Photo Credit: National City Police Department
To assist them in deploying this new weaponry, police departments have also sought and received extensive military training and tactical instruction. Originally, only the largest of America’s big-city police departments maintained S.W.A.T. teams, and they were called upon only when no other peaceful option was available and a truly military-level response was necessary. Today, virtually every police department in the nation has one or more S.W.A.T. teams, the members of whom are often trained by and with United States special operations commandos. Furthermore, with the safety of their officers in mind, these departments now habitually deploy their S.W.A.T. teams for minor operations such as serving warrants. In short, “special” has quietly become “routine.”
ANYONE who has watched any National Geographic Television or Discovery Channel all-access program following law enforcement, or have witnessed them in action, or unfortunately have dealt with them first hand, will have noticed something: There is increasingly little difference between cops and the appearance of our modern infantrymen, deployed in war-zones.
The trend towards beefing up our police, military-style, started with Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) teams and high-priority, specialized gang units in big metropolitan areas, and was probably given momentum by watershed events like the violent and televised North Hollywood shootout in 1997; between bank robbers in full body armor, toting fully-automatic rifles, and woefully under-armed Los Angeles Police Department officers, that seemed to bring about imagery from the film Heat.
But it is mostly the great effect of 9/11 and the constant specter of myriad forms of terrorism that could potentially require military-type firepower, lurking just around the corner, that is mostly responsible for this new approach. Nationally, law enforcement had been reminded time and again, that in many ways they were not as well-equipped as they should be, to meet the challenges of modern-day policing. (And because Americans love their guns, it has increasingly fostered an arms race between cops and criminals, who can purchase an easily-converted-to-automatic AK-47 or an AR-15 at a gun show, and with some savvy and evil enterprise, load it with explosive rounds or those meant to pierce through body armor.)
As any global security analyst will tell you, law enforcement was and is considered one of the first lines of defense against terrorism. That is until the days after 9/11, when George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror” and the focus shifted towards our military. Under the old paradigm, the basic nuts and bolts of thwarting terror was laid at the police’s doorstep: doing good detective work, showing a presence, working with the community to be vigilant, and so on. But our dramatic intelligence failure on 9/11 and the two successive wars to address Islamist terror — if one counts Iraq as having this justification — and the creation of several agencies under the new Department of Homeland Security, all have conferred this fight largely to the domain of the United States military and the national-security-industrial-complex.
This, in turn, has changed the posture of America’s law enforcement. The police, now feeling even more under-prepared to handle all of its duties along with the addition and prioritization of the staving of potential terror plots, began to invest in military-style weapons, adopt its tactics, consult with the military’s special operations units for training (as though they are some opposing guerrilla force to a dictator in a banana republic), and now work to absorb the military mindset. In The Atlantic‘s “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” Arhtur Rizer, a former officer and the article’s author, explains that the justification behind this “weapon inflation” is primarily safety.
What was once considered tactics or weaponry only to be used in special circumstances, say like a S.W.A.T. team or the application of once-limited, but now readily available, assault rifles, are being regularly employed in the more routine parts of policing. But as pointed to in “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” there are some legitimate civil liberty concerns because of this, as a recent mishap in a botched raid involving an innocent ex-Marine named, José Guerena, who served two tours in Iraq implies:
Within moments, and without Guerena firing a shot–or even switching his rifle off of “safety”–he lay dying, his body riddled with 60 bullets. A subsequent investigation revealed that the initial shot that prompted the S.W.A.T. team barrage came from a S.W.A.T. team gun, not Guerena’s. Guerena, reports later revealed, had no criminal record, and no narcotics were found at his home.
Sadly, the Guerenas are not alone; in recent years we have witnessed a proliferation in incidents of excessive, military-style force by police S.W.A.T. teams, which often make national headlines due to their sheer brutality. Why has it become routine for police departments to deploy black-garbed, body-armored S.W.A.T. teams for routine domestic police work? The answer to this question requires a closer examination of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror.
The chief concern in regards to this escalation of firepower and this new mentality among the police is that the organizational culture in the military and its operational philosophy of: identifying if someone is a threat and neutralizing them, and if so, do it with limited civilian casualties; is unlike that of the police, whose role is to “keep the peace,” uphold the law and the rights’ of citizens, even those it suspects. If the police changes its posture from “keeping the peace” and treats everyone as criminals, the way the military treats everyone as a potential combatant, it creates more situations such as that of José Guerena, where excessive and lethal force is sometimes just the cost of doing business, and where suspects no longer have the rights that they are supposed to, as the officers become judge, jury and executioner.
When law enforcement begins to adopt the soldiers’ mentality, it tends to forget its original goals of maintaining a good solid relationship with its public, while upholding the laws when they are broken, along with the most important rights of the individual. This is not to understate the difficulty of their jobs or minimize their optimal chances for safety by not having them bring as many resources to bear as possible, as Arhtur Rizer put it:
The point here is not to suggest that police officers in the field should not take advantage of every tactic or piece of equipment that makes them safer as they carry out their often challenging and strenuous duties. Nor do I mean to suggest that a police officer, once trained in military tactics, will now seek to kill civilians. It is far too easy for Monday-morning quarterbacks to unfairly second-guess the way police officers perform their jobs while they are out on the streets waging what must, at times, feel like a war.
Notwithstanding this concern, however, Americans should remain mindful bringing military-style training to domestic law enforcement has real consequences. When police officers are dressed like soldiers, armed like soldiers, and trained like soldiers, it’s not surprising that they are beginning to act like soldiers. And remember: a soldier’s main objective is to kill the enemy.
Read “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police” at The Atlantic [Here]