* Paul Craig Roberts: The militarization of the police *


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

January 24, 2007
The Empire Turns Its
Guns on the Citizenry
by Paul Craig Roberts

In recent years American police forces have called out SWAT teams 40,000 or more
times annually. Last year did you read in your newspaper or hear on TV news of 
110 hostage or terrorist events each day? No. What then were the SWAT teams 
doing? They were serving routine warrants to people who posed no danger to the 
police or to the public.

Occasionally Washington think tanks produce reports that are not special 
pleading for donors. One such report is Radley Balko's "Overkill: The Rise of 
Paramilitary Police Raids in America" (Cato Institute, 2006).

This 100-page report is extremely important and should have been published as a 
book. SWAT teams ("special weapons and tactics") were once rare and used only 
for very dangerous situations, often involving hostages held by armed criminals.
Today SWAT teams are deployed for routine police duties. In the U.S. today, 
75-80 percent of SWAT deployments are for warrant service.

In a high percentage of the cases, the SWAT teams forcefully enter the wrong 
address, resulting in death, injury, and trauma to perfectly innocent people. 
Occasionally, highly keyed-up police kill one another in the confusion caused by
their stun grenades.

Mr. Balko reports that the use of paramilitary police units began in Los Angeles
in the 1960s. The militarization of local police forces got a big boost from 
Attorney General Ed Meese's "war on drugs" during the Reagan administration. A 
National Security Decision Directive was issued that declared drugs to be a 
threat to U.S. national security. In 1988 Congress ordered the National Guard 
into the domestic drug war. In 1994 the Department of Defense issued a 
memorandum authorizing the transfer of military equipment and technology to 
state and local police, and Congress created a program "to facilitate handing 
military gear over to civilian police agencies."

Today 17,000 local police forces are equipped with such military equipment as 
Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, battering rams, 
explosives, chemical sprays, body armor, night vision, rappelling gear, and 
armored vehicles. Some have tanks. In 1999, the New York Times reported that a 
retired police chief in New Haven, Conn., told the newspaper, "I was offered 
tanks, bazookas, anything I wanted." Balko reports that in 1997, for example, 
police departments received 1.2 million pieces of military equipment.

With local police forces now armed beyond the standard of U.S. heavy infantry, 
police forces have been retrained "to vaporize, not Mirandize," to use a phrase 
from Reagan administration Defense official Lawrence Korb. This leaves the 
public at the mercy of brutal actions based on bad police information from paid 

SWAT team deployments received a huge boost from the Byrne Justice Assistance 
Grant program, which gave states federal money for drug enforcement. Balko 
explains that "the states then disbursed the money to local police departments 
on the basis of each department's number of drug arrests."

With financial incentives to maximize drug arrests and with idle SWAT teams due 
to a paucity of hostage or other dangerous situations, local police chiefs threw
their SWAT teams into drug enforcement. In practice, this has meant using SWAT 
teams to serve warrants on drug users.

SWAT teams serve warrants by breaking into homes and apartments at night while 
people are sleeping, often using stun grenades and other devices to disorient 
the occupants. As much of the police's drug information comes from professional 
informers known as "snitches" who tip off police for cash rewards, dropped 
charges, and reduced sentences, names and addresses are often pulled out of a 
hat. Balko provides details for 135 tragic cases of mistaken addresses.

SWAT teams are not held accountable for their tragic mistakes and gratuitous 
brutality. Police killings got so bad in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, that 
the city hired criminologist Sam Walker to conduct an investigation of police 
tactics. Killings by police were "off the charts," Walker found, because the 
SWAT team "had an organizational culture that led them to escalate situations 
upward rather then de-escalating."

The mindset of militarized SWAT teams is geared to "taking out" or killing the 
suspect ­ thus, the many deaths from SWAT team utilization. Many innocent people
are killed in nighttime SWAT team entries, because they don't realize that it is
the police who have broken into their homes. They believe they are confronted by
dangerous criminals, and when they try to defend themselves they are shot down 
by the police.

As Lawrence Stratton and I have reported, one of many corrupting influences on 
the criminal justice (sic) system is the practice of paying "snitches" to 
generate suspects. In 1995 the Boston Globe profiled people who lived entirely 
off the fees that they were paid as police informants. Snitches create suspects 
by selling a small amount of marijuana to a person whom they then report to the 
police as being in possession of drugs. Balko reports that "an overwhelming 
number of mistaken raids take place because police relied on information from 
confidential informants." In Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, 87 percent of drug 
raids originated in tips from snitches.

Many police informers are themselves drug dealers who avoid arrest and knock off
competitors by serving as police snitches.

Surveying the deplorable situation, the National Law Journal concluded: 
"Criminals have been turned into instruments of law enforcement, while law 
enforcement officers have become criminal co-conspirators."

Balko believes the problem could be reduced if judges scrutinized unreliable 
information before issuing warrants. If judges would actually do their jobs, 
there would be fewer innocent victims of SWAT brutality. However, as long as the
war on drugs persists and as long as it produces financial rewards to police 
departments, local police forces, saturated with military weapons and war 
imagery, will continue to terrorize American citizens.

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