War on Drugs

Tanks for Nothing


So not even a week after narcotics officers plead guilty to killing an innocent elderly woman, the Atlanta Journal runs this story, about all the free military goodies Georgia police departments are getting from the Pentagon. Yes, that's a photo of an armored personnel carrier (note:  corrected from "tank"), built for fighting wars—for destroying cities and enemy combatants. And it's being used by a domestic police department against American citizens (it appears that they did at least have the courtesy to remove the standard 50 cal machine gun that's usually mounted on top).

The Pentagon giveaway program began in the late 1980s, and is almost certainly responsible for the dramatic rise in the number of SWAT teams across the country, which led to the 1500 percent increase in the number of total deployments over the last 25 years, and to the increasing use of paramilitary tactics for nonviolent crimes. Many criminal justice experts say the program, along with the fact that SWAT teams and narcotics officers are often trained by former members of elite military groups like the Army Rangers or Navy Seals is responsible for the "cowboy" mentality that pervades many SWAT and narcotics units.

It isn't hard to see why. Outfit domestic police officers in military clothing, arm them with military gear, train them in military tactics taught by ex-military personnel, then tell them they're fighting a "war" on drugs, and we shouldn't be the least bit surprised when they treat city streets like battlefields, drug offenders like enemy combatants, and victims like Katherine Johnston and Isaac Singletary as mere casualties of war. Posse Comitatus isn't some quaint relic from the Civil War era. It shows a clear understanding between the two institutions' missions. One is charged with protecting our rights. The other is charged with annihilating an enemy. It's probably a good idea not to get them confused, no?

There's a telling scene related to all of this in Evan Wright's terrific book Generation Kill. Wright was embedded with an elite U.S. Marine unit in Iraq. Throughout his time with the unit, Wright documents the extraordinary precautions the unit takes to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties, and the real heartbreak the soldiers feel when they do inadvertently kill a civilian. About 3/4 through the book, Wright explains how the full-time Marines were getting increasingly irritated with a reserve unit traveling with them. The reserve unit was mostly made up people who in their civilians lives were law enforcement, "from LAPD cops to DEA agents to air marshalls," and were acting like idiot renegades. Wright quotes a gunnery sargeant who traveled with the reserve unit:

"Some of the cops in Delta started doing this cowboy stuff. They put cattle horns on their Humvees. They'd roll into these hamlets, doing shows of force—kicking down doors, doing sweeps—just for the fuck of it. There was this little clique of them. Their ringleader was this beat cop…He's like five feet tall, talks like Joe Friday and everybody calls him 'Napoleon.'"

The unit ends up firebombing a village of Iraqis who'd been helping the Marines with intelligence about insurgents and Iraqi troops. Yes, it's just an anecdote. But it's a telling one. It suggests that to say some of our domestic police units are getting increasing militaristic probably does a disservice to the military.

What I find baffling, though, is that after everything that's gone on in his city over the last six months, the Atlanta Journal reporter didn't think to consult a single critic of the Pentagon giveaway program (and there are many). It didn't even occur to him that there may be more nefarious consequences to outfitting Georgia's cops in military gear than the benefit of "recycling tax dollars."

MORE: Via the comments, some people have corrected my use of the term "tank," pointing out that these are actually armored personnel carriers. Fair enough, though I'd gather most non-military people think "tank" when they see an armored vehicle on tracks, turret or no turret. In any case, I don't think the distinction detracts from the larger point, which is that outfitting domestic police with equipment made for the battlefield isn't a trend we ought to be encouraging.