Because It's There

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What's behind the militarization of local police? Radley Balko blames the feds:

The Pentagon's giveaway of surplus equipment (over 3 million pieces since the program began in about 1987) to local police departments has caused those departments to decide they'd better figure out a way to put the equipment to use. So they form a SWAT team. And now that they have a SWAT team, they figure they'd better use it. So they start using it for dubious tasks, like executing search warrants. There are towns that use SWAT teams for routine patrols, too. One used its team for crowd control during a parade. Greenwich, Connecticut used to deploy its SWAT team to retail outlets every time the state lottery topped a $1 million.

I've researched numerous small towns who've sold the city council and a skeptical public on the idea of a SWAT team by citing the need to have an answer to school shootings, hostage situations, and terrorism. All well and good. The problem is, once the team's in place, they can't resist the urge to call it out for far more mundane tasks, most notably serving drug warrants on nonviolent offenders (the federal government distorts this process, too—there's lots of federal money available for documented drug arrests. There's very little for apprehending more violent crime).

I'm reminded of Terry Anderson's theory of why the U.S. negotiated fewer treaties with the Indians after the Mexican and Civil wars: because there were more troops to fight with.

For more on the topic, read Radley's op-ed on the SWATification of America, published in the Sunday Washington Post. And for some propaganda from the other side, check out the 2003 film S.W.A.T., which if nothing else proves that the underappreciated Clark Johnson knows how to direct even when he doesn't have much of a story to work with.

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  1. “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

    <BANG>

    Oops.

    Where’s The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence when you need them?

  2. the federal government distorts this process, too — there’s lots of federal money available for documented drug arrests. There’s very little for apprehending more violent crime.

    You know how sometimes, when you are reading, you’ll make a connection with something else without even trying to? That happened to me last Saturday.

    I’ve always thought it was ridiculous that drug crimes are treated more seriously than violent crimes, and drug offenses are the only ones that will disqualify a student for financial aid, and so forth, but I never really thought about the rationale behind it.

    But for the past two weeks I’ve been reading some Harry Turtledove alternate-history books about a world where the South won the Civil War; by last Saturday I was up to the 1930s, wherein the Confederacy, after being destroyed in World War One, was basically turning into Nazi Germany, only they went after blacks rather than Jews, of course.

    And I got to a scene where concentration camps were being set up for white political prisoners who disagreed with the new Confederate regime, and suddenly I made a connection with our drug policy. It hit me: governments that establish a class of political crimes ALWAYS treat political prisoners worse than criminals who actually harm others.

    And from the point of view of such a government, this even makes sense. After all, theft, assault rape and murder only hurt private citizens, but do not in any way threaten the power of the government itself. But having people smoke a joint without turning into the mindless zombie rapist the government says they’ll become? Well, THAT might make people second-guess the government as a whole. In China, a murderer is better off than someone who likes democracy. In the old Soviet Union, a murderer was better off than someone who criticized the Communist party. And in America, many murderers are better off than non-violent drug criminals.

    What do the rest of you think? I’m not trying to make a one-to-one comparison with our drug laws and other countries’ political laws (as bad as American prisons are, I’d rather be jailed on drug charges in America than on Falun Gong charges in China, for example), but I think this DOES have something to do with why our government treats drug users and sellers so much worse than people who actually cause direct harm to others.

  3. It’s really sick, no doubt. The police force is another way for the military-industrial complex to survive. Having drugs (and apparently gambling, from the Reason Express blurb) illegal is a great way to make sure you can use all your toys.

  4. No question, Jennifer. If you can’t trust the government when they vehemently tell you how evil drugs are, their whole house of cards looks a lot less stable, no?

    That’s why I can’t believe people want to give the gov’t any more power. They can’t be trusted, pure and simple, and without firing someone outright, the best way to minimise the damage is to give them as little power/responsibility as possible.

    As a bonus, taking away responsibility from gov’t and giving it to indivuduals actually makes people grow up and accept their responsibility (not everyone, of course, but you’d see a net gain, I think).

  5. Jennifer-I suspect the phenomenon you mention has more to do with scapegoating than with fear that the government will be caught out in it’s lies. Remember, the majority of people heading up the drug war believe what they say.

  6. As an ex-poiceman I have to agree. Remember when the most notable things about cops were bad feet, beer guts and twirling nightsticks.

  7. I believe Kraska found that in cities with populations of 50k or more, 90% had SWAT teams.

    I’m wondering what the numbers are for smaller towns.

    I’m trying to picture Barney Fife dressed like a ninja.

  8. I suspect the phenomenon you mention has more to do with scapegoating than with fear that the government will be caught out in it’s lies. Remember, the majority of people heading up the drug war believe what they say.

    And a lot of Chinese really believe that Falun Gong is a grave danger to society, moreso than any mere killer could be. But WHY? Why do the drug warriors have themselves convinced that a pot-smoker, but not a rapist, must be kept off of college campuses? What rationalizations are going through their minds?

    Understand, I’m not saying that the drug warriors are consciously thinking “Hmm, let people find out we’ve been lying to them and our whole house of cards comes a-tumblin’ down.” But in all of history, I doubt you’ll find any evil people who truly believed they were evil. No, no, they all had rationalizations as to why what they did was just and right.

    The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that there realy is a connection between our treatment of drug criminals and totalitarian treatment of political crimes. Crimes that merely hurt people aren’t viewed as seriously as crimes which are crimes only because the government says so.

  9. Jennifer, good point.

    I would also like to point out something that I see as indicative of a fundamental sea change in how the state views citizens.

    In 1916 the US government created a program whereby surplus military rifles and pistols were resold to the public through an organization created to foster marksmanship.

    In the 1960’s the program was limited to only what was left in stock, which includes, among a couple of other designs, M1 Garand and Springfield rifles. No more surplused rifles would pass from the government to the CMP for ultimate distribution to marksmanship programs.

    Also, the pistol program was, at some point, completely killed and all the surplus guns destroyed.

    Now, instead of the government distributing surplused guns to the citizenship, they’re either destroyed or given to law enforcement agencies.

    In the 1990’s, what was left of the CMP was spun off into a non-profit organization which still sells the old surplused Garands.

  10. I think another part of it, Jennifer, is that gov’t sees itself as society, so that if you’re undermining the gov’t as an entity, you’re undermining society. Those of us who don’t trust the gov’t don’t see things that way. (Or at least I don’t, I don’t want to speak for anyone.)

  11. Jennifer,
    You are dangerously close to entering Gaius Marius’ territory. Next you will be calling SWAT teams “Examples of Jacobin/Spartan overindulgence” or some such.

    And I would agree with you.

  12. I think another part of it, Jennifer, is that gov’t sees itself as society, so that if you’re undermining the gov’t as an entity, you’re undermining society.

    Remember the scene in “Brave New World” where somebody–I think the DHC, but possibly Mustapha Mond–explains why unorthodoxy is the most heinous crime of all? “Murder only kills the individual, and of what value is the individual? We can make as many of those as we like. But unorthodoxy threatens society itself.”

  13. Good to see a little love for Turtledove here. I have read the series Jennifer refers to, and one of the things that struck me about it was how utterly plausible the alternate history is. Turtledove taps the dark underbelly of the American personality, and shows us just how close we could have come to an extremely xenophobic, racist, near police state while retaining democratic elections and succession of power (and that’s the remainder of the Union, much less the Confederacy). Scary, scary stuff. Even more scary in the past few years.

  14. Shkval2–

    I’m still waiting for my local branch library to bring in the copies of “Settling Accounts” that I ordered; since I haven’t read them yet, PLEASE don’t give me any spoilers.

    But yes, their plausibility is what makes them so frightening. Reading about Featherston’s rise to power scared me even more than reading about the real-world rise of the Nazis, because it demonstrates so well how easily such a thing can, in fact, happen here.

  15. I’ve only read “Guns of the South”, which I thought was horrible (I actually threw the book away, rather than donating it). Is his other stuff better?

    I blame the proliferation of SWAT teams on the drug war; I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And the worst part is those teams attract the cowboys and the SpecOps-wannabes who are probably most likely to have an “accidental” discharge.

  16. Sulla,

    Wasn’t “Guns of the South” the one where the South won because they had access to weaponry from the future? I have no interest in reading that. But yes, his other stuff is great because it’s so very, very plausible.

  17. Yes, AK-47s supplied by renegade South Africans. Truly awful. Maybe I’ll give him another try, based on the recommendations here.

  18. Huh, I found guns of the south better reading than a lot of his other books, but I still read each and every one in the series Jennifer mentioned. Thank god for libraries!!

  19. I too am glad to see some love for Turttledove.

    As other’s have said, Featherston’s Nazi-like rise to power is utterly plausible.

  20. “It hit me: governments that establish a class of political crimes ALWAYS treat political prisoners worse than criminals who actually harm others.”

    Jennifer;

    I had that same thought when reading about the treatment of political prisoners in the gulags of the old Soviet Union. They were at the bottom of the pecking order. Rapists, murderers and robbers fared much better in the gulags than their politically convicted bretheren. I agree with everyone’s analysis that a crime against one person means very little to the government, but non-violent drug crimes are considered crimes against the state and must be dealt with in a very prejudicial manner.

    I think the 60’s revolution is still being fought today. Nixonian thought has morphed into the present regime and the hippies of the 60’s have been either assimilated or are the enemy of the state and are being dealt with accordingly. Most of those who once stood for freedom against “the man” and “the system” are a bunch of cowards now that they have mortgages and new cars to pay for.

    The ghosts of our founding fathers must be crying right now. These guys (old white men of the revolutionary times) knew when they signed the DOI that they were marked men and they were willing to give up their lives and property in order to free themselves from tyranny. We have the government we deserve. As the Buddhists say, “It is as it should be.”

  21. Cliff–

    I too had a similar thought about the Soviets when I read “Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag,” but not until last weekend did I connect that to our drug policies.

  22. Jennifer;

    Thanks for the response and the title for another book that I might read.

  23. ooh… I know why Greenwich CT uses it SWAT team when the lotto’s over $1 million…
    There are unwashed hordes of brown people, creeping up on the pristine white border of Greenwich from such localities as Harrison, Armonk, and (dread of dreads) Port Chester. Such peasants tend to play the lotto, stores that sell lotto tickets go up and down Greenwich’s main shopping street…

    It’s all suddenly clear.

  24. One good thing about the old Soviet Union was at least you got a knock on the door after the black van (refered to as a crow) pulled up to your house. Here, in the land of ersatz liberty and justice, you are not as likely to be so lucky.

  25. What’s always amazed me about the War on Drugs is just how complicit the general population is. Even among the many who think that the WoD is an abuse of government power and a waste of resources, it’s hard to find people who truly think that drugs should be legalized. You usually get people to say things like “well, marijuana should be legalized (or maybe just decriminalized), but not the harder stuff”, as if it’s somehow better to draw the line a little farther in the sand.

    From my experience, most people think drugs should remain illegal (except alcohol which, of course, isn’t anything like drugs), and while they may wish to change the way we prosecute the WoD, they still think it’s better than the alternative of legalization. And honestly, I think that has less to do with government propaghanda than I’d like to believe. People are naturally afraid of other people’s drug abuse, especially when it comes to their children. Unlike purely political crimes where the government really has to shape the beliefs of the population, the WoD preys on people’s natural, pre-existing fears and subverts them to its own aims.

  26. I think Jennifer has a great point, and whether or not the governmental actors/instruments of a political policy actually believe the premises behind it is beside the point. Generally, the actual causes of social practices (be they governmental or otherwise) are often distinct from the justifications given for them. The scapegoating of a political class doesn’t detract from her argument at all because the scapegoating itself is a way of distracting everyone involved from what is really going on, including those who uphold the policy. Their buy-in is needed most of all.

  27. For a libertarian, Balko has always seemed rather weak when it comes to the right to bear arms.

    So it’s not entirely suprising he’s basically reprising the gun control movements main argument here: that crime (in this case police brutality) is caused by the ready availability of firearms, and that if we simply limited such access, there would be less temptations to criminality.

    A police department’s access to AR-15’s doesn’t cause police crime any more than my access to them causes civilian crime.

  28. Only tangentially related, but I’ve just been reading The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and, assuming the book is at least somewhat realistic, you might have had a decent experience as a Soviet political prisoner if you had a useful skill that was in need. And the authorities set you a task that was actually achievable, of course.

    It also strikes me that the militarization of the police suggests that the authorities are afraid of the people to at least some degree. People who are completely confident in their power don’t need to kick down doors and throw stun grenades. And this fear, I think, comes from the historical relationship between the people and the government in America, where the people do pose a threat to the government…but the government seems to be losing its tolerance for that arrangement.

  29. And this fear, I think, comes from the historical relationship between the people and the government in America, where the people do pose a threat to the government…but the government seems to be losing its tolerance for that arrangement.

    Because we’re switching from the idea that
    “government must serve the people” to “people must serve the government.” If the people and the government disagree, it’s the people who have to change. How many state medical-marijuana initiatives have been overthrown, for starters? How much has the right to peaceful assembly been eroded?

  30. “A police department’s access to AR-15’s doesn’t cause police crime any more than my access to them causes civilian crime.”

    The analogy is less than perfect, because the police are generally unaccountable for their use of them, and in fact, are encouraged to use them in ways that private citizens would never be allowed to.

    I’m all for gun rights, but I see no need for my town to have a SWAT team. All they use it for is to raid and burn down drug dealers’ homes. If they didn’t have the SWAT team, they wouldn’t be so quick to engage in such destructive enterprises.

    So I can’t buy your attempt to conflate the two positions…

  31. Dang JD! Tell us your real assessment of the situation.

    Losing tolerance. Well put.

  32. >I’m all for gun rights, but I see no need for
    >my town to have a SWAT team. All they use it
    >for is to raid and burn down drug dealers’
    >homes. If they didn’t have the SWAT team, they
    >wouldn’t be so quick to engage in such
    >destructive enterprises.

    I’m not arguing that towns don’t need SWAT teams, I agree completely. What I am arguing is that the decision to have one is primarily determined by an outside influence (access to guns), as opposed to the culture withing to town’s police department/local government.

    Gun’s don’t cause SWAT teams, police departments do.

  33. Well, guns DO cause SWAT teams, to the extent that they represent a federal subsidy to form them.

    I’m sure there’s a whole lot of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses going on as well. “Hey Sheriff Joe Don! Clodswallopfuck just started a SWAT team. Put in for some of that Homeland Security money so we can carry M-4s too. Get some! Get some!”

  34. >I’m sure there’s a whole lot of keeping-up-with-
    >the-Joneses going on as well. “Hey Sheriff Joe
    >Don! Clodswallopfuck just started a SWAT team.

    Yes, but this is a problem with the police department myself, and is going to manifest itself in various ugly ways whether there’s subsidy money or not.

    Which is, again, my point: the SWAT problem originates with the local departments. It’s not a case of nice civil rights abiding police departments being corrupted by the evil low-priced AR-15’s.

  35. There have been several stories about police officers being issued surplus M-16s for which they had not received adequate training. Some of the results have been disasterous.

    And the stories of Sheriff Billy Bob of Bumfuck County getting things like personell carriers and helicopters for which they have no conceivable use, but take anyway, because…ahh… they can, would be funny… except, they’re not, are they?

    In the 1960’s the program was limited to only what was left in stock, which includes, among a couple of other designs, M1 Garand and Springfield rifles. No more surplused rifles would pass from the government to the CMP for ultimate distribution to marksmanship programs.

    There was a petition going around for awhile (I think there was a link to it at the CMP website) to get the M-14 inventory turned over to the CMP after being modified to semiauto. Apparently the stock that is not in active use (I believe that the Navy still has some) is set for destruction.

  36. “For a libertarian, Balko has always seemed rather weak when it comes to the right to bear arms.”

    News to me! I don’t support any restrictions on gun ownership, including so-called assault weapons. I support conceal-carry, oppose registration, and support “Dirty Harry” laws.

    I don’t write much on gun control because I haven’t studied the issue, I wasn’t brought up around guns, and I don’t own a gun. Not sure it’s fair to equate my lack of output on the issue with a tendency to support a gun control arugment.

    It’s also a silly comparison. There’s direct and inescapble correlation between making military equipment available (and we’re talking assault weapons, grenade launchers, APVs, and helicopters, here, not just armor) and the rise in paramilitary police units. Did the equipment cause the PDs to form the SWAT teams, or had the PDs always wanted to form the SWAT teams, but couldn’t afford to do so until they had the equipment?

    Dunno. Doesn’t realy matter. The point is, without access to the surplus gear, we’d have about tenfold fewer SWAT teams. And far fewer incidents of innocent people being terrorized by them.

    And once a town has a team, they have to endure the costs of maintaining one. Best way to do that is to send them out on drug warrants — the federal government pays a bounty to local PDs (filtered through state government) for every drug arrest.

  37. The Turtledove series Jennifer mentions starts with How Few Remain, followed by 3 volumes in The Great War trilogy and 3 more in the American Empire and 2 (so far) in Settling Accounts.

    Jennifer, I haven’t started Settling Accounts yet, so it sounds like we’re at the same place, spoilerwise

  38. Shkval–

    I have book two of “Accounts,” and am still waiting for book one to come in. I’m hoping to have them both read by this Saturday, but that depends on when the first book comes in.

    You might also like “Days of Infamy” and “End of the Beginning,” about a timeline that was identical to ours until World War Two; the Japanese invade Hawaii rather than bomb Pearl Harbor and run.

  39. >Not sure it’s fair to equate my lack of output
    >on the issue with a tendency to support a gun
    >control arugment.

    I didn’t say you support gun control.

    I said you seem rather weak on the issue. You support it, yes, but it seems primarily a theoretical issue to you. The actual practical situation of how that right is fairing from day to day doesn’t seem to concern you nearly as much as other rights do.

  40. A police department’s access to AR-15’s doesn’t cause police crime any more than my access to them causes civilian crime.

    I mostly agree. I think the spread of SWAT is a direct result of the war on drugs. I remember the early years when there was regular widespread LEO frustration when they’d serve a drug warrant and all they’d hear was the toilet flushing. This was the direct source of the we-have-to-kick-the-door-in tactic.

    However the Feds, who are not only supplying equipment and training but adding SWAT teams to every federal agency, are certainly setting a dangerous example.

    Unfortunately the SWAT scenario is dangerous, both to citizens and law enforcement officers. It isn’t unusual any more to hear about officers killed during live-fire training. That’s an indication of how deadly an uncontrolled “real life” exercise is.

    However, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Once you have a hammer, everybody looks for nails.

  41. Stormy, that’s no big surprise. People have their pet issue that they know the most about.

    That’s hardly an indictment.

  42. And Radley, if you like, I could probably hook you up with a couple of people in your area who’d be more than willing to instruct you in firearms safety and take you out to the range.

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