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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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By instituting public policies that encouraged the collaboration of military and domestic policing, the US government handed a massive and highly profitable clientele to private suppliers of paramilitary gear. Following the breakdown of Posse Comitatus in the 1980s and '90s,  Peter Cassidy writes in Covert Action Quarterly  that "gun companies, perceiving a profitable trend, began aggressively marketing automatic weapons to local police departments, holding seminars, and sending out color brochures redolent with ninja-style imagery."

Private suppliers of military equipment advertise a glorified version of military-style policing attire to local police departments and SWAT teams. One such defense manufacturing company, Heckler and Koch , epitomized this aggressive marketing tactic with its  slogan for the MP5 submachine gun, “From the Gulf War to the Drug War—Battle Proven.”

Today's latest in paramilitary fashion sweeping through local police departments is the armored tank, which is making appearances all over the country at an increasingly alarming rate. The  police department in Roanoke, Virginia  paid Armet Armored Vehicles , a private company that specializes in military vehicles, $218,000 to assemble a 20,000-pound bulletproof tank with a $245,000 federal grant.

Not to feel left out, the  Special Emergency Response Team (SERT)  in Lancaster, PA, was recently seen sporting the  Lenco BearCat , a camouflage colored Humvee-styled tank that can “knock down a wall, pull down a fence, withstand small-arms fire and deliver a dozen heavily armed police officers to a tense emergency scene,” according to a local news report. The BearCat was purchased a year and a half ago with a $226,224 grant from DHS, yet it has spent nearly two years sitting in a garage at the county's Public Safety Training Center.

The most widely used justification for the purchase of heavily armored war machines is that violence against police officers has increased exponentially, necessitating the tank for protection of the men and women who serve our communities. But examination of the FBI's annual  Uniform Crime Report , a database that tracks the number of law enforcement officers killed and assaulted each year, reveals that this is simply not true. According to the UCR, since 2000 an  average yearly toll of about 50 police officers  have been feloniously killed, the highest reaching 70 in 2001. So the notion that militarization is a necessary reaction to a growth in violence against police officers is  absurd, considering that violent crime is trending downward.

Others argue these tanks are needed in case of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. But on September 11, 2001, I do not recall the NYPD complaining that a lack of armored tanks was impeding its policing efforts. And during the catastrophic tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri earlier this year, heavily armored vehicles weren't present nor were they needed to assist in the aftermath.

The majority of paramilitary drug raid proponents maintain that military-style law enforcement is required to reduce the risk of potential violence, injury and death to both police officers and innocents. Based on Balko’s investigations, the reality is that SWAT team raids actually “escalate provocation, usually resulting in senseless violence in what would otherwise be a routine, nonviolent police procedure.”

Just consider your reaction in the event of a SWAT team breaking down your door in the middle of night, possibly even blowing off the hinges with explosives, while you and your family are asleep. Imagine the terror of waking up to find complete strangers forcing their way into your home and detonating a flash-bang grenade, meant to disorient you. Assuming nobody is hurt, what thoughts might be raging in your mind while the police forcefully incapacitate you and your loved ones, most likely at gunpoint, while carrying out a search warrant of your home. Assuming you were able to contain the mix of fear and rage going through your body, consider how helpless you would feel to know that any perceived noncompliance would most certainly be met with lethal force.

 
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