I have followed the “militarization of the police” theme with interest for some time. I had long since sensed and felt uneasy about the phenomenon, yet without much systematic investigation or understanding of it. Then, a few years ago, I read Christian publisher and author Joel Miller’s book, Bad Trip: How the War on Drugs is Destroying America. Things began to click.
More recently, Radley Balko has established himself as king of the subject with his book Rise of the Warrior Cop, which I have not yet read. His articles on the topic, however, are engaging and powerful. And yes, they show once again that the phenomenon is tied largely to the war on drugs.
But it’s not just about drugs. It’s about all of society. The growing phenomenon shows that the militarized approach to drug enforcement has had much broader impact for law enforcement in general. It has set a precedent across the board for all types of police agencies. Balko writes for the Wall Street Journal:
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
The result has been the growing militarization of local police, funded largely by federal grants.
Consider this: SWAT teams were first established in a few large cities in the mid- to late-60s. They were used rarely. By the 70s, however, across America, they were used a few hundred times per year.
Considering that most of us see SWAT teams only on the news, a few hundred raids per year may sound a little high for today. It may sound normal for today at best. After all, we are speaking nationally.
But that was the 70s, and those were the good old days.
Let Balko crash the door of your reality: “Today in America, SWAT teams are deployed about 100 to 150 times per day, or about 50,000 times per year” (my emphasis).
Many of these raids result in wrongful deaths and injuries, sometimes to innocent people and sometimes in the wrong home or apartment. Police are rarely held accountable for even fatal mistakes.
Also trending is the growth of militarization of multiple federal agencies. A recent FOX article reports that a “recent uproar over armed EPA agents descending on a tiny Alaska mining town is shedding light on the fact that 40 federal agencies – including nearly a dozen typically not associated with law enforcement — have armed divisions.”
Remember those crazy stories about DHS and other federal agencies ordering millions of rounds of hollow-point ammo? Perhaps it makes a little more sense when you realize that “The agencies employ about 120,000 full-time officers authorized to carry guns and make arrests, according to a June 2012 Justice Department report.” Still it’s overkill, true, but the more armed agents you have, the more overkill you need, right?
And those agencies you wouldn’t expect to carry? The Fox piece says they include the Library of Congress (remember the Seinfeld library cop: “we call them criminals”?), and the Federal Reserve Board. That’s right: Bernanke has armed officers. The Fed’s new motto: “The money may come from thin air, but it sure buys lots of bullets.” Or maybe, “The gold is gone, but we’ve got plenty of lead.”
Seriously, though, Balko notes, “The vast majority of today’s deployments are to serve search warrants for drug crimes. But the use of SWAT tactics to enforce regulatory law also appears to be rising. This month, for example, a SWAT team raided the Garden of Eden, a sustainable growth farm in Arlington, Texas, supposedly to look for marijuana. The police found no pot, however, and the real intent of the raid appears to have been for code enforcement, as the officers came armed with an inspection notice for nuisance abatement.”
Code enforcement. Zoning ordinances, people. If this does not signal to you that something has gone wrong in America, nothing will: SWAT teams are being called out to enforce zoning ordinances against lawful businesses.
I especially recommend reading Balko’s HuffPost article because he gives serious and clear recommendations to deescalate and defuse the situation. I won’t recount them here except to say that a large part of the phenomenon has grown out of, and is sustained by, federal grants to local police. I have covered this scheme in Restoring America, and law enforcement is one of the most abused areas, and one in which the effects have been most dangerous to life and liberty in America. Some of these programs not only promote militarization, but incentivize police departments to increase the number of drug arrests they make. SWAT raids become routine in part because of federal handouts. Balko rightly calls it the “police-industrial complex.” In reality, it is nothing more than an extension of the military-industrial complex: it’s just the domestic wing.
I would add that the constant warfare since the 50s has fueled the situation just as much, even if only due to the social psychological effects (though that is only part of the effects).
With a focus on wisdom and fiscal discipline, we can begin to restore freedom in this area. But wisdom and fiscal discipline are two very difficult things to come by, especially in public policy. Balko gives great recommendations, but successful reform will need to go much deeper. Militarization has become a culture and part of the American psyche. These are issues that need to be addressed by pulpits and pundits everywhere, and armed with lots of prayer.