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"They Throw Kids on the Ground, Put Guns to Their Heads" -- The Horrors Unleashed by Police Militarization

SWAT teams burst through doors armed to the teeth, terrifying (and killing) children. How did we get here?

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But the last few years have also seen some trends that could spur some movement toward reform. Technological advances in personal electronic devices have armed a large percentage of the public with the power to hold police more accountable with video and audio recordings. The rise of social media has enabled citizens to get accounts of police abuses out and quickly disseminated. This has led to more widespread coverage of botched raids and spread awareness of how, how often, and for what purpose this sort of force is being used. Over just the six years I’ve been covering this issue, I’ve noticed that media accounts of drug raids have become less deferential to police. Reporters have become more willing to ask questions about the appropriateness of police tactics and more likely to look at how a given raid fits into broader policing trends, both locally and nationally. Internet commenters on articles about incidents in which police may have used excessive force also seem to have grown more skeptical about police actions, particularly in botched drug raids.

It’s taken nearly a half-century to get from those Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1960s to where we are today—police militarization has happened gradually, over decades. We tend not to take notice of such long-developing trends, even when they directly affect us. The first and perhaps largest barrier to halting police militarization has probably been awareness. And that at least seems to be changing. Whether it leads to any substantive change may be the theme of the current decade.

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BY THE MID-1990S, THE BYRNE GRANT PROGRAM CONGRESS had started in 1988 had pushed police departments across the country to prioritize drug crimes over other investigations. When applying for grants, departments are rewarded with funding for statistics such as the number of overall arrests, the number of warrants served, or the number of drug seizures. Those priorities, then, are passed down to police officers themselves and are reflected in how they’re evaluated, reviewed, and promoted. Perversely, actual success in reducing crime is generally not rewarded with federal money, on the presumption that the money ought to go where it’s most needed—high-crime areas. So the grants reward police departments for making lots of easy arrests (i.e., low-level drug offenders) and lots of seizures (regardless of size), and for serving lots of warrants. When it comes to tapping into federal funds, whether any of that actually reduces crime or makes the community safer is irrelevant—and in fact, successfully fighting crime could hurt a department’s ability to rake in federal money.

But the most harmful product of the Byrne grant program may be its creation of hundreds of regional and multijurisdictional narcotics task forces. That term—“narcotics task force”—pops up frequently in the case studies and horror stories throughout this book. There’s a reason for that. While the Reagan and Bush administrations had set up a number of drug task forces in border zones, the Byrne grant program established similar task forces all across the country. They seemed particularly likely to pop up in rural areas that didn’t yet have a paramilitary police team (what few were left).

The task forces are staffed with local cops drawn from the police agencies in the jurisdictions where the task force operates. Some squads loosely report to a state law enforcement agency, but oversight tends to be minimal to nonexistent. Because their funding comes from the federal government—and whatever asset forfeiture proceeds they reap from their investigations—local officials can’t even control them by cutting their budget. This organizational structure makes some task forces virtually unaccountable, and certainly not accountable to any public official in the region they cover.

 
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