Our Militarized Police Departments
Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime
Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to speak today.
I'm here to talk about police militarization, a troubling trend that's been on the rise in America's police departments over the last 25 years.
Militarization is a broad term that refers to using military-style weapons, tactics, training, uniforms, and even heavy equipment by civilian police departments.
It's a troubling trend because the military has a very different and distinct role than our domestic peace officers. The military's job is to annihilate a foreign enemy. The police are supposed to protect us while upholding our constitutional rights. It's dangerous to conflate the two.
But that's exactly what we're doing. Since the late 1980s, Mr. Chairman, thanks to acts passed by the U.S. Congress, millions of pieces of surplus military equipment have been given to local police departments across the country.
We're not talking just about computers and office equipment. Military-grade semi-automatic weapons, armored personnel vehicles, tanks, helicopters, airplanes, and all manner of other equipment designed for use on the battlefield is now being used on American streets, against American citizens.
Academic criminologists credit these transfers with the dramatic rise in paramilitary SWAT teams over the last quarter century.
SWAT teams were originally designed to be used in violent, emergency situations like hostage takings, acts of terrorism, or bank robberies. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, that's primarily how they were used, and they performed marvelously.
But beginning in the early 1980s, they've been increasingly used for routine warrant service in drug cases and other nonviolent crimes. And thanks to the Pentagon transfer programs, there are now a lot more of them.
This is troubling because paramilitary police actions are extremely volatile, necessarily violent, overly confrontational, and leave very little margin for error. These are acceptable risks when you're dealing with an already violent situation featuring a suspect who is an eminent threat to the community.
But when you're dealing with nonviolent drug offenders, paramilitary police actions create violence instead of defusing it. Whether you're an innocent family startled by a police invasion that inadvertently targeted the wrong home or a drug dealer who mistakes raiding police officers for a rival drug dealer, forced entry into someone's home creates confrontation. It rouses the basest, most fundamental instincts we have in us – those of self-preservation – to fight when flight isn't an option.
Peter Kraska, a criminologist at the University of Eastern Kentucky, estimates we've seen a startling 1,500 percent increase in the use of SWAT teams in this country from the early 80s until the early 2000s. And the vast majority of these SWAT raids are for routine warrant service.
These violent raids on American homes, when coupled with the imperfect, often ugly methods used in drug policing, have set the stage for disturbingly frequent cases of police raiding the homes not only of recreational, nonviolent drug users, but the homes of people completely innocent of any crime at all.
Take a look at the map on the monitor (http://www.cato.org/raidmap). This is a map of the botched paramilitary police raids I found while researching a paper for the Cato Institute last summer. It is by no means inclusive. It only includes those cases for which I was able to find a newspaper account or court record. Based on my research, I'm convinced that the vast majority of victims of mistaken raids are to afraid, intimidated, embarrassed, or concerned about retaliation to report what happened to them.
Pay particular attention to the red markers on the map. Those are the approximately 40 cases where a mistaken raid resulted in the death of a completely innocent American citizen.
The most recent example of course is the drug raid in Atlanta last fall that killed 92-year old Kathryn Johnston. Ms. Johnston mistook the raiding police officers for criminal intruders. When she met them with a gun, they opened fire and killed her. The police were acting on an uncorroborated tip from a convicted felon.
I'd estimate I find news reports of mistaken raids on Americans homes about once a week. If you're wondering, yes, there was one just this week. This past Saturday, in Durango, Colorado, police raided the home of 77-year-old Virginia Herrick. Ms. Herrick, who takes oxygen, was forced to the ground and handcuffed at gunpoint while officers ravaged through her home.
They had the wrong address. In just the last month, there have been mistaken raids in New York City; Annapolis, Maryland; Hendersonville, North Carolina; Bonner County, Idaho; and Stockton, California.
In each case, innocent American citizens had the sanctity of their homes invaded by agents of the government behaving more like soldiers at war than peace officers upholding and protecting our constitutional rights.
800 times per week in this country, a SWAT team breaks open an American's door, and invades his home. Few turn up any weapons at all, much less high-power weapons. Less than half end with felony charges for the suspects. And only a small percentage end up doing significant time in prison.
Mr. Chairman, I ask that the Congress consider ending the federal incentives that are driving this trend, and that the Congress reign in the copious use of SWAT teams and among federal police agencies.
There are appropriate uses for these kinds of tactics. But the bulk of the dramatic rise in paramilitary police operations is attributable to inappropriate use of SWAT teams for routine warrant service.
It's time we stopped the war talk, the military tactics, and the military gear. America's domestic police departments should be populated by peace officers, not the troops of an occupying military force.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. He gave this testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime on June 21, 2007.
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