Why Do the Police Have Tanks? The Strange and Dangerous Militarization of the US Police Force
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.”
Use of these paramilitary units gradually increased throughout the 1970s, mostly in urban settings. The introduction of paramilitary units in America laid the foundation for the erosion of the barrier between police and military, a trend which accelerated in the 1980s under President Reagan, when the drug war was used as a pretext to make exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act.
In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which amended Posse Comitatus by directing the military to give local, state and federal law enforcement access to military equipment, research and training for use in the drug war. Following the authorization of domestic police and military cooperation, the 1980s saw a series of additional congressional and presidential maneuvers that blurred the line between soldier and police officer, ultimately culminating in a memorandum of understanding in 1994 between the US Department of Justice and Department of Defense. The agreement authorized the transfer of federal military technology to local police forces, essentially flooding civilian law enforcement with surplus military gear previously reserved for use during wartime.
Weber found that "Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers" to law enforcement around the country. But this was only the beginning.
In 1997, Congress, not yet satisfied with the flow of military hardware to local police, passed the National Defense Authorization Security Act which created the Law Enforcement Support Program, an agency tasked with accelerating the transfer of military equipment to civilian police departments. Between January 1997 and October 1999, the new agency facilitated the distribution of "3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment to over 11,000 domestic police agencies in all 50 states. By December 2005, that number increased to 17,000, with a purchase value of more than $727 million of equipment," says Balko. Among the hand-me-downs, Balko counts: "253 aircraft (including six- and seven-passenger airplanes, and UH-60 Blackhawk and UH-1 Huey helicopters), 7,856 M-16 rifles, 181 grenade launchers, 8,131 bulletproof helmets, and 1,161 pairs of night-vision goggles."
The military surplus program and paramilitary units feed off one another in a cyclical loop that has caused an explosive growth in militarized crime control techniques. With all the new high-tech military toys the federal government has been funneling into local police departments, SWAT teams have inevitably multiplied and spread across American cities and towns in both volume and deployment frequency. Criminologist Peter Kraska found that the frequency of SWAT operations soared from just 3,000 annual deployments in the early 1980s to an astonishing 40,000 raids per year by 2001, 75-80 percent of which were used to deliver search warrants.
Balko cites Kraska's research from 1997, which observed that close to "90 percent of cities with populations exceeding 50,000 and at least 100 sworn officers had at least one paramilitary unit, twice as many as in the mid 1980s." He correctly points out that "the trends giving rise to SWAT proliferation in the 1990s have not disappeared, so it's safe to assume that these numbers have continued to rise and are significantly higher today."
Then there are the effects of the war on terror, which sparked the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the introduction of DHS grants to local police departments. These grants are used to purchase policing equipment, although law enforcement is investing in more than just bullet-proof vests and walkie talkies. DHS grants have led to a booming law enforcement industry that specifically markets military-style weaponry to local police departments. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is law enforcement's version of the military-industrial-complex.
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.
Training and technology-sharing between the defense and civilian law enforcement seems responsible for the pervasive culture of militarism plaguing domestic law enforcement. In fact, an estimated 46 percent of paramilitary units were trained by "active-duty military experts in special operations." Lawrence Korb, a former official in the Reagan administration, famously said that soldiers are “trained to vaporize, not Mirandize." As police officers continue to emulate soldiers in their weaponry, language, tactics, uniform, and mindset, it won't be long before they vaporize instead of Mirandize as well.
We have created circumstances under which the American people are no longer individuals protected by the Bill of Rights, but rather "enemy combatants." The consequences of such a mindset have proven time and again to be lethal, as we now rely on military ideology and practice to respond to crime and justice. For some insight into the implications, one needn't look any further than minority communities, which have long been the victims of paramilitary forces posing as police officers. Black and Latino communities in the inner-cities of Washington DC, Detroit and Chicago have witnessed first-hand the deadly consequences of militarization on American soil. Military culture now permeates all aspects of our society. Does anyone really believe that heavily armed soldiers trained to kill are capable of maintaining an atmosphere of nonviolence?
It's important to remember that police officers are not responsible for instituting these policies. Over the last three decades local police departments supplied with military uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, and training, were told they were fighting a war on drugs, crime and terror. The politicians who instituted these policies are responsible for the militarization creeping into civilian law enforcement. What might the end result be if the distinction between police and military ceases to exist? The answer is a police state -- and certain segments of our society are already living in one.
EDITOR'S NOTE:This article has been corrected since its original publication for more accurate attribution to original sources.