Balko on SWAT Teams. How the term "Police Militarization" slanders the military.

I'm back from Radley Balko's tour-de-force presentation about brutal SWAT Team raids (yes, they are inherently brutal), and the systematized militarization of police in America.

This was a large crowd of twenty-somethingish law students, and Balko began with this horrific video showing the police shooting a dog whose only crime was being owned by a man accused possessing a few grams of pot (something Balko pointed out was merely an infraction which drew a $200.00 fine).

The title is "Columbia Mo SWAT Raid 2/11/2010. Cops Shoot Pets With Children Present."

BTW, the poor dog whose agonized screams you can hear going on for some time as the despicable black-clad humanoids take their sweet time to finish it off happened to be a "pit bull" like Coco who never bit anyone, and the other was an equally dangerous Welsh corgi. Not that a little detail like the breeds of dogs shot for being in a house with a weed pipe should matter in itself, but I think it illustrates the total lack of any basic compassion or human empathy which results from men being trained and encouraged to act like mindless robots. The local police chief's primary response to the negative publicity was to say "I hate the Internet." It would appear that the feeling is mutual, although what happened in Columbia, Missouri goes on all over the country on a daily basis.

I only wish I could do something besides write blog posts, but I sometimes wonder whether the police who do these things are truly aware of the emotional effect the reports and videos have on ordinary people, and how deeply they end up being feared, held in contempt, and even hated.

Is that what they want? Are they so devoid of humanity that they no longer care?

As students gasped in horror (some of the girls looked away), I thought back to when I was in law school in the late 70s and early 80s, when this sort of thing was hardly known to happen.

As Balko pointed out (both in his lecture and here), the number of SWAT Team deployments has grown from a few hundred per year for extremely violent situations to the present 50,000 per year, mostly for non-violent situations:

Back in the 1970s, only big cities had SWAT teams, and they were used only in emergency situations such as bank robberies, barricades and hostage takings. But beginning in the early 1980s, that began to change. The federal government started taking the term "drug war" all too literally. Over the next 30 years, with federal funding and surplus equipment provided by the Pentagon, paramilitary police units, including SWAT teams and anti-narcotics task forces, started springing up all over the country. Criminologist Peter Kraska, who surveyed the use of those police teams from the 1980s until the 2000s, estimates that the total number of SWAT deployments across the country increased from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to a few thousand per year by the early 1980s to around 50,000 per year by the mid-2000s.

That this has become so numbingly routine ought to shock all of us. In fact, for those who care about whether the United States is still a free country, it ought to rank as one of the most important issues we face.

Balko cited a quote commonly attributed to Churchill

"Democracy means that when there's a knock in the door at 3 am, it's probably the milkman."

Of course, Churchill would have been thinking of the KGB, not SWAT Teams. The latter often don't knock at all; they simply break the door down under so-called "no knock" authority, and fire flash bang grenades. (As in the case of the Detroit raid in which a little girl was shot to death in Detroit.) 

And remember, these tactics have been implemented under the rubric of "search."

I know I sound like a broken record, but can anyone imagine what the founders of this country would say?

As Balko showed graphs and charts documenting the numbers of raids, the numbers innocent people who have been killed, (like 92 year old Kathryn Johnston), as he discussed the routine lying by police, and the lack of any right to self defense during a raid or real recourse later, I just found myself ashamed to be living in a country with so little respect for its own Constitution or human rights. 

And I kept wondering what it must be like to be a law student today and learn about what is going on.

No wonder so many young people are on the left. They don't know any better, and the right is seen as more "law and order" than the left. Which means more pro-SWAT team. Well, it's worth noting that the shooting of that family's pet Corgi in the above video did cause at least a lively debate among law and order Freepers.

But seriously, there is no denying that SWAT Teams and the militarized approach to law enforcement began in earnest under Ronald Reagan and were supported by him. And when a guy like Newt Gingrich who who wants Singapore-style executions of drug offenders is an actual contender for president, what else are young people to conclude?

I've said this before and I will say it again. If conservatism means supporting the drug war, I will never be a conservative.

I met Radley afterwards and spoke briefly to him about the ironic fact that shooting dogs draws more public anger than shooting people. Balko has coined the term "puppycide" and I'm glad he has. For even if you think drug suspects should be brutally raided in the middle of the night and shot, what crimes have these dogs committed? Perhaps the best hope of mobilizing society to do something about it will come from the animal rights movement (a pretty cynical thing to say, but hey, anything that works). As things stand now, there isn't much of a movement to do anything about the situation, and the police even produce television shows with celebrities glorifying police state tactics.

In another irony, Balko also pointed out that he has a friend in the military who is not happy with his characterization of what's happening as "militarization" of the police -- for the simple reason that American military personnel never conducts raids on people's homes that way. They are much more respectful lest innocent people be killed with American troops getting the blame. So, suspected enemies in war are treated more with care by our military than domestic pot smokers are by our police. 

The reason this goes on is that politicians love it and Congress funds it. With bipartisan support.

...the willingness of politicians to define drug prohibition policies in terms of war has had real consequences  namely, cops who approach drug law enforcement as if American streets were battlefields. Ronald Reagan once compared the drug war to the World War I battle of Verdun. Drug warriors have described the narco-carnage in Mexico as a positive sign. One Georgia sheriff recently likened his own anti-drug efforts to the invasion of Normandy.

The second factor driving the increasing use of SWAT teams is a federal policy that allows local police departments to procure surplus equipment from the Pentagon for free or at a fraction of its cost. Millions of pieces of equipment designed for war are now deployed to crack down on neighborhood poker games, illicit massage parlors, even businesses operating on outdated permits. Doctors accused of overprescribing pain medication have faced SWAT teams, as have Buddhist monks who overstayed their visas.

Other factors contribute to the promiscuous use of SWAT teams, including federal anti-drug grants and asset-forfeiture policies that specifically reward drug arrests and seizures to the exclusion of other crimes  all passed, funded and expanded with bipartisan support.

And of course, ever since the post-911 Homeland Security legislation, SWAT Teams act in the name of fighting terrorism.

It's sad to think that our best hope for some sort of policy change is that enough people will be upset by seeing dogs getting shot that they'll demand something be done.

The war on drugs has not made this country a better place. It's a "cure" that is far worse than the disease, except it isn't a cure, but a cancer.

In the form of SWAT Teams, a very malignant, rapidly spreading cancer.

MORE: Speaking of why young people are on the left, Glenn Reynolds had this observation in a WSJ editorial today about lowering the drinking age:

Republicans are supposed to stand for limited government, freedom and federalism, but it was under a Republican administration--and a Republican transportation secretary, Elizabeth Dole--that states were forced to raise their age limits or face financial penalties. That was before the tea party, though. Perhaps today, when Republican leaders across the board are singing the praises of limited government, it is time for them to put their money where their mouths are and support an end to the federal drinking-age mandate.

And if arguments based on fairness and principle aren't enough, perhaps one based on politics will do the trick: This will get votes.

Democrats traditionally do well with the youth vote, and one reason is that they have been successful in portraying Republicans as fuddy-duddies who want to hold young people down.

It isn't fair, because the Dems are fuddy-duddies too.

But only the Republicans are in a position to do something about it.

posted by Eric on 04.13.11 at 04:17 PM


Perhaps if the SWAT teams like killing animals we can get then to go after feral hogs.

M. Simon   ·  April 13, 2011 6:51 PM

Erm - not a chance. Feral hogs are dangerous.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  April 13, 2011 7:55 PM

Wouldn't that be fratricide?

Al   ·  April 13, 2011 10:01 PM

I am a 76 year old citizen who has never taken an "illegal" drug, nor have I smoked marijuana.I worked two years for the Thornton , Co police department in my final years of college. My CONTEMPT for the police grows with each passing year. The police are men who love having power over people. Protect and serve? Not a chance. Intimidate, harass and tax (through the passing of traffic tickets)? You bet. Bravo to that citizen for refusing to give his name to those thugs. It was a small thing, but resist in any way you can. I'll bet they didn't even apologize to him for killing his dogs. A $200 fine after all that? WTF?

Donald Kotowski   ·  April 14, 2011 12:37 AM

A modest proposal for SWAT team members: When a police employee is reported to be a member of a SWAT team, the community should shun him. No social or economic intercourse whatever. Shunning works for the Amish. Why not make social and economic outcasts of SWAT team members?

This tactic would open another front on the drug war. I am confident that few SWAT members are without sin in the use of "illegal" drugs. It would help focus the public mind on the evil of the drug war.

The motto of our political elite should be: Use pot, get caught, go to jail. Use pot, don't get caught, become President of the United States!

Donald Kotowski   ·  April 14, 2011 11:39 AM

You forgot to mention that the little girl in the Detroit case was set on fire first when they threw the flashbang on her while she was sleeping.

Ryland   ·  April 14, 2011 4:29 PM

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