Couched behind often-nebulous concepts like imminent threat to the community, cops are looking less and less like the resource officer at your kid’s school, and more like highly-weaponized soldiers, clad in body armor, helmets, facegear, and arriving at “crisis points” in armored personnel carriers. Components of these deployments can include snipers, battering rams, and other features we regard as being perfectly appropriate in combat theaters, but more than a little out of place in suburban America. Nevertheless, this kind of soldier-cop is becoming downright ubiquitous in the U.S., to the understandable consternation of a growing number of citizens.
One of the developments sustaining this trend is the overall effort at downsizing the U.S. military. As the U.S. involvement in the Middle East is significantly scaled back, the amount of surplus equipment available to local enforcement agencies around the country through the Defense Dept. has dramatically increased. In what has amounted to a poorly-supervised giveaway, billions of dollars of surplus military equipment has found its way to local law enforcement communities throughout America, many of which have practically no crime to speak of. In 2012 alone, just over a half-billion dollars of military surplus was transferred from Defense to civilian law enforcement agencies.
Another concern for many is the nature of some of the supposedly-benign government agencies that have participated in this giveaway. We’ve all heard about the massive ammunition purchases by agencies that should not need to be heavily armed, but when you realize how many garden-variety government agencies now have their own SWAT teams, including Fish & Wildlife, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Education (the Department of Education??), the ammo purchases start to make sense, in a lunatic sort of way. By the way, it turns out most of us learned that the Department of Education had a SWAT team as the result of a raid they bungled in 2011 against a woman who was suspected of not paying her student loans!
As for local agencies, examples abound of the use of military-style raids in scenarios where most people would reason conclude they’re not needed. For example, SWAT teams around the country have been deployed numerous times to raid illegal gambling establishments where no reasonable belief of a violent response existed. Moreover, there have been many cases where innocent people, or people whose alleged offenses were relatively minor, ended up being seriously injured or killed as a result of such raids. In 2006, optometrist Sal Culosi was killed during a raid by the Fairfax County, Virginia SWAT team, when they were dispatched to arrest him for what amounted to small-time illegal gambling activity. Culosi, with no record of violence and no criminal record whatsoever, was shot by a team member when he answered the door.
Aside from the matter of problems arising in the course of the raids, there’s the question of the appropriateness of their very execution at all. The bottom line question is, do we want to live in an America characterized by a police force that is increasingly indistinguishable from an infantry battalion deployed to a shooting war? Moreover, are there resulting heightened risks to the civilian population that outweigh any benefits resulting from employment of the tactics?
The wars on terror and drugs have conspired to essentially create this problem. With the instinctive justification most of us ascribe to the use of hyper-policing on behalf of these two “worthwhile” efforts, it has become just a short hop to condoning raids against people and in circumstances that in no way warrant the use of such heavy-handed tactics. Some have suggested that the country needs to return to the sort of community policing reminiscent of the good old days. That can be a part of the answer, but remember that communities no longer exist in many places across the country the way they once did; many municipalities are very spread out, very impersonal by structure, and thus simply do not lend themselves to being patrolled by the local beat cop. Still, it is reasonable to say that many in America’s communities feel disenfranchised from the police, and so many police feel disenfranchised from the members of the communities they’re supposed to protect. Until local police willingly divest themselves of the “us vs. them” mentality that has gone a long way to spawning this…or until we, as citizens, demand they change their ways…this approach by police to plying their craft more as invading troops than as fellow citizens will continue. Ultimately, few reasonable people would dispute that strong, forceful police tactics are warranted under certain, extreme circumstances, but there is understandable concern when “extreme circumstances” can be defined to include such things as the arresting of debtors and low-level, non-violent gamblers.