Drug War Has Militarized Your Local Police
In recent years American police
forces have called out SWAT teams 40,000 or more times
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 US today,
75-80% 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
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 US 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, Connecticut, told
the newspaper, "I was offered tanks, bazookas,
anything I wanted." [Soldiers
of the Drug War Remain on Duty, By Timothy Egan,
March 1, 1999,
free version] 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 US 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
SWAT teams are not held accountable
for their tragic mistakes and gratuitous brutality.
Police killings got so bad in
Albuquerque, New Mexico, 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 mind-set 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 night
time 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
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 who 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%
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-
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
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.
CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
Paul Craig Roberts
him] was Assistant
Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration.
He is the author of
Supply-Side Revolution : An Insider`s Account of
Policymaking in Washington;
and the Soviet Economy and
Meltdown: Inside the Soviet Economy,
and is the co-author with Lawrence M. Stratton of
The Tyranny of Good Intentions : How Prosecutors and
Bureaucrats Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name
of Justice. Click
here for Peter
Brimelow`s Forbes Magazine interview with Roberts
about the recent epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct.