed people who are either asleep or watching television. When a SWAT team encounters resistance, it's usually from a family dog who often gets shot. Given the hair-trigger intensity of these drug operations, unarmed civilians who move furtively or are slow to comply with orders get manhandled and sometimes fired at.

     In a landmark study of police paramilitary units published in February 1997, Eastern Kentucky University professors Peter B. Kraska and Victor Kappeler found that by 1990 every state police agency and half the country's sheriff's officers (about 1,500 agencies) had SWAT units. Thirty-eight percent of the nation's police departments were also SWAT team-ready. Five years later, in cities with populations more than 50,000--about 700 municipalities--90 percent of the police departments were deploying SWAT teams.

     At the dawn of the 21st century, according to Kraska and Kappeler, federal, state, and local police were making 50,000 SWAT raids a year. Twenty-five years earlier, there were 3,000 SWAT call-outs annually. According to the best estimates of experts in the field--counting federal, regional, state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies--there are now at least 3,500 paramilitary police units operating throughout the country.

     The 1,300 percent jump in SWAT team deployments in less than twenty years does not reflect a concomitant increase in armed hostage taking, sniper cases, or other high-risk incidents requiring heavily armed, combat-trained SWAT teams.

     Since the mid-1990s, the country's largest police agencies have used armored personnel carriers--APCs--to patrol high-crime districts, transport SWAT officers, and function as drug raid-site operations centers. In recent years, medium-and small-sized law enforcement agencies have been acquiring these military transporters. Although they come in various sizes and designs, APCs are full-tracked, armored, amphibious vehicles capable of traveling over rough terrain at relatively high speeds. Many are equipped with high-caliber, fully automatic turret weapons.

     In the summer of 2013, under a national military surplus give-away program, the Department of Defense gave Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected combat vehicles--MRAPs--to 165 police agencies. The 18-ton fighting vehicles built at the height of the Iraq war, cost the military $500,000 apiece.

     These military behemoths, too big for many bridges and roads, come equipped with bullet-proof glass and machine gun turrets. A MRAP can carry six officers and travel up to 65 miles per hour. Because these huge machines only get five miles per gallon, fuel costs are high. Moreover, each recipient of one of these combat vehicles will spend $70,000 to retrofit the MRAP for civilian use.

     And how will law enforcement agencies use these Army surplus MRAPs? At Ohio State University, campus police are using their MRAP to show force at home football games. (No kidding.) In Boise, Idaho, hardly a place of high crime and civil unrest, the police department uses its MRAP to serve arrest and search warrants.

     A reporter asked one law enforcement administrator if the police department had a use for the mounted machine gun. The chief of police assured the reporter that the department had no plans to remove the machine gun turret. "The whole idea," he said, "is to protect the occupants of the vehicle."
But from what? The officers are inside a bullet-proof vehicle that can withstand a land mine.

     These military surplus vehicles, designed for war, are intimidating and out of place in a civilian setting. The fact that so many police agencies possess them is one sign of how inappropriately militarized American law enforcement has become.
   



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