ver the past forty years, American policing has undergone a gradual but important and troubling evolution. Policing in some ways has become more professionalized, organized and regimented, but it has also become more aggressive, militaristic and belligerent. Put another way, there may be fewer cops going rogue today, but the kind of force now permitted and regularly practiced has changed to the point that it resembles rogue behavior en masse. The key case in point is the astonishing increase in the number and use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. In America SWAT teams now violently smash into private homes more than a hundred times each day. The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against non-violent and consensual crimes, mostly having to do with illicit drug use.
In many cities, police departments have given up their traditional blues for “battle dress uniforms” modeled after soldier attire. They now sport armored personnel carriers designed for battlefield use, and some have helicopters, tanks and Humvees. They carry military-grade weapons. Most of this equipment comes from the U.S. military itself. Many SWAT teams are trained by current and former personnel from special forces units like the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers. National Guard helicopters now routinely swoop through rural areas in search of pot plants and, when they find something, send gun-toting troops dressed for battle rappelling down to chop down and confiscate the contraband.
But it isn’t just about drugs. Aggressive, SWAT-style tactics are now used to raid neighborhood poker games, doctors’ offices, bars and restaurants as well as head shops—despite the fact that the targets of these raids pose little threat to anyone. The sort of force epitomized by a contemporary police SWAT team was once the last resort for resolving dangerous situations.It’s increasingly used as the first option to apprehend people who aren’t dangerous at all.
In August, for example, a SWAT team in St. Louis County, Missouri was called out to serve an administrative warrant for a white-collar crime. When disturbed neighbors called the media, the local Fox affiliate reported, “St. Louis County police say the use of the SWAT team is standard procedure in serving a felony warrant, no matter what it’s for.” That also appears to have been the case in South Arlington, Texas, where in July a SWAT team served a warrant on an organic farm. Though the raid was ostensibly in response to reports of some pot plants, the real purpose of the police action was to enforce zoning and nuisance laws. The owners had been battling the city over complaints about the length of some grass, some standing water and other alleged eyesores on the property.
There are more examples, just from this summer. Also in July, a SWAT-like team from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources raided a Kenosha animal shelter housing “Giggles”, a baby deer a local family had found abandoned and turned over. Citing a state law prohibiting the adoption of wild animals, the police team executed the deer. And in tiny Chicken, Alaska, locals complained about a heavy-handed water quality raid by an armed, armor-clad EPA-headed environmental crimes task force that included officials from several state and Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense.
The Fourth Amendment has been in the news a lot lately, mainly in the context of leaks concerning the activities of the National Security Agency. But we don’t need to parse NSA methods to see a clear and present danger to our Fourth Amendment rights. The systematic use of SWAT teams to enforce unnecessary “no knock” warrants in cases where there is no danger of violence perpetrated against any citizen certainly qualifies as “unreasonable searches and seizures.” How did we end up like this?
he SWAT team began in Los Angeles in the 1960s, the brainchild of then-Inspector Daryl Gates, who was looking for a way to respond to a rash of civil unrest and violence, including the Watts riots and an active shooter incident that claimed the life of one of his officers. The first SWAT raid in America came in 1969, against a Black Panther holdout. Another high-profile raid came in 1973, on a building occupied by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. That raid was televised nationally, and the coverage thrust the SWAT idea into the pop culture. By 1975, there were about 500 SWAT teams in the country, up from just one five years earlier.
Throughout the 1970s, the SWAT phenomenon grew, a trend that moved parallel to Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs.” By 1972, undercover Federal narcs were barreling into homes across the country. They did so with the “no-knock raid”, a tactic proposed by a 28-year-old Senate staffer in 1968 that Nixon aides used as a campaign wedge issue to exploit middle-class fears of crime. But the SWAT teams were by and large still reserved for the sorts of emergency situations for which they were originally intended. In those incidents—think hostage takings, active shooters, bank robberies and the like—these elite teams of cops were using violence to defuse an already violent situation.
It was during the Reagan Administration that these two trends—the “war on drugs” and the rise of SWAT teams—converged. Thanks to a slew of policies aimed at literalizing the drug war metaphor, in the 1980s we began to see SWAT teams used—and eventually primarily used—to serve search warrants on people suspected of drug crimes.
Among these policies, Reagan Administration officials made Federal grants available to police departments across the country solely for anti-drug policing. They created special “joint task forces” to encourage cooperation between the military and domestic police agencies for drug interdiction efforts. And they encouraged the Pentagon to share surplus military equipment with police departments across the country. Reagan Administration officials and a compliant Congress also expanded the doctrine of civil asset forfeiture, making it easier for police agencies to seize property if officers could make even the slightest connection to drug activity, with the proceeds going to the department. The property’s owner never needed to be charged with a crime.
In 1997, Congress formalized the Reagan-era policy of instructing the Pentagon to hand surplus weapons over to local cops. A portion of the National Defense Authorization Security Act of 1997 created what is now known as the 1033 Program. The new language created the Law Enforcement Support Program, an agency headquartered in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, whose sole task is to make it easier for Pentagon supplies to find their way to local police stations. This stuff had already been flowing to domestic police agencies; the new bill just made the process easier. In just its first three years, the office handled 3.4 million orders for Pentagon gear from 11,000 police agencies in all fifty states. By 2005, more than 17,000 police agencies were serviced by the office. National Journal reported in 2000 that between 1997 and 1999, the office doled out $727 million worth of equipment, including 253 aircraft, 7,856 M-16 rifles and 181 grenade launchers. In the October 2011 edition of the program’s monthly newsletter (motto: “From Warfighter to Crimefighter”), the office celebrated the fact that it had given away a record $500 million in military gear in fiscal year 2011.
All over America, then, police chiefs and sheriffs have been given the equipment to start their own SWAT teams, often only for the cost of shipping. They could then keep those SWAT teams in reserve, waiting for one of those emergency situations that wasn’t likely to happen in most places, or they could start sending the team out on drug raids, which would create revenue for the police department. Guess what happened.
With just a few exceptions all of these policies have been continued and most expanded by subsequent administrations. In the late 1990s, and then again in a 2005 follow-up, Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska surveyed police departments across America. He asked them when they started their SWAT team, and then asked them to go back to the early 1980s to report how often the SWAT team was deployed each year, and for what purpose. The numbers are mind-blowing.
In the early 1970s, there were just a few hundred SWAT operations per year in America. By the early 1980s, there were about 3,000. By the year 2000, there were 45,000. And by 2005, it was 50,000. Kraska’s last survey was in 2005, but he estimates that the number could be as high as 80,000 today. The vast majority of these raids, Kraska found, are to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes. SWAT teams once used violence to defuse already violent situations and to save lives at immediate risk. Today they are primarily used in a way that creates violence and confrontation where neither needs to exist. They were once used to confront a suspect or suspects in the process of committing a violent crime. Today, they’re used as an investigative tool to search the homes of people only suspected of crimes, and not particularly serious or violent crimes at that.
Currently, Maryland is the only state with a law requiring police agencies with a SWAT team to issue regular reports on how and why they’re used. That law was passed in 2008, after a violent, mistaken raid on the home of Cheye Calvo, who happened to be mayor of the town of Berwyn Heights. The results of those reports confirm what Kraska has been warning about: In the second half of 2009, for example, SWAT teams were deployed 804 times in the state of Maryland, or about 4.5 times a day. In Prince George’s County alone, which has about 850,000 residents, a SWAT team was deployed about once a day. According to an analysis by the Baltimore Sun, 94 percent of the state’s SWAT deployments were to serve search or arrest warrants, leaving just 6 percent that were raids involving barricades, bank robberies, hostage takings and other genuine emergency situations. Half of Prince George’s County’s SWAT deployments were for what were called “misdemeanors and nonserious felonies.” In other words, more than one hundred times over a six-month period, Prince George’s County sent police barreling into private homes, smashing down doors, shattering windows and destroying property once inside the home, for nonserious, nonviolent offenses.
Here are more staggering figures: In 1983, the average SWAT team in America was deployed 13 times per year; in 1995, it was deployed 55 times. Three out of every four of those raids were to serve a drug warrant. In the early 1980s, about 25 percent of towns with 25,000–50,000 people had a SWAT team; by 2005, it was 80 percent. In 1987, the Minneapolis, Minnesota police department conducted 36 SWAT raids; in 1996, it conducted more than 700. In New York City, police conducted 1,447 drug raids in 1994; in 1997, the city saw 2,977, a 100 percent increase in three years. By 2002 there were more than 5,000.
Due to the dirty information often necessarily utilized in drug policing, it isn’t uncommon for these raids to hit the wrong homes. New York City police chief Ray Kelly estimated in 2003 that 10 percent of the raids in his city hit on the wrong residence. This has created a predictable trail of collateral damage, including innocents gunned down in wrong-door raids, bystanders and children cut down in crossfire, and cops and nonviolent offenders killed due to the volatile, no-margin-for-error stakes created when cops violently break into private residences at night or just after dawn.
ut even if police were to get the right house every time, the more important question here is whether violently breaking into private homes to serve search warrants for nonviolent, consensual crimes (at least) 100 to 150 times per day is the sort of thing with which we should be comfortable in a free society. Two other notable milestones in the story of police militarization in America further illustrate the point; both implicate Federal government policies.
The first came in 1996 when California legalized medical marijuana, and several states did the same in the years that followed. Until then, the rationale for using SWAT-like violence on suspected drug offenders was that drug dealers were well-armed, particularly dangerous people. The use of force was necessary, supposedly, to meet the sorts of threats police officers were facing. There are counters to those arguments, but at least governments and police officials were making them. Increasingly, they don’t even bother.
When the DEA began raiding marijuana suppliers in California in 1997, and then also in the states that subsequently legalized the drug, they generally raided suspects who were either well-known supporters of pot legalization or people believed to possess large supplies of the drug. The latter were people running businesses, operating openly under state law. Many had obtained business licenses and permits, as well as permission from local law enforcement. These were clearly not dangerous people. The use of tactical teams and frightening raids to shut down medical marijuana suppliers in California was about sending an unambiguous message to other pot suppliers around the state: Openly defy the Federal government and expect the blunt force of Federal power to be brought down upon you. The Federal government was now using SWAT violence to make a political statement. And the raids have continued. The Obama Administration, in fact, raided more medical marijuana dispensaries in its first four years than the Bush Administration raided in eight.
The other major and even more troubling shift is that SWAT teams, like most government entities, have collectively demonstrated a pattern of mission creep. As noted above, SWAT tactics today are used well beyond the drug war. SWAT teams have been used to break up poker games, including neighborhood games with low buy-ins openly advertised at bars and clubs, and even charity games hosted by a VFW post in Dallas. In 2006, a 37-year-old optometrist named Sal Culosi was shot and killed by a SWAT team in Fairfax County, Virginia, after wagering on sports games with an undercover detective he thought was a friend. Culosi was unarmed when he was killed, and had no prior criminal record. SWAT teams have been sent into bars where police have suspected underage drinking, sent to perform occupational licensure inspections on barber shops in Orlando, and to apprehend a group of Tibetan monks who had inadvertently overstayed their visas while touring America on a peace mission.
Troubling as all of this is, the problem goes well beyond SWAT teams. Too many police departments today are also infused with a general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they’re soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us-versus-them mentality that sees the public not as citizens to be served and protected but as a collection of potential threats. Police are regularly told the lie that their jobs get more perilous by the day—actually, the job has been getting safer since the mid-1990s, and 2012 was one of the safest years for cops in decades. And they are told that every interaction with a citizen could be their last. Consequently, they are trained literally and conditioned psychologically to treat every encounter with a citizen as if it could be their last. Consider the striking essay by Sgt. Glenn French, SWAT commander in Sterling Heights, Michigan, published in August on the law enforcement site PoliceOne:
We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector. The fact is, more American police officers have died fighting crime in the United States over the past 12 years than American soldiers were killed in action at war in Afghanistan. . . . Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war. That is why commanders and tactical trainers stress the fact that even on the most uneventful portion of your tour, you can be subjected to combat at a moment’s notice.
French’s figures are way off. Not only are police far less likely to be killed than a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, they’re less likely to be murdered than the average resident of many big cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Nashville. But French’s math isn’t nearly as disturbing as his mindset. This is a police officer in a Michigan town that has often been cited as one of the safest communities in America, yet he views the town as a battlefield and his fellow citizens as potential enemy combatants. “Black helicopters and mysterious warriors exist”, French concludes in his essay. “They are America’s answer to the evil men that the anti-SWAT crowd wouldn’t dare face.”
French isn’t alone in these thoughts. When National Review wrote about Mayor Cheye Calvo’s efforts to get that SWAT transparency bill passed in Maryland, a detective from the Milwaukee Police Department wrote a letter to the editor in protest. “Sorry if Calvo and his mother-in-law were ‘restrained’ for ‘almost two hours’”, he wrote. (The police also killed Calvo’s two black labradors, and nearly shot his mother-in-law.) “Would you rather have them be comfortable for those two hours, and risk officers’ lives and safety? Calvo should be able to understand what the officers did and why they did it. Municipal police departments do fight a war on the streets of this country daily.”
Milwaukee, incidentally, is where Police Chief Ed Flynn recently told his police officers to ignore Wisconsin’s state gun laws (which allow open carry) and treat anyone seen with a weapon as a criminal. “My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we’ll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it.” Note his choice of words. It isn’t terribly surprising that a police chief who refers to his peace officers as “troops” would see law-abiding citizens exercising their legal right to carry as the enemy.
Police today see threats everywhere. Earlier this year, an open-records request revealed that the police chief in Concord, New Hampshire, had applied for a DHS grant to purchase a military-grade armored vehicle. In the application, he explained that, while Vermont hasn’t yet been targeted by international terrorism, the threat of domestic terrorism “is real and here.” As examples, he pointed to the Sovereign Citizens Movement—a term used by people who have in a few isolated cases turned violent—but also groups like the Occupy movement and the Free State Project, two groups that stress nonviolent protest. (The police chief later apologized for including the latter two groups.)
This sort of fear and demagoguery has always begun with politicians—the people who are supposed to hold police officials accountable. Nixon began the modern drug war, with all of its martial and apocalyptic rhetoric and dehumanizing of drug offenders. Reagan then intensified the rhetoric by declaring drugs a threat to national security, portraying the drug fight as a war between good and evil and at one point comparing it to the Battle of Verdun. In the years since, the martial rhetoric from politicians has only intensified. William Bennett once pondered whether drug dealers should be publicly beheaded. Daryl Gates once suggested that drug use was treason and suggested users be taken out to the street and shot. Representative Charlie Rangel once declared himself the drug war’s “front-line general.” A few years ago, one sheriff in Georgia lamented that the drug war was being fought too much like the war in Vietnam. To win, he said, we need to fight it as if we’re storming the beaches at Normandy. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has referred to the NYPD as the “the seventh largest army in the world.”
All this wooly and irresponsible talk has most certainly affected the way police see themselves and the way they interact with their communities. Back in 2008, the police union in Denver, Colorado prepared for the Democratic National Convention by printing up and selling T-shirts featuring a menacing cop holding a club, gazing down at the Denver skyline. The shirt’s motto: “We get up early to beat the crowds.” The Village Voice recently spotted an NYPD warrant squad officer sporting a T-shirt with the Hemingway quote, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” Kraska reported attending a SWAT gathering in which one officer “wore a T-shirt that carried a picture of a burning city with gunship helicopters flying overhead and the caption Operation Ghetto Storm.” And in 2011, a police union of school officers in California had to apologize after it was caught selling T-shirts with the image of a young child behind bars, with the motto, “You raise ’em, we cage ’em.”
his attack on Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights has been a bipartisan effort. Though Republicans are generally seen as the tougher-on-crime party, since the 1980s the Democrats have gone out of their way to outdo the GOP, particularly when it comes to Federal giveaways and anti-drug grants. Take the Byrne grants, for example.
In 1988, Congress created the program, named for Edward Byrne, a New York City narcotics officer killed by a drug dealer. Over the years, these grants have created multi-jurisdictional anti-drug and anti-gang task forces all over the country. Because these task forces usually cover more than one jurisdiction, they often are not readily or fully accountable to, say, a police chief or an elected sheriff. Moreover, they are often funded either with additional Byrne grants, or with money seized in asset forfeiture proceedings. They can, therefore, operate with little or no funding from the polities they police.
These task forces have caused numerous unnecessary deaths, have been responsible for botched drug raids on the wrong houses, and have been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. Byrne-funded task forces were responsible for the debacles in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, about a decade ago, in which dozens of people—nearly all poor and black—were wrongly raided, arrested and charged with drug crimes. One woman falsely charged in Hearne was Regina Kelly, subject of the movie American Violet. In a 2007 interview, Kelly told me that the violent raids had been going on for years in Hearne before the task force was finally stopped. “They come on helicopters, military-style, SWAT style”, Kelly said. “In the apartments I was living in, in the projects, there were a lot of children outside playing. They don’t care. They throw kids on the ground, put guns to their heads. They’re kicking in doors. They just don’t care.”
The George W. Bush Administration had begun phasing out the Byrne program. It had been funded at $500 million per year through most of the Clinton presidency. By the time he left office in January 2009, Bush had pared it to $170 million a year. But the grants have long been a favorite of Vice President Joe Biden, and so candidate Obama campaigned on fully restoring their funding, declaring that the Byrne grant program “has been critical to creating the anti-gang and anti-drug task forces our communities need.” On that promise at least, Obama has delivered. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama infused the program with $2 billion, by far the largest budget in its history.
The COPS program is another example. Short for Community Oriented Policing Services, the COPS program has a noble aim, at least in theory. Community policing is the idea that cops should consider themselves part of the communities they serve. They should know the names of school principals, be friendly with business owners and attend neighborhood meetings. Unfortunately, this isn’t the definition of community policing held by many police officials. Many police chiefs consider frequent SWAT raids and similarly aggressive policing to be a core part of a community policing strategy. Indeed, some said they considered sending SWAT teams to patrol entire neighborhoods to be sound community policing. Moreover, police department budgets are fungible; there is really no way to control how these grants are spent once they arrive at the police station. A 2001 report by the Madison Capital Times found that many Wisconsin police agencies that received COPS grants in the 1990s had in fact used them to start SWAT teams.
Just as it had with Byrne grants, the Bush Administration was phasing out the COPS program in the 2000s. But like the Byrne grants, COPS grants have long been a Biden favorite. In fact, Biden often takes credit for creating the program, and claims that it is responsible for the sharp drop in violent crime in America that began in the mid-1990s. There is no evidence to support that contention, and a 2007 analysis in the peer-reviewed journal Criminology concluded instead that “COPS spending had little to no effect on crime.” Nevertheless, Obama resurrected COPS, too. During his first year in office, he increased the program’s budget by 250 percent.
lmost needless to say, huge sums of Federal money available to often financially strained local police departments are a major source of the exploding SWAT problem. To get the money, you often have to create a SWAT team, and to keep getting the money you have to use it, whether in an appropriate way or not. What is the Fourth Amendment next to all that cash?
Unfortunately, it gets worse. The next chapter in the police militarization story is being written by the Department of Homeland Security. Since its creation after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, DHS has handed out billions in grants with a program far larger and better funded than even the Pentagon giveaways. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), the department gave out $2 billion in such grants in 2011 alone, about four times the value of gear the 1033 Program gave out in its own record year. This money goes for hardware such as armored personnel carriers, high-power weapons, aircraft and other military-grade gear. Though these are considered anti-terror or homeland security grants, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of cities, counties and towns that get them will never be subject to a terrorist attack (places like Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Concord, New Hampshire). Thus, the equipment bought with them inevitably gets used for more routine policing.
But the most troubling thing about the DHS grant program is that it has given birth to the “police-industrial complex.” Military contractors now market directly to police agencies with messages that encourage the mindset that the military and the police are fighting the same battle. And it is very lucrative. The spokesman for the company Lenco, which makes armored personnel vehicles, told me last year that thanks to DHS, the company has sold at least one of its “Bearcats” to ninety of the hundred largest cities in America. To illustrate how this gear is marketed, note that one Lenco promotional video for its Bearcat shows police dressed in camouflage filing out of the vehicle with military-like weapons, then punching a hole in a building with a battering ram and injecting tear gas canisters before storming the place—all set to the soundtrack of “Thunderstruck” by the rock band AC/DC. According to the CIR, “The homeland security market for state and local agencies is projected to reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from an estimated $15.8 billion in fiscal 2009, according to the Homeland Security Research Corp.”
That not only means that there’s a fortune to be made arming domestic police departments for battle, there’s also plenty of money left over to set up lobbying offices in Washington, DC, hire former politicians and their staffs, and generally lobby Congress, the Pentagon and the White House to ensure that these programs not only stay around, but that they grow in size and influence. Once that happens, the SWATting of America will be the new normal.