The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched a nationwide campaign to assess police militarization in the United States. Starting Wednesday, ACLU affiliates in 23 states are sending open records requests to hundreds of state and local police agencies requesting information about their SWAT teams, such as how often and for what reasons they’re deployed, what types of weapons they use, how often citizens are injured during SWAT raids, and how they’re funded. More affiliates may join the effort in the coming weeks.
Additionally, the affiliates will ask for information about drones, GPS tracking devices, how much military equipment the police agencies have obtained through programs run through the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, and how often and for what purpose state National Guards are participating in enforcement of drug laws.
“We’ve known for a while now that American neighborhoods are increasingly being policed by cops armed with the weapons and tactics of war,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, which is coordinating the investigation. “The aim of this investigation is to find out just how pervasive this is, and to what extent federal funding is incentivizing this trend.”
The militarization of America’s police forces has been going on for about a generation now. Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates first conceived the idea of the SWAT team in the late 1960s, in response to the Watts riots and a few mass shooting incidents for which he thought the police were unprepared. Gates wanted an elite team of specialized cops similar to groups like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs that could respond to riots, barricades, shootouts, or hostage-takings with more skill and precision than everyday patrol officers.
The concept caught on, particularly after a couple of high-profile, televised confrontations between Gates’ SWAT team and a Black Panther holdout in 1969, and then with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973. Given the rioting, protests, and general social unrest of the time, Gates’ idea quickly grew popular in law enforcement circles, particularly in cities worried about rioting and domestic terrorism.
From Gates’ lone team in LA, according to a New York Times investigation, the number of SWAT teams in the U.S. grew to 500 by 1975. By 1982, nearly 60 percent of American cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team.
Throughout those early years, SWAT teams were generally used as Gates had intended. They deployed when there was a suspect, gunman or escaped fugitive who posed an immediate threat to the public, using force to defuse an already violent situation.
By 1995, however, nearly 90 percent of cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team — and many had several, according to Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, who in the late 1990s conducted two highly publicized surveys of police departments across the country, and a follow-up survey several years later. Even in smaller towns — municipalities with 25,000 to 50,000 people — Kraska found that the number of SWAT teams increased by more than 300 percent between 1984 and 1995. By 2000, 75 percent of those towns also had their own SWAT team.
Kraska estimates that total number of SWAT raids in America jumped from just a few hundred per year in the 1970s, to a few thousand by the early 1980s, to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s.
The vast majority of those raids are to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes. Police forces were no longer reserving SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics for events that presented an immediate threat to the public. They were now using them mostly as an investigative tool in drug cases, creating violent confrontations with people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes.
It was during the Reagan administration that the SWAT-ification of America really began to accelerate. Reagan (and a compliant Congress) passed policies encouraging cooperation and mutual training between the military and police agencies. The president set up joint task forces in which domestic cops and soldiers worked together on anti-drug operations. And, with some help from Congress, he nudged the Pentagon to start loaning or even giving surplus military gear to law enforcement agencies. Subsequent administrations continued all of these policies — and a number of new ones.
After Reagan, new federal policies provided yet more incentive for militarization. In 1988, Congress created the Byrne grant program, which gives money to local police departments and prosecutors for a number of different criminal justice purposes. But a large portion of Byrne grant money over the years has been earmarked for anti-drug policing. Competition among police agencies for the pool of cash has made anti-drug policing a high priority. And once there was federal cash available for drug busts, drug raids became more common.
Byrne grants also created and funded anti-narcotics multi-jurisdictional task forces. These roving teams of drug cops are often entirely funded with grants and through asset forfeiture, and usually don’t report to any single police agency. The poor incentives and lack of real accountability have produced some catastrophic results, like the mass drug raid debacles in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, in the late 1990s.
But politicians love the Byrne grant program. Congressmen get to put out press releases announcing the new half-million dollar grant they’ve just helped secure for the hometown police department. And everyone gets to look tough on crime.
During the Clinton administration, Congress passed what’s now known as the “1033 Program,” which formalized and streamlined the Reagan administration’s directive to the Pentagon to share surplus military gear with domestic police agencies. Since then, millions of pieces of military equipment designed for use on a battlefield have been transferred to local cops — SWAT teams and others — including machine guns, tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, bayonets, and weapons that shoot .50-caliber ammunition. Clinton also created the “Troops to Cops” program, which offered grants to police departments who hired soldiers returning from battle, contributing even further to the militarization of the police force.
Even programs with noble aims have gone awry. Clinton also created the Community-Oriented Policing Services program (COPS), the aim of which was to promote a less confrontational style of policing. But subsequent investigations by publications in Portland, Ore., and Madison, Wis., showed that those grants often went to start or fund SWAT teams. In fact, in interviews with police chiefs as part of his study, Kraska found that many of them believed SWAT raids and militarized policing were perfectly consistent with a community policing approach to crime control.
There hasn’t been a major effort to quantify the militarization trend since Kraska’s studies in the late 1990s. That’s what the ACLU is hoping to do with this investigation.
“You may remember the story from late last year about Pargould, Arkansas, where the mayor and police chief announced that they were going to send the SWAT team out on routine patrols in ‘problem neighborhoods’ to stop and harass the people who lived in them. After the story made national news, they changed that policy. But how many places is this happening where it isn’t making news? That’s one of the things we’re hoping to find out,” Dansky said.
One problem the ACLU may run into is a lack of cooperation from the police agencies it’s investigating. Kraska said that when he conducted his surveys in the 1990s, police departments were forthcoming, and even boastful about their SWAT teams. “We had a really high response rate,” he said. “But when the reports came out and were critical, and the press coverage was critical, they stopped cooperating.” Kraska said the response rate for his follow-up survey dropped off, and that police agencies haven’t cooperated with subsequent similar efforts by other criminologists.
In 2009, Maryland passed a SWAT transparency law. It requires every police agency in the state with a SWAT team to provide data twice per year on the number of times the SWAT team is deployed, the reason for the deployment, whether any shots were fired, and whether the raid resulted in criminal charges. The effort to get the law passed was led by Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., who was the victim of a highly publicized mistaken raid on his home in which a Prince George’s County SWAT team shot and killed his two black Labradors. The bill puts no restrictions on SWAT teams or how they’re used. Its only purpose is transparency. Still, it was vigorously opposed by every police agency in the state.
“This is one of the most intrusive things a government can do,” Calvo said. “These are government agents, breaking down your door, invading your home. And yet it’s all done in secret. In most cases, no one knows what criteria police are using when they decide how to serve a search warrant. There’s no transparency, there’s no oversight.”
“After the law was passed,” he continued, “we found out that there are ZIP codes in Maryland where every search warrant is served by a SWAT team. I mean, even if you don’t care about civil liberties, in some places less than half of these raids result in so much as a single arrest. So you’re conducting these dangerous, volatile raids, you’re terrifying people and putting them at risk, and you’re serving no law enforcement purpose.”