Police forces have grown increasingly militarized in the years following the September 11th attacks. In part, this is a response to new rules established in the PATRIOT Act. A surplus of decommissioned military equipment and weapons has also found its way into domestic police forces.
SWAT teams have been used with increasing frequency, sometimes just to serve warrants on nonviolent criminals.
Radley Balko, who has been covering this trend for years now, has a piece up in the Huffington Post on the ways that 9/11 and the subsequent policy decisions have led to a more militarized police force in America. Of course, the militarization of America’s police began much earlier than 9/11. I would trace it back to the advent of the War on Drugs. Balko has other interesting details. For instance, in 1994 a law was passed which authorized the Pentagon to donate surplus military equipment – including vehicles and weapons – to police departments:
In the 17 years since, literally millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on a foreign battlefield have been handed over for use on U.S. streets, against U.S. citizens. Another law passed in 1997 further streamlined the process. As National Journal reported in 2000, in the first three years after the 1994 law alone, the Pentagon distributed 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers, and 112 armored personnel carriers to civilian police agencies across America. Domestic police agencies also got bayonets, tanks, helicopters and even airplanes.
All of that equipment then facilitated a dramatic rise in the number and use of paramilitary police units, more commonly known as SWAT teams. Peter Kraska, a criminologist at the University of Eastern Kentucky, has been studying this trend since the early 1980s. Kraska found that by 1997, 90 percent of cities with populations of 50,000 or more had at least one SWAT team, twice as many as in the mid-1980s. The number of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 with a SWAT team increased 157 percent between 1985 and 1996.
In the wake of 9/11, things only ramped up further:
In 2006 alone, a Pentagon spokesman told the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram & Gazette, the Department of Defense "distributed vehicles worth $15.4 million, aircraft worth $8.9 million, boats worth $6.7 million, weapons worth $1 million and ‘other’ items worth $110.6 million" to local police agencies.
Or take specific examples:
In 2002, the seven police officers who serve the town of Jasper, Florida — which had all of 2,000 people and hadn’t had a murder in more than a decade — were each given a military-grade M-16 machine gun from the Pentagon transfer program, leading one Florida paper to run the headline, “Three Stoplights, Seven M-16s.” […]
In 2007, Clayton County, Georgia — whose sheriff once complained that the drug war was being fought like Vietnam, and should instead be fought more like the D-Day invasion at Normandy — got its own tank through the Pentagon’s transfer program. Nearby Cobb County got its tank in 2008. In Richland County, South Carolina, Sheriff Leon Lott procured an M113A1 armored personnel carrier in 2008. The vehicle moves on tank-like tracks, and features a belt-fed, turreted machine gun that fires .50-caliber rounds, a type of ammunition so powerful that even the military has restrictions on how it’s used on the battlefield.
It goes on and on. The War on Terror is spilling over into the War on Drugs, and the civil liberties of ordinary Americans – not to mention the life and liberty of our neighbors south of the border, and people across the globe – are trampled on in the process. The militarization of police forces is troubling for many reasons.
For one thing, police aren’t soldiers and lack the training actual military personnel receive. Police departments are also not the military, and may lack the discipline and oversight. Elected sheriffs are not always as concerned with upholding the law so much as they are concerned with perceptions of being tough-on-crime. Finally, police are not waging an actual war. They are working often in dense urban areas, where heavy firepower can put innocent lives at risk. Meanwhile, the more militarized the police become, the more criminals and gangs will respond in kind. The war on drugs now has its own arms race to contend with.
We need to prevent terrorist strikes, but we don’t need to fight a “war” on terror in order to keep Americans safe. Terrorism should be tackled like any other crime – with tedious, old-fashioned police work.
Read the whole piece. It may be the most important 9/11 memorial you’ll read. Prohibition has been a tragic failure. So has the War on Terror. The combination of the two has been a calamity.
Image: A member of the Mexican Army stands guard in front of the rubble of the Casino Royale, in Monterrey, Mexico, on August 26, 2011. Calderon condemned Friday the ‘abhorrent and barbaric’ killing of 52 people by suspected drug cartel gunmen who ruthlessly set a casino ablaze. The particularly callous attack on Thursday evening shocked a nation routinely used to grim murders and high tolls in a drugs war that has claimed more than 41,000 lives since Calderon launched a military crackdown in 2006
Sunday, 20 November 2011
Police Militarization in the Decade Following 9/11 - Forbes