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Why Do the Police Have Tanks? The Strange and Dangerous Militarization of the US Police Force

The federal government has supplied local police departments with military uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, and training.
 
 
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This article has been updated.

Just after midnight on May 16, 2010, a SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade through the window of a 25-year-old man while his 7-year-old daughter slept on the couch as her grandmother watched television. The grenade landed so close to the child that it burned her blanket. The SWAT team leader then burst into the house and fired a single shot which struck the child in the throat, killing her. The police were there to apprehend a man suspected of murdering a teenage boy days earlier. The man they were after lived in the unit above the girl's family.

The shooting death of Aiyana Mo'Nay Stanley-Jones sounds like it happened in a war zone. But the tragic SWAT team raid took place in Detroit.

Shockingly, paramilitary raids that mirror the tactics of US soldiers in combat are not uncommon in America. According to an  investigation carried out by the Huffington Post's Radley Balko, "America has seen a disturbing militarization of its civilian law enforcement over the last 30 years, along with a dramatic and unsettling rise in the use of paramilitary police units for routine police work." In fact, Balko reports that "the most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into the home."

Some 40,000 of these raids take place every year, and "are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers." And as demonstrated by the case of Aiyana Mo'nay Stanley-Jones, these raids have resulted in "dozens of needless deaths and injuries."

How did we allow our law enforcement apparatus to descend into militaristic chaos? Traditionally, the role of civilian police has been to maintain the peace and safety of the community while upholding the civil liberties of residents in their respective jurisdiction. In stark contrast, the military soldier is an agent of war, trained to kill the enemy.

Clearly, the mission of the police officer is incompatible with that of a soldier, so why is it that local police departments are looking more and more like paramilitary units in a combat zone? The line between military and civilian law enforcement has been drawn for good reason, but following the drug war and more recently, the war on terror, that line is inconspicuously eroding, a trend that appears to be worsening by the decade.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878  is a civil war-era law that prohibits the use of the military for domestic law enforcement. For a long time, Posse Comitatus was considered the law of the land, forcing militarization advocates to come up with creative ways to get around it. In addition to assigning various law enforcement duties to the military, such as immigration control, over the years Congress has instituted policies that encourage law enforcement to emulate combat soldiers. Hence, the establishment of the SWAT team in the 1960s.

Originally called the Special Weapons Attack Team, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units were  inspired by an incident in 1966, when an armed man climbed to the top of the 32-story clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin and fired randomly for 90 minutes, shooting 46 people and killing 15, until two police officers managed to kill him. This episode is said to have “shattered the last myth of safety Americans enjoyed [and] was the final impetus the chiefs of police needed” to form their own SWAT teams, according to an investigation by Diane Cecilia Weber. Soon after, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) formed the country's first SWAT team, which “acquired national prestige when used against the Black Panthers in 1969.”

 
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