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On the militarisation of the US police

For as long as I have been reading blogs, one regular blogger I followed has been Radley Balko. And Balko has developed a strong reputation for targeting threats to civil liberties in the US and the militarisation of the the US police forces. He has a strong article over at the Wall Street Journal, and here are a couple of paragraphs:

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 U.S. 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.

Here is another good article at the Atlantic Monthly on the same issue.

Back here in Britain, there are echoes of this. In the Huffington Post over a year ago this point was made, although Samizdata regulars might want to adopt a skeptical stance about HP material, but in this case the argument seems sound enough.


10 comments to On the militarisation of the US police

  • veryretired

    There was a movie made back in the middle 60’s with Richard Widmark as a veteran police detective in New York, called, I believe, “The Detective”. Henry Fonda was also in the cast.

    Anyway, it ends with a barricaded suspect, and looking back on it now, it seems totally unreal how the situation was dealt with at the time.

    The police model that was most influential in the last half of the 20th century was the para-military model of the LAPD, as reflected in shows like “1 Adam 12”. This superseded the east coast model that fell out of favor due to the endemic corruption that was associated with it.

    When the community policing theories first came into prominence in Boston, and then New York, there was a very real tension between the para-military and community advocates, but the repeated terrorist activities of both domestic and international groups helped the para-military side of the debate make its case for more specialized training and hardware, just as the falling crime rates helped the community policing advocates when they advanced their ideas.

    Oddly enough, it was the utterly futile but worrisome activities of such groups as the Symbionese Liberation Army, of Patty Hearst fame, and the Weathermen, who blew themselves up as much as anyone else, that launched the many SWAT and other specialty units, with hostage taking becoming a major focus.

    But, as with any tool of the state, there are plenty of people who are constantly looking for new missions and new justifications for expanding the role of the SWAT units, and often barging into areas in which their use is pointless as best, and actually harmful at worst.

    Some situations are beyond the capabilities of the street cop with his pistol and/or shotgun—that is unfortunately very true.

    Whether there are as many cases in which heavily armed personnel are truly needed as are now being deployed is one of the topics Balko targets, and rightly so.

    Personally, I’ve long felt the Wilson-Bratton emphasis on community involvement and street level problem solving was much more effective than the para-military model, and I believe the crime stats bear me out in that belief.

    Lt Howard Hunter may not agree.

  • the other rob

    I’m reminded of Terry Pratchett’s Policeman, Sam Vimes who, upon hearing a reference to “civilians” replied with something like “I’m a civilian, you oaf!”

    Pratchett was clearly aware of the Peelian Principles. It’s disappointing that some in the profession appear to have forgotten them.

  • Laird

    Balko’s article is very good, and he’s written on this topic before. The problem is that so much money and military equipment is being showered on local police forces by the federal government (notably Homeland Security). No police chief is going to turn down an armored personnel carrier or military-style weaponry, even though he has no legitimate need for them, especially when his neighboring police chiefs are getting them too.

    There is very little real need for SWAT teams, which should only be deployed in situations where serious violence is expected (hostage situations, raids on criminal gangs with a history of extreme violence, etc.). I argue that there should be at most one such team per state (perhaps two in large populous states like California and Texas). Yet every podunk municipality in America now has one. Like anything else, if you have one you want to find a way to use it. Thus we have the spectacle of fully-armed SWAT teams raiding social poker games and bars where there may be underage drinking. (And, of course, the wanton shooting of harmless household pets, which occurs with sickening regularity.) These are not violent situations, and using a SWAT team greatly increases the risk of violence occurring. (And why do they wear masks? That’s simply unjustifable and inexcusable. Anyone shooting a policeman who is wearing a mask should be immune from prosecution for it.)

    Clearly local police chiefs lack the ability to exercise the requisite discretion in deploying these forces. In my opinion the final decision to use a SWAT team should be left to elected officials: the mayor in a city of over 1 million population; the governor in all other cases.

    And the members of these teams should be subject to greater scrutiny and punishment for acting badly. There is rarely a need to smash open a door, employ flash grenades, shoot dogs, hold small children at gunpoint, or commit wanton destruction of property. All of these occur with regularity. The individuals who commit those acts should be subject to criminal penalty, and also should not be shielded from civil lawsuit. Unfortunately, neither is the case today; police departments invariably cover up their misdeeds and overreactions, which go unpunished, and their individual members are statutorily immune from civil suit.

    And when a homeowner, awakening to armed thugs smashing in his door in the middle of the night, mistakes them for armed intruders rather than the police* and tries to defend himself, he and everyone else in the house will be riddled with bullets. The police will then claim that they “knocked and announced themselves”, so the homeowner was at fault, but that is almost invariably a lie. The police lie with regularity and almost never get called out on it (which is why they hate being videotaped, as it proves their lies).

    The end result of the militarization of police forces is the creation of an “us versus them” mentailty and the attraction of the wrong sorts of persons (bullies, essentially) to police forces. We need to return to the model of policemen being members of the community, not its overlords. Instead, we have this.

    * There really is no longer any real difference between the two.

  • Veryretired wrote:

    There was a movie made back in the middle 60′s with Richard Widmark as a veteran police detective in New York, called, I believe, “The Detective”. Henry Fonda was also in the cast.

    The movie you’re thinking of is actually Madigan, if anybody wants to watch it.

    There is a different movie from the late 1960s called The Detective, which has Frank Sinatra as a NYPD detective who discovers corruption going on when he arrests the wrong man and the real guilty party commits suicide. Sinatra also gets to deliver the line, “Penis cut off”. The Detective is well worth watching, too.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I agree with Laird: one SWAT team per state, housed at a central location, with dedicated air transport to get them to where they need to be. I can’t think of a day in the last twenty years when more than one team has been needed in a given state.

  • veryretired

    Yes, Ted, that’s the one. Thank you for finding it.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    There would be advantages to a militarised police force- helicopters don’t have the missiles to persuade fleeing crims to stop in the name of the law! Imagine how much respect a Harrier jump-jet would inspire! And who would even think of ramming a police tank?
    And a nuke sub would be ideal for catching over-quota fishermen!

  • renminbi

    Should they be called pigs?

  • jerry

    I second, third, fourth and fifth EVERYTHING Laird said !

    One other item is the expense of SWAT teams.
    Not the equipment – that paid for by ‘federal dollars’ – ANOTHER synonym for TAXPAYERS
    but the maintenance – training, equipment maintenance, practice and FOR WHAT ?? especially in a town of 15000 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Small towns ( and large ones I duppose ) are stating to learn that they cannot AFFORD TWO police forces –
    the one actually working
    the one whose members put in their 20 years,
    retired at 42
    and will now receive FULL PAY or close to it for the next 30 – 40 years
    ( while they ‘work’ a second career, in many cases also paid for by TAXPAYERS !!!! )

    Sorry, I get worked up about this because of the abuse and I have not EVER gotten my ‘money’s worth’ from ANY level of government !!