I have noticed over the last decades an increasing use of excessive force and the militarization of the police. We have seen casual use of pepper spray such as against non dangerous sitting students and Tasers against non dangerous and non threatening people. Tasers were originally designed to be an alternative to having to use a gun against a dangerous attacker. In the last few years, however, Tasers have increasingly been used punish/hurt/torture those who irritate the police by not being sufficiently cooperative. A person can easily be tasered after he is handcuffed because the police want to make him suffer for not making their job easier. This is of course a complete misuse of Tasers.
On top of that we too often have a complete lack of independent oversight with the police, who have enormous discretionary powers, weapons, a code of silence among the police, and police departments that are too often unwilling to impose discipline of their cops, and hold them accountable when they abuse their power. Too often when cops act badly, they get away with it, again and again. This only encourages rogue cops to act badly without consequences.
On top of that we have a militarization of the police. Paramilitary SWAT teams have grown from their original use aginst heavily armed dangerous drug gangs. From there the use of armed, military style nighttime home invasions has increased. I saw a documentary about the California Wildlife Service do one of these Rambo type pre dawn raids against a family suspected of having an illegal Piranha pet. They found the Piranha and a mother and two teenage boys. No one was armed and not one was dangerous. It was a complete overkill and overdone. A daytime knock on the door with a search warrant would have been much more appropriate. I have heard of similar SWAT style raids against food stores, and other unarmed, non-dangerous people committing minor crimes, if any at all. I think that too many cops grew up watching movies like Rambo, and they get to play out their fantasies of exciting combat, even against unarmed and non-dangerous civilians. To me it is a growing lack of maturity in our society. Curiously these raids are never done against bankers, who appear to have immunity against going to jail. Once again the police go after the little guy. New York police do stop and frisk against people without probable cause, in violation of the 4th amendment.
To add insult to injury our favorite agency the Department of Homeland Security (what a fascist sounding name) has been busily supplying police departments with military hardware. This, along with military type training, and an increasing military type mentality is changing the way the police interact with citizens, and it is not for the better. We saw a taste of this with the Boston bomber shutdown of Watertown. The police were like an occupying army. They looked and acted like one. It was like Latin America in the 1970s under military dictatorship. People were screamed at, guns were pointed, warrant-less searches at gun point were conducted. The citizens of Watertown had lost all their rights. In the end the whole overdone show was a complete failure. It was a civilian later who noticed that someone might be under a canvas tarp and called the police. And what did the citizens of Watertown do? The hailed and praised the police.
Things are not going to get better until the people stop applauding these abuses. People need to stand up and say “Enough is enough!” I find Americans far too complacent about the militarization of the police, the TSA and its abuses, the loss of Habeus Corpus, NSA spying, etc. A minority of Americans recognize the danger, but I get the feeling that large parts of the masses are utterly indifferent to what is going on.
Where is the passivity coming from? Too many medications addling their brain? Fluoride in the water making them passive? Overworked? Distracted and dumbed down by the emptiness and stupidity of so much of mass pop culture? To think that we once took and the greatest power at the time (Britain) and won. Today we can hardly even seem to care about what is going on. I assume that if Watergate were to happen today Nixon would be able to shut down any independent investigation of the Watergate bombing, the press and the public would shrug, Nixon would stay in power and the whole thing would blow over quickly. In the early 70s our society was able to throw out a corrupt president who abused his power. Today I don´t think that many people really care or are prepared to do anything about it. People need to wake up. Maybe we have had it for too long.
Here is an article detailing the militarization of the police.
How Cops Became Soldiers: An Interview with Police Militarization Expert Radley Balko
What happened to friendly neighborhood cops? The drug and terror wars happened. Via Oregon DOT/Flickr
In 2007, journalist Radley Balko told a House subcommittee that one criminologist detected a 1,500% increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades. That’s reflective of a larger trend, fueled by the wars on drugs and terror, of police forces becoming heavily militarized.
Balko, an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and author of the definitive report on paramilitary policing in the United States, has a forthcoming book on the topic, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. He was kind enough to answer some questions about how our police turned into soldiers as well as the challenges of large-scale reform.
Motherboard: When did the shift towards militarized police forces begin in America? Is it as simple as saying it began with the War on Drugs or can we detect gradual signs of change when we look back at previous policies?
There’s certainly a lot of overlap between the war on drugs and police militarization. But if we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were two trends developing simultaneously. The first was the development and spread of SWAT teams. Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969. By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country. They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.
At the same time, Nixon was declaring an “all-out war on drugs.” He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.
But for the first decade or so after Gates invented them, SWAT teams were largely only used in emergency situations. There usually needed to be an immediate, deadly threat to send the SWAT guys. It wasn’t until the early 1980s under Reagan that the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis — mostly to serve drug warrants.
Balko, via the Cato Institute
During the police clashes with Occupy protestors, there seemed to be a focus on isolated incidents of violence, as opposed to an overall examination of how this kind of policing exacerbates situations. What conclusions did your research lead you to on this topic?
I actually think that the Occupy protests gave the broader militarization issue more attention than it’s had in a very long time. For 25 years, the primary “beneficiaries” of police militarization have been poor people in high-crime areas — people who generally haven’t had the power or platform to speak up. The Occupy protesters were largely affluent, white, and deft at using cell phones and social media to document and publicize incidents of excessive force.
We’re also seeing interest in this issue from new quarters as SWAT teams have fallen victim to mission creep in recent years and begun raiding poker games, bars, and even people suspected of white collar crimes. So far, the only state that has passed any meaningful reform legislation in reaction to a SWAT raid gone wrong is Maryland, which passed a transparency bill after the mistaken raid on Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo.
I suppose that may be the “it needs to get worse before it will get better” good news, here. As governments at all levels continue to expand the list of crimes for which they’re willing to send the SWAT team, we’ll inevitably see these tactics used against more people with more clout and stature to push for reform. It’s an unfortunate bit of realpolitik, but it’s undoubtedly true.
Deborah Blum has written that we refer to oleoresin capsicum as “pepper spray” because “that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen.” How did the use of these kinds of weapons become so commonplace?
I think part of the reason is that it has happened gradually. We got here by way of a number of political decisions and policies passed over 40 years. There was never a single law or policy that militarized our police departments — so there was never really a public debate over whether this was a good or bad thing.
But there were other contributors. For about a generation, politicians from both parties were tripping over themselves to see who could come up with the tougher anti-crime policies. We’re finally seeing some push-back on issues like incarceration, the drug war, and over-criminalization. But not on police. No politician wants to look anti-cop. Conservatives want to look tough on crime. Liberals love to throw money at police departments. So for now, rolling back police militarization is still a non-starter in Congress and state legislatures.
It won’t be long before we see pro-militarization lobbying and pressure groups. Say hello to the police-industrial complex.
The other problem is that political factions decry police militarization when it’s used against them, but tend to fall somewhere between indifferent and gleeful when it’s used against people they don’t like. Conservatives, remember, were furious over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and a host of BATF abuses against gun owners in the 1990s — and rightly so. Liberals mocked them for it.
Liberals were furious at the aggressive response to the occupy protests — and rightly so. And conservatives mocked them. Liberals are rightly angry about militarized immigration raids — conservatives don’t much care. Conservatives were mad about the heavy-handed raid on the Gibson Guitar factory. Liberals blew it off. Just a few weeks ago, Rachel Maddow resurrected the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents in a segment about gun control — and was dismissive of people who thought the government’s actions were excessive. Of course, Maddow was also fuming about the treatment of Occupy protesters.
Until partisans are willing to denounce excessive force when it’s used against people whose politics offend them — or at least refrain from endorsing it — it’s hard to see how there will ever be a consensus for reform.
The powers that be love to have Americans fighting each other over partisan issues, instead of uniting to fight the corruption and abuse of power. Divide and conquer: a successful strategy.
How did 9/11 alter the domestic relationship between the military and police?
It really just accelerated a process that had already been in motion for 20 years. The main effect of 9/11 on domestic policing is the DHS grant program, which writes huge checks to local police departments across the country to purchase machine guns, helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. The Pentagon had already been giving away the same weapons and equipment for about a decade, but the DHS grants make that program look tiny.
But probably of more concern is the ancillary effect of those grants. DHS grants are lucrative enough that many defense contractors are now turning their attention to police agencies — and some companies have sprung up solely to sell military-grade weaponry to police agencies who get those grants. That means we’re now building a new industry whose sole function is to militarize domestic police departments. Which means it won’t be long before we see pro-militarization lobbying and pressure groups with lots of (taxpayer) money to spend to fight reform. That’s a corner it will be difficult to un-turn. We’re probably there already. Say hello to the police-industrial complex.
This is very worrying. We know how politicians will do anything when they are paid off. The people don´t count.
Is police reform a battle that will have to be won legally? From the outside looking in, much of this seems to violate The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Are there other ways to change these policies? Can you envision a blueprint?
It won’t be won legally. The Supreme Court has been gutting the Fourth Amendment in the name of the drug war since the early 1980s, and I don’t think there’s any reason to think the current Court will change any of that. The Posse Comitatus Act is often misunderstood. Technically, it only prohibits federal marshals (and, arguably, local sheriffs and police chiefs) from enlisting active-duty soldiers for domestic law enforcement. The president or Congress could still pass a law or executive order tomorrow ordering U.S. troops to, say, begin enforcing the drug laws, and it wouldn’t violate the Constitution or the Posse Comitatus Act. The only barrier would be selling the idea to the public.
That said, I think the current state of police militarization probably violates the spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act, and probably more pertinent, the spirit and sentiment behind the Third Amendment. (Yes — the one no one ever talks about.) When the country was founded, there were no organized police departments, and wouldn’t be for another 50 to60 years. Public order was maintained through private means, in worst cases by calling up the militia.
The Founders were quite wary of standing armies and the threat they pose to liberty. They ultimately concluded — reluctantly — that the country needed an army for national defense. But they most feared the idea of troops patrolling city streets — a fear colored by much of human history, and more immediately by the the antagonism between British troops and residents of Boston in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The Founders could never have envisioned police as they exist today. And I think it’s safe to say they’d have been absolutely appalled at the idea of a team of police, dressed and armed like soldiers, breaking into private homes in the middle of the night for the purpose of preventing the use of mind-altering drugs.
The Founders would have been appalled at the idea of a team of police, dressed and armed like soldiers, breaking into private homes in the middle of the night.
I totally agree. We are slowly turned into that against which we originally rebelled. Why do we need a paramilitary police force? Are we expecting a war? What war?
As for change, the good news is that I think the public is finally waking up to this problem. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed more skepticism, for example, in the comment sections to stories about SWAT raids. I’ve also noticed more skepticism in much of the media coverage of these raids. And again, I think the fact that these tactics are now being used against people who have the means and status to speak out is drawing new attention to police militarization, and causing more people to question the wisdom of all of this. But again, there are some major political hurdles in the way of reform.
The gear and weapons and tanks are a problem. But I think a much deeper problem is the effect all of this war talk and battle rhetoric has had on policing as a profession. In much of the country today, police officers are psychologically isolated from the communities they serve. It’s all about us vs. them. There are lots of reasons for that, which I describe in the book but are too involved to get into here. But it’s really destructive.
I make a number of specific suggestions in the book about how to change that mindset — most of which came from interviews with long-time cops and former police chiefs. But generally speaking, cops should be a part of the communities in which they work. They should walk beats. They should know the names of the school principals, 7-11 managers, and Boys and Girls Club and community center staffers. When your only interaction with the community is antagonistic — responding to calls, conducting stop & frisks, questioning people — your relationship with the community will be antagonistic. Cops are public servants. Their job is to keep the peace while protecting and observing our constitutional rights. Somewhere in the process constantly declaring war on things, we’ve lost sight of that.
For 30 years, politicians and public officials have been arming, training, and dressing cops as if they’re fighting a war. They’ve been dehumanizing drug offenders and criminal suspects as the enemy. And of course they’ve explicitly and repeatedly told them they’re fighting a war. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that a lot of cops have started to believe it.
Sections of this article detail a lack of independent oversight when cops abuse their power. Too often police departments will overlook abuse out of a desire to “help their own.”
…Police officials always depict their officers as reluctant warriors who rarely, if ever, use or even brandish their weapons. But this is a fiction from the past. Officers tell me the old-school guys are mostly gone and that the new breed of cop has a military mentality and often a military background. The SWAT-team members are the ones who do the training and get promoted to top positions in the departments.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that police are far from reluctant to pull their weapons or feel much remorse when they do. After Riverside police gunned down a sleeping girl named Tyisha Miller in a car in 1998 (she had a gun in her lap, was unconscious, and after police smashed her window, she moved and they immediately opened fire), the officers involved in the shooting stood around, joked, and animatedly reenacted the shooting, according to Los Angeles Times reports. One of the officers commented, “This is going to ruin their Kwanzaa,” after upset family members showed up at the scene. One local man arrived at the scene of another officer-involved shooting and reported that the police were high-fiving each other.
In another recent local case, a Costa Mesa police officer admitted pulling a gun on a teenager after the officer noticed that the boy and his friends were riding their bikes without helmets. He chased the boy into the boy’s backyard and drew his gun. After the boy’s dog came to defend him, the officer shot the dog 15 times. The city paid the family a large sum of money, but the police department insists the officer’s behavior was correct police policy. That’s perhaps the scariest part of this whole disreputable incident.
Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara, now a scholar at the Hoover Institution, captured the essence of the problem in a November 29, 2006, column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. McNamara focused on an incident a few days earlier in New York, when several plainclothes police officers fired 50 shots at a car, wounding two men and killing a third, Sean Bell, who was to be married later that day.
How did this and other cases like it happen?
“Simply put,” wrote McNamara, “the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on ‘officer safety’ and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.”
According to McNamara, “Reasonable people accept that a cop’s job is difficult and dangerous, and most people understand that sometimes an officer will have to shoot someone. But the police are not and should never be allowed to think of themselves as soldiers or to believe they face the same level of danger.”
That’s exactly right. Even worse, there is virtually no public oversight or accountability, not only for police who follow these new policies and kill or hurt citizens, but for police who act outside proper authority and abuse their power. In Orange County, deputies spend about seven years patrolling the jail before being sent out onto the streets of our cities. Some critics wonder whether the experience dealing with prisoners leads at least some officers to treat members of the public with a high level of disdain. While police militarization is a problem on city streets, it is even worse for anyone under police custody.
Beaten by Inmates
In March of 2006, John Derek Chamberlain, who was stopped by an officer for public urination then arrested after he was found to possess child pornography, was savagely beaten to death for 20 minutes by fellow inmates. The Register reported that “[w]hile inmates beat John Derek Chamberlain to death, the senior deputy at the minimum-security barracks sat in the guard station, watching television. . . . The deputies’ failure to prevent the torture and killing of a man thought by jail inmates to be a child molester is at the center of an ongoing criminal inquiry.”
An inmate claims the deputy, who was several feet from the beating, actually instigated it after falsely outing Chamberlain as a child molester. Before any investigation was done, the county sheriff declared that his deputies did nothing wrong. Although other agencies typically investigate these killings, the sheriff’s department took charge of the investigation itself and even “cleaned up” the scene before the county supervisors’ staff arrived. The department refused to give the inmate a lie-detector test to corroborate his accusations. According to many solid sources, a group of deputies that calls itself “The Psycho Crew” routinely inflicts rough justice on inmates, picking particularly on minorities and drunks. The department denies this, but county taxpayers end up paying civil settlements to abused victims.
The Chamberlain case led to enough of a public outcry that the county board of supervisors voted to take the first steps toward creating an independent oversight panel. The sheriff, DA, and deputies’ union have tried to derail the proposal. It has been approved but the current plan, although useful, would create only a few advisory responsibilities. And, under current state law, almost all information regarding the disciplinary records of deputies and police are off-limits to civilian oversight panels, the public, and the media. As the American Civil Liberties Union explained, “On August 29, 2006, the California Supreme Court in Copley Press v. Superior Court held that records of an administrative appeal of sustained misconduct charges are confidential and may not be disclosed to the public. The decision prevents the public from learning the extent to which police officers have been disciplined as a result of misconduct.”
Police supporters claim the public already has plenty of oversight. But observers always find the same pattern: The internal investigations are not public, and the deputies stay on the force with no obvious punishment. The DA exonerates the deputies. The grand jury only gets involved in the most highly publicized cases, and such juries are controlled by the DA and represent a narrow, conservative demographic. (Around here, it’s mostly retired government workers who can afford to spend half their day working at the court for virtually no pay.) When a member of the public files a complaint with a police or sheriff’s department, it typically takes months to hear anything back. Then the only legal requirement is for the agency to say whether the complaint was “sustained” or “not sustained.” Such complaints are rarely sustained.
Code of Silence
Even when police engage in obvious misbehavior, fellow officers stand by the miscreants. There’s a well-known “code of silence.” Many people have watched the videotape of the savage beating of a barmaid by an off-duty Chicago police officer. The department had to be shamed into filing serious charges, and fellow officers showed up in force in solidarity when their compatriot had his court date. Juries in suburban communities are notoriously conservative, so when a case gets to trial, it’s difficult to convict an ill-behaving cop. In February former Irvine Police Officer David Alex Park went to court for pulling over a woman motorist, threatening to arrest her, but letting her off after she performed a sex act. Park argued that he pulled the victim over for her own safety and that the sex was consensual—as if sex could ever be consensual when an armed police officer has pulled a woman over and threatens to take her to jail.
The jury, however, bought the argument, and Park went free. He did lose his job, however, and the woman received a civil settlement from the city. Indeed, the only real oversight and justice in police-abuse cases comes from trial attorneys who sue police departments. It’s better than nothing, and such actions often dislodge police documents, but it’s a sad day when the only serious oversight of the most powerful government agents most people will encounter comes in the tort system. In many cases when police are caught abusing their power, their union defends them and keeps them on the force.
No wonder police officers behave as if they can do as they please. The Los Angeles Times reported last October 4 that Los Angeles County deputies play a game on the job called “Operation Any Booking,” in which the winner is the deputy who makes the most arrests or most car seizures in a 24-hour period. “It’s just a friendly competition to have a little fun out here,” said the department spokesman. Never mind that such “games” encourage officers to make unnecessary arrests and seizures.
Officers at times behave like they are part of an occupying army, and there are many stories of excessive force that don’t rise to the level of investigations and lawsuits, but are indicative of what’s going on out there. One of the Register’s independent contractors who services newspaper racks in the wee hours of the morning tells about the time recently when he was emptying money from a rack while wearing his newspaper apron and he saw an officer looking at him. Rather than approach and ask him what he was doing, several police cars surrounded him and officers came at him with weapons drawn; he was shoved to the ground, his arms painfully wrenched behind his back, and he was even taunted by an officer. He was let go after a short time, but is this really the way we want our communities policed?
Police officers in California in particular are well paid, so this is not a case of insufficient funds to hire quality candidates, as some people argue. In Orange County the average deputy earns a total salary and benefit package of $111,000 a year. They are eligible to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their final pay after 30 years of service, guaranteed forever, courtesy of taxpayers. Police agencies in California complain about a hiring shortage. The reason for the shortage is simple: a) rapid increases in retirement benefits have encouraged a large portion of local forces to retire; and b) unions are always lobbying cities to provide more police positions, and politicians often comply for political reasons. Who can say no? Police and deputies, after all, have been afforded near-hero status following the 9/11 attacks. And the media often provide photo ops for their anti-terrorism training exercises, so the public knows about the importance of their work. In a recent political battle police organizations made direct references to 9/11 as a reason to oppose any rollback of benefits. Politicians who go against the blue tide pay a heavy political price.
There’s no apparent limit to the political gains that can be made by pandering to the “law and order” crowd. Last June the Assembly Public Safety Committee considered a bill that would have overturned the Copley decision and restored some public oversight to police misbehavior. The room was filled with police officers speaking out against it. The cops told emotional stories about police officers being killed in the line of duty—even though news reports later revealed that none of the examples had anything to do with the release of public records. The committee could not muster a single Democratic or Republican vote for the bill. In the state legislature Democrats mostly oppose such reforms because of their ties to the unions, and Republicans mostly oppose such bills because of their commitment to “law and order.” It’s the perfect scenario for law enforcement, and a troubling one for the public.
Yet something needs to be done. While I was writing this article, the Santa Ana police gunned down an apparently unarmed man in a stolen car, and then shut down the freeway for five hours. The department would say nothing, according to the Los Angeles Times: the police spokesman “referred questions to the district attorney’s office, which investigates officer-related shootings. A spokeswoman declined to discuss the probe, citing district attorney policy.” And so it goes.
Police use deadly force at their discretion. Police agencies then investigate themselves. They release only the information they choose to release. Few politicians are willing to discuss police procedures, and the courts and legislatures uphold the “right” of police agencies to hide information about misbehaving officers. In California, police have a special officer’s “bill of rights.” America may not be a police state—that is, a political system characterized “by an arbitrary exercise of power by police”—but it’s getting too close for comfort.