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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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In part because of Kelly’s courageous refusal to accept a plea bargain for a crime she didn’t commit, we now know that all twenty- eight indictments were based on the word of a single confidential informant. Paschall’s office was forced to admit that the informant had both tampered with evidence and failed a polygraph test. At the civil trial for the lawsuit brought by Kelly and other defendants, the informant testified that Paschall had given him a list of twenty black men. He promised leniency for the informant’s own burglary charge if he helped Paschall convict the men on the list. The informant also testified he was promised $100 for every suspect he helped convict beyond that list of twenty. The lawsuit was settled in 2005. Of the twenty-eight people charged, seventeen were later exonerated. The 2008 movie American Violet was based on Kelly’s experience after she was arrested.

But similar mass round-up raids had been going on in Hearne for fifteen years. “They come on helicopters, military-style, SWAT style,” Kelly told me. “In the apartments I was living in, in the projects, there were a lot of children outside playing. They don’t care. They throw kids on the ground, put guns to their heads. They’re kicking in doors. They just don’t care.”

In the following years, there were numerous other corruption scandals, botched raids, sloppy police work, and other allegations of misconduct against the federally funded task forces in Texas. Things got so that by the middle of the 2000s Gov. Rick Perry began diverting state matching funds away from the task forces to other programs. The cut in funding forced many task forces to shut down. The stream of lawsuits shut down or limited the operations of others. In 2001 the state had fifty-one federally funded task forces. By the spring of 2006, it was down to twenty-two.

Funding for the Byrne grant program had held steady at about $500 million through most of the Clinton administration. Just as it had done with the cops program, the Bush administration began to pare the program down—to about $170 million by 2008. This was more out of an interest in limiting federal influence on law enforcement than concern for police abuse or drug war excesses.

But the reaction from law enforcement was interesting. In March 2008, Byrne-funded task forces across the country staged a series of coordinated drug raids dubbed Operation Byrne Blitz. The intent was to make a series of large drug seizures to demonstrate how important the Byrne grants were to fighting the drug war. In Kentucky alone, for example, task forces uncovered 23 methamphetamine labs, seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana, and arrested 565 people for illegal drug use. Of course, if police in a single state could simply go out and find 23 meth labs and 2,400 pounds of marijuana in twenty-four hours just to make a political point about drug war funding, that was probably a good indication that twenty years of Byrne grants and four decades of drug warring hadn’t really accomplished much.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama criticized Bush and the Republicans for cutting Byrne, a federal police program beloved by his running mate Joe Biden. Despite Tulia, Hearne, a growing pile of bodies from botched drug raids, and the objections of groups as diverse as the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, La Raza, and the Cato Institute, Obama promised to restore full funding to the program, which, he said, “has been critical to creating the anti-gang and anti-drug task forces our communities need.” He kept his promise. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act resuscitated the Byrne grants with a whopping $2 billion infusion, by far the largest budget in the program’s twenty-year history.

 
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