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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rise of the Warrior Cop

Radley Balko posts a piece at the Wall Street Journal about the militarization of the police in America. From the article:

During the Reagan administration, SWAT-team methods converged with the drug war. By the end of the 1980s, joint task forces brought together police officers and soldiers for drug interdiction. National Guard helicopters and U-2 spy planes flew the California skies in search of marijuana plants. When suspects were identified, battle-clad troops from the National Guard, the DEA and other federal and local law enforcement agencies would swoop in to eradicate the plants and capture the people growing them.

Advocates of these tactics said that drug dealers were acquiring ever bigger weapons and the police needed to stay a step ahead in the arms race. There were indeed a few high-profile incidents in which police were outgunned, but no data exist suggesting that it was a widespread problem. A study done in 1991 by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute found that less than one-eighth of 1% of homicides in the U.S. were committed with a military-grade weapon. Subsequent studies by the Justice Department in 1995 and the National Institute for Justice in 2004 came to similar conclusions: The overwhelming majority of serious crimes are committed with handguns, and not particularly powerful ones.

The new century brought the war on terror and, with it, new rationales and new resources for militarizing police forces. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants since its creation in 2002, with much of the money going to purchase military gear such as armored personnel carriers. In 2011 alone, a Pentagon program for bolstering the capabilities of local law enforcement gave away $500 million of equipment, an all-time high.

The past decade also has seen an alarming degree of mission creep for U.S. SWAT teams. When the craze for poker kicked into high gear, a number of police departments responded by deploying SWAT teams to raid games in garages, basements and VFW halls where illegal gambling was suspected. According to news reports and conversations with poker organizations, there have been dozens of these raids, in cities such as Baltimore, Charleston, S.C., and Dallas.

* * *

Assault-style raids have even been used in recent years to enforce regulatory law. Armed federal agents from the Fish & Wildlife Service raided the floor of the Gibson Guitar factory in Nashville in 2009, on suspicion of using hardwoods that had been illegally harvested in Madagascar. Gibson settled in 2012, paying a $300,000 fine and admitting to violating the Lacey Act. In 2010, the police department in New Haven, Conn., sent its SWAT team to raid a bar where police believed there was underage drinking. For sheer absurdity, it is hard to beat the 2006 story about the Tibetan monks who had overstayed their visas while visiting America on a peace mission. In Iowa, the hapless holy men were apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear.

Unfortunately, the activities of aggressive, heavily armed SWAT units often result in needless bloodshed: Innocent bystanders have lost their lives and so, too, have police officers who were thought to be assailants and were fired on, as (allegedly) in the case of Matthew David Stewart.

* * *

What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.

Consider today's police recruitment videos (widely available on YouTube), which often feature cops rappelling from helicopters, shooting big guns, kicking down doors and tackling suspects. Such campaigns embody an American policing culture that has become too isolated, confrontational and militaristic, and they tend to attract recruits for the wrong reasons.

If you browse online police discussion boards, or chat with younger cops today, you will often encounter some version of the phrase, "Whatever I need to do to get home safe." It is a sentiment that suggests that every interaction with a citizen may be the officer's last. Nor does it help when political leaders lend support to this militaristic self-image, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did in 2011 by declaring, "I have my own army in the NYPD—the seventh largest army in the world."

The motivation of the average American cop should not focus on just making it to the end of his shift. The LAPD may have given us the first SWAT team, but its motto is still exactly the right ideal for American police officers: To protect and serve.

SWAT teams have their place, of course, but they should be saved for those relatively rare situations when police-initiated violence is the only hope to prevent the loss of life. They certainly have no place as modern-day vice squads.
 (Underline added). Read the whole thing.

The underlined portions seem to match police rationalization for the use of the force. Consider this recent incident from Sarasota, Florida:

After leaving her operating room scrub nurse duties at Sarasota's Doctors Hospital on Wednesday, Louise Goldsberry went to her Hidden Lake Village apartment.

Her boyfriend came over, and after dinner — about 8 p.m. — Goldsberry went to her kitchen sink to wash some dishes.

That's when her boyfriend, Craig Dorris — a manager for a security alarm company — heard her scream and saw her drop to the floor.

Goldsberry, 59, said she had looked up from the sink to see a man “wearing a hunting vest.”

He was aiming a gun at her face, with a red light pinpointing her.

“I screamed and screamed,” she said.

But she also scrambled across the floor to her bedroom and grabbed her gun, a five-shot .38-caliber revolver. ... But she felt anything but safe when she heard a man yelling to open the door.

He was claiming to be a police officer, but the man she had seen looked to her more like an armed thug. Her boyfriend, Dorris, was calmer, and yelled back that he wanted to see some ID.

But the man just demanded they open the door. The actual words, the couple say, were, “We're the f------ police; open the f------ door.”

... Then, to the couple's horror — and as Goldsberry huddled in the hallway with gun in hand — the front door they had thought was locked pushed open. A man edged around the corner and pointed a gun and a fiercely bright light at them, and yelled even more.

“Drop the f------ gun or I'll f------ shoot you,” he shouted, then said it again and again, Goldsberry and Dorris say.

According to the story, Goldsberry and Dorris were handcuffed for half an hour while the police and U.S. Marshals searched the apartment for a man who had never been there and was unknown to Goldsberry and Dorris. The story explains:

Matt Wiggins was the man at the door.

He's with the U.S. Marshal's fugitive division.

... He said they had a tip that a child-rape suspect was at the complex.

That suspect, Kyle Riley, was arrested several hours later in another part of Sarasota.

The tip was never about Goldsberry's apartment, specifically, Wiggins acknowledged. It was about the complex.

But when the people in Goldsberry's apartment didn't open up, that told Wiggins he had probably found the right door. No one at other units had reacted that way, he said.

Maybe none of them had a gun pointed at them through the kitchen window, I suggested. But Wiggins didn't think that was much excuse for the woman's behavior. He said he acted with restraint and didn't like having that gun aimed at him.

“I went above and beyond,” Wiggins said. “I have to go home at night.”

Goldsberry was at home, I said. She had a gun pointed at her, too, and she wasn't wearing body armor and behind a shield. She had no reason to expect police or think police would ever aim into her kitchen and cuss at her through her door to get in. It seemed crazy. She was panicked.

“We were clearly the police,” Wiggins insisted. “She can't say she didn't know.”

She does say so, actually.

“I couldn't see them. They had a big light in my eyes,” Goldsberry said the next day. And that man she saw aiming a gun through her window had nothing visible that said “cop,” in her mind.
 (Underline added). The deputy Marshal maintained that based on what they were doing (washing dishes and screaming hysterically, I suppose) he had probable cause to believe that they were the suspects for which a heavily armed team of police and Marshals were looking. What is truly scary, though, is that he believes that he acted with exemplary restraint by simply not shooting them, even though he was the one to initiate an aggravated assault.. How would Wiggens react is someone pointed a gun with a weapon mounted light at him through his kitchen window, and what would he think if he was on the receiving end of such obviously incompetent weapon's handling and piss poor police work.

Another point, which I didn't quote above, is that one of the reasons that Goldsberry didn't believe Wiggins was law enforcement was because she naively believed that no real police officer would swear like Wiggins did. In fact, police are trained to use foul language to terrorize and shock their victims into compliance.

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