The Daily Beast, Center for Investigative Reporting Take On Police Militarization

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

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.

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23 Responses to “The Daily Beast, Center for Investigative Reporting Take On Police Militarization”

  1. #1 |  Ornithorhynchus | 

    There really is a port in Oklahoma– the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, on the Arkansas River.

  2. #2 |  Matt | 

    Ornithorhynchus is right. Catoosa is like the Long Beach of the Midwest.

  3. #3 |  Don | 

    The other thing that never gets talked about with SWAT team deployments is the question “isn’t there another way to handle this?” Even if the criminals had us outgunned in any given circumstance, how many times is an assault really necessary? It’s apparently out of fashion to just wait someone out but we managed for decades to deal with hostage situations in banks, why is a house with drug dealers and no unwilling participants immune to being surrounded and having their power cut?

  4. #4 |  New Report on Police Militarization via The Daily Beast - INGunOwners | 

    […] of police in the USA which I thought would be of interest to INGO. Sources at link: The Daily Beast, Center for Investigative Reporting Take On Police Militarization | The Agitator __________________ "I'm Heihachi Hayashida, a fencer of the Wood Cut […]

  5. #5 |  Windypundit | 

    I think you could back up your cops’ intuitions with some statistics. I’m having trouble googling up a reliable source, but I’ve seen tables of homicide statistics broken down by weapon type and bullet caliber, and assault rifle calibers — e.g. 7.62mm, 5.56mm — are pretty rare. I remember checking in Illinois, and there were more killings by baseball bat than military weapons. (There are so-called assault weapons that shoot stuff like 9mm, but that’s a pistol round.)

  6. #6 |  Dante | 

    Radley wrote:
    “(The SWAT team did show up at Columbine, but they didn’t go in. They determined the scene inside the school was too dangerous.)”

    I also heard the same thing about the Virginia Tech shootings, that the police arrived outside and waited until the sounds of shooting stopped before entering the building.

    Can it be that the “heroes” are actually cowards who will not deploy unless they know there is no danger involved. Or, they know you have a dog.

  7. #7 |  Danny | 

    Nice understatement of the Columbine SWAT fail.

    Omitting the phrases “punked out,” “like little b!tches” and “defenseless left to die” was classic Balko tactfulness.

  8. #8 |  Ronald Pottol | 

    The police in some areas have realized than in a mass shooting type situation, the officers need to run in as they show up, as the shooter usually kills themselves as soon as there is resistance, and will keep shooting until they are dead. So SWAT is really only useful for hostage situations, and some sort of hypothetical felony warrant/raid that it truly can be justified.

  9. #9 |  Doubleu | 

    My small home town of 21,000 has a SWAT team. According to one of the council members each newly hired police officer costs the town $100,000 a year. This includes salary, pension, uniforms, insurance and benefits.
    (I have said this before)

  10. #10 |  Bob | 

    “The SWAT team did show up at Columbine, but they didn’t go in. They determined the scene inside the school was too dangerous.”

    Isn’t that awesome? These guys are too worthless and weak to go into an ACTUAL danger zone, but have no problem whatsoever with jacking Joe Citizen’s house on the weakest non-violent charge.


    The same thing happened in the much taunted Hollywood Bank Robbery. I think it took 19 minutes for SWAT to arrive, WELL after line cops had established a perimeter.

    SWAT sounds like a good idea on paper, but in reality, they serve little useful purpose.

  11. #11 |  c andrew | 

    Bob wrote;

    SWAT sounds like a good idea on paper, but in reality, they serve little useful purpose.

    But you are forgetting their primo use for instilling fear in the plebes and communicating papa government’s severe displeasure for your bad behavior.

  12. #12 |  dunphy | 

    columbine was the perfect example of institutionalized cop cowardice.

    the patrol guys waited for SWAT (prior to SWAT’s fuckups). absolutely 100% inexcusable. sadly, that was how academies and most agencies TAUGHT back then … wait for SWAT

    since then, many agencies have adopted ASAP training, but a real cop shouldn’t need TRAINING to know that when kids are being shot – you go towards the shooting scene, or you turn in your badge.

    personally, i’ve been in several dozen meth labs. some tend to be well armed, but the OP is correct – it’s almost always handguns.

  13. #13 |  dunphy | 

    “SWAT sounds like a good idea on paper, but in reality, they serve little useful purpose.”

    rubbish. SWAT definitely serves a purpose and when used properly imo are a net benefit to criminals (make it less likely that deadly force will be used due to their superior firepower, numbers, and tactics), cops , and everybody else

    however when overused AS THEY ARE, they are a net negative.

    the last time i was on an incident involving SWAT, one of their snipers managed to shoot a guy who had a rooftop position and was armed with a rifle, taking potshots.

    just because SWAT is over/misused does not render the concept of, or proper deployment of SWAT to be a good thing

    the problem is the over/misuse of SWAT.

  14. #14 |  Cyto | 

    In a campus shooting at the University of North Carolina the police didn’t manage to shoot anyone except the bystander who tackled the shooter while he was attempting to reload. (got him in the foot)

    Meanwhile, earlier this year police in Miami Beach managed to shoot 4 bystanders during “Urban Weekend” while firing volleys at a car that for all we can tell from the video evidence never posed a threat to anyone. They clearly had know reason for firing their weapons other than “I saw another officer fire his weapon”. They did manage to do a good job of executing him after he put the car in park though. Nary a peep about this story locally or nationally after the fact though. “Internal investigation” seems to translate to “out of site, out of mind”. I suppose the fact that a search of the vehicle 3 days after the shooting turned up a gun on the floor behind the driver’s seat let everyone tell themselves that they saved us all from a dangerous gunman.

  15. #15 |  Cyto | 

    did I really type “know reason”? Sheesh. Yet more evidence that a preview button would be nice.

  16. #16 |  dunphy | 

    Cyto, how about a link vs. just “a story”

  17. #17 |  Cyto | 

    Yeah, I’m lazy tonight.

    The UNC shooting was a long time ago. Seems fresh to me, but I’m getting old. The punchline to the story? a jury awarded the killer $500k from his psychiatrist.

    The Miami Beach shooting has a couple of video angles. My google-fu managed to come up with this relatively contemporaneous account of the police search for the weapon. A further update shows that all shooting victims were shot by police weapons. No need to worry though. Their boss was confident that the police would be fully cleared in any investigation just days after the shooting.

    To assuage any fears you have, watch the footage from the next morning. You can see that the only door to the vehicle they have opened is the driver’s side rear door. The floorboard behind the driver’s seat is where the search turned up a gun. 3 days later. Only it took another 4 days to figure out exactly where they found the gun.

  18. #18 |  Cyto | 

    Dangit. Here’s the link I fubared for the contemporaneous account.

  19. #19 |  dunphy | 

    thanks, cyto

  20. #20 |  Eddie H | 

    I was just ranting about this yesterday when I saw a picture in my local paper of the local police showing up at my daughter’s elementary school for a presentation to the kids all of whom are in 5th and 6th grade. Do they show up in their dress uniforms or regular working uniform to try and impress the young kids? No, they show up in full Army ACU gear including various patches on the sleeves like the Army does. And this is from a police department, Easton, PA, that I believe dissolved its SWAT Team a few years back after it got hit with multiple lawsuits following outrageous conduct by the SWAT Team members. Ridiculous.

  21. #21 |  Windypundit | 

    “a real cop shouldn’t need TRAINING to know that when kids are being shot – you go towards the shooting scene, or you turn in your badge”

    Don’t be too hard on the individual officers at the scene. A shooting at a school is a stressful situation, and centuries of military experience show that people under stress do not depart from their training, and if they’ve had no training, they tend to do nothing, especially if they expect someone else to know what to do. However, departments that have militarized to deal with “threats” really have no excuse for not having a better plan for situations like this.

  22. #22 |  Joe Bar | 

    I really wish everyone would leave the term “high powered” out of their descriptions of firearms. Military rounds are less powerful than the average deer round. The term just makes it more scary.

  23. #23 |  Charlie O | 

    (The SWAT team did show up at Columbine, but they didn’t go in. They determined the scene inside the school was too dangerous.)

    Fuck’n cowards. Heaven forbid they go into a building where someone might actually shoot back at them.