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Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America

Heavily armed SWAT teams are increasingly used for such small tasks as raiding poker games and trying to stop underage drinking. How did we get here?

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A handful of police departments do now mandate dog training, including Nashville, Omaha, and Milwaukee. Police departments in Austin, Fort Worth, and Arlington, Texas, do too. All began offering training after public backlash over one or more cop-shoots-dog incidents.

“In my ten years in law enforcement on the street, I can’t remember one case where a police officer shot a dog,” says Russ Jones, the former narcotics cop with the San Jose Police Department and the DEA. “I don’t understand it at all. I guess somewhere along the line a cop shot a dog under questionable circumstances and got away with it. Word got out, and now it seems like some cops are just looking for reasons to take a shot at a dog. Maybe it just comes down to that—we can get away with it, therefore we do it.”

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On the Friday afternoon before the 2009 G-20 summit was to begin in Pittsburgh at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a reader in the city sent me a photo he’d snapped moments earlier. The photo was of a police officer standing in the middle of an intersection. He was wearing a military-green top, camouflage pants, and combat boots. He had a gun strapped to his thigh and looked to be carrying another one. The camouflage in particular seemed odd—as it does whenever it’s worn by a police officer in an urban area. It was unclear why this cop would have wanted to hide, and even if he did, how camouflage would help him do so in the city. There seemed to be little purpose for it other than to mimic the military. In any case, it was a sign of what was to come.

This is how the country that gave the world the First Amendment now handles protest. There’s a disquieting ease now with which authorities are willing to crush dissent—and at the very sorts of events where the right to dissent is the entire purpose of protecting free speech—that is, events where influential policymakers meet to make high-level decisions with far-reaching consequences. In fact, the more important the policymakers and the more consequential the decisions they’ll be making, the more likely it is that police will use more force to keep protesters as far away as possible. As Norm Stamper said, this unfortunately was the lesson the country’s law enforcement agencies took from the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

A number of police departments from across the country had sent officers to Pittsburgh to help police the 2009 summit. Nearly all were dressed in similar paramilitary garb. In one widely circulated video from the summit, several police officers dressed entirely in camouflage emerged from an unmarked car, apprehended a young backpack-toting protester, stuffed him into the car, then drove off. It evoked the sort of “disappearance” you might envision happening in a Latin American country headed by a junta, or one of the countries of the Soviet bloc. Matt Drudge linked to the video with a headline describing the officers in it as members of the military. They weren’t, though it’s certainly easy to understand how someone might make that mistake.

Another video showed a police unit with a handcuffed protester. Officers surrounded the protester, propped him up, then posed with him while another officer snapped a trophy photo. (YouTube later removed the video, citing a terms of use violation.) It was later revealed that the police unit was from Chicago. They had taken vacation time to come to Pittsburgh to provide “freelance security” for the G-20 summit.

 
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