In my research into the rise and overuse of SWAT teams, I found that the single biggest motivating factor behind the surge has been a Pentagon program in place since about 1990 that offers up surplus military equipment to local police departments free of charge. Literally millions of pieces of military equipment have been transferred this way, and are now being used in domestic policing. Having a bunch of military equipment lying around becomes an excellent motivator to form a paramilitary SWAT team, even if the community the police department serves doesn't really need one.
The AP reports today that there's been no slowdown in the transfers:
About 16,000 departments obtained more than 380,000 pieces of equipment in the 2005 budget year, according to an analysis of data provided by the Pentagon at the request of The Associated Press.
The items, which include night-vision goggles, copy machines, helicopters and bulletproof vests, were worth nearly $124 million.
Detectives on a drug task force in Tippecanoe County, Ind., wear military fatigues for covert surveillance of methamphetamine cooks and cocaine dealers. In Pennsylvania, the state game commission uses a tranquilizer gun to put tracking collars on bears. In Covina, Calif., police converted a military ambulance into a SWAT team vehicle.
Minnesota law enforcement agencies received 5,209 items valued at $514,574.45 during fiscal 2005. Surplus weapons were among the most common items, with 22 agencies acquiring them.
The 1960s-era armored vehicles given to Bucks County only needed paint and fresh batteries. The final cost was less than the $80,000 each would cost new, said Scott Pepperman, chief of the state's Federal Surplus and Law Enforcement Property Division.
The armored vehicles are used in standoffs and hostage situations.
"If you're in your office and barricaded, and one of these things pulls up in your front lawn, it's very intimidating," said Lt. Michael Clark of the Northampton Township Police Department in Bucks County.
Actually, they're mostly used in drug raids. The other problem is that this equipment was designed for warfare—for the killing of foreign enemies. It's now being used against U.S. citizens. It's also a further blurring of the important line we draw between the military and domestic policing. It shouldn't surprise anyone that this program was started at the urging of Congress, eager to arm the country's police officers en route to a greater militarization of the "war" on drugs.
Give police military equipment, train them in military tactics, and tell them they're fighting a "war," and it isn't at all difficult to see how some officers would adopt the "win at all costs" mentality of a soldier, instead of the community servant mentality we expect of police officers. All of which gets us results like this .
It's also unfortunate that the AP writer didn't find it necessary to quote anyone who might have objections to the giveaways.