The Daily Beast and the Center for Investigative Journalism have put out a new report on police militarization, focusing primarily on police departments stockpiling battle gear in the decade since 9/11. There’s some great reporting here, particularly on the absurd Homeland Security outlays to states and police departments across the country. There’s also a cool interactive map. (I love that the feds gave Oklahoma $2 million for port security.)
And while it’s great to see this issue get more coverage, I do have a couple quibbles. First and foremost, there’s no mention at all of the drug war’s role in all of this. The report does give a few examples of botched drug raids carried out by tactical teams sporting military gear (the Jose Guerena and Cheye Calvo raids in particular). But other than briefly noting that those raids were part of drug investigations, the report never revisits the drug war.
It seems odd to leave the drug war out entirely. It’s true that homeland security spending has accelerated the move toward militarization. But things were already moving pretty quickly in that direction. And that’s because of the drug war. The militarization trend began a good 20 years before September 11, when the Reagan administration ramped up the war on drugs both with rhetoric and with specific policies. By 9/11, SWAT teams had already saturated the country, and the number of annual paramilitary raids had soared (from 3,000 in the early 1980s to about 40,000 by the early 2001). And also by 9/11, millions of pieces of military equipment had already been transferred from the Pentagon to local police departments across the country by way of the Defense Department’s surplus giveaway program.
A few more stats, courtesy of criminologist Peter Kraska:
- In the early 1980s, the average city deployed a SWAT team once per month. By 1995, it was seven times per month.
- In the mid-1980s, less than half of U.S. cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team. By 1997, more than 90 percent had one.
- Between 1985 and 1996, the number of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people with a SWAT team increased by 157 percent.
The other reason why the drug war is a critical component of this issue is actually contained in The Daily Beast piece, though you have to look for it. DHS gives out these grants, and local police departments justify all this gear, as part of the war on terror. But as the piece indicates, it’s rather unlikely that Fargo will ever face the sort of Mumbai-style terror attack defenders of these policies say shows why all the battle gear is necessary.
But of course now you have all this stuff. You might as well use it. And so it gets used for far more mundane police operations. Chief among these is the service of drug warrants. (See Calvo.) Using all that cool gear on drug raids is further incentivized by federal anti-drug grants and the possibility of asset forfeiture lucre, whereas keeping the gear idle until there’s an actual terrorist attack or school shooting can get expensive. (Most of this stuff needs to be maintained.) Let’s also not forget that since 9/11, the federal government has gone to great pains to tie drug use and drug distribution to terrorism. Such is why the feds will take a SWAT team to raid a medical marijuana clinic without much pushback. The clinic poses no threat, to the agents or anyone else. You could send a couple bureaucrats with clipboards to shut these down (or you could not shut them down at all!). It’s insane overkill. But we’ve so come to associate SWAT teams with drug raids, the disproportionate use of force barely registers with most of the public. Which is why we’re now seeing SWAT teams used to raid neighborhood poker games, suspected cockfighters, even for regulatory inspections.
The article also quotes and leave unchecked statements from law enforcement officials about criminals armed with war-like weapons, citing school shootings like Virginia Tech, and everyone’s favorite “the criminals have us outgunned” anecdote, the 1997 North Hollywood shootout. I’ve already addressed these arguments in the past (two examples here and here). And in 2007, I asked former LAPD narcotics detective David Doddridge about all of these heavily armed drug dealers:
RB: Police groups say that drug dealers are armed to the teeth. Heavily-armed, military-style SWAT teams are necessary to counter this high-powered weaponry.
Doddridge: I’ve heard that. And it’s just not true. In 21 years at LAPD, I never once saw any assault weapons on a drug raid. Drug dealers prefer handguns, which are easier to conceal. Occasionally you’ll find a shotgun. But having a bunch of high-powered weaponry around is just too much trouble for them. It’s too much for them to worry about.
I’m sure the sentiment isn’t unanimous, but an awful lot of cops I’ve talked to agree.
You could certainly argue that potential terrorists and school shooters are much more likely to be heavily armed. Which is why those are exactly the sorts of situations where SWAT teams are appropriate. But that doesn’t mean such once in a lifetime events justify handing out tanks and APVs to Fargo and Fon du Lac. Prolonged, Mumbai/Beslan/Columbine style attacks are (a) extremely rare, and (b) not how this equipment is used in the vast, vast majority of police agencies across the country. (The SWAT team did show up at Columbine, but they didn’t go in. They determined the scene inside the school was too dangerous.)
Since I’ve spent the bulk of this post poking at the report, I’ll just conclude by emphasizing that this is still really excellent stuff. Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz have added a wealth of important information to this issue. The grant distribution information in particular is really great, and something I’ve been trying to pry out of DHS for about a year. So an envious tip of my journalistic cap to them on that. Learning to navigate over, around, under, and through the FOIA gatekeepers can be a hell of a challenge.