SWAT overkill: Our military weaponry is now aimed at us
We Americans are a fearful lot. Whenever a politician wants our vote, all he has to do is scare us. The candidate who creates the most fearsome boogeyman and proposes harsh measures to fight this enemy wins the election. Then, off he (or she) goes to the seat of power, and spends our money on fighting enemies, both real and imagined.
For decades, a very effective boogeyman has been illegal drugs. Our taxes have been poured into a war on our own citizens: people using marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or some other substance in order to get high. We are very afraid of this, apparently.
Additionally, we are fearful – and not without reason – of terrorist attacks. Naturally, we want to be protected from this danger. The Department of Homeland Security, which was created in response to the events of September 11, 2001, supplies astonishingly generous grants to localities, both urban and rural, so that these cities and towns may acquire military equipment— presumably to thwart our enemies, and to prevail in any hostage situations that may arise.
Great idea, right? What could go wrong?
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, since the Department of Homeland Security was created it has handed out over $34 billion in grants to localities to purchase such items as military-grade armored vehicles (some with nifty rotating turrets), grenade-launchers, and helicopters. By 2014, the Homeland Security grant bonanza is expected to reach $19 billion— per year.
For instance, the town of Keene, New Hampshire, home to 23,409 souls, with just two murders since 1999, received a DHS grant for $285,933 with which they purchased a BearCat, an eight-ton armored personnel carrier. You know, just in case.
Cities and towns all over these United States are now armed to the teeth with military hardware. Well-equipped SWAT teams have arisen like ticks on a hound dog.
Here’s the problem, here is what has gone wrong: While waiting for Al-Qaeda to attack, the temptation to make use of all these military toys has been, apparently, irresistible.
As a result, SWAT teams routinely mount no-knock home invasions in order to, say, serve a drug warrant on a suspected marijuana user. This involves middle-of-the night raids on the homes of American citizens.
A typical scenario, according to Radley Balko, author of the nightmare-inducing book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, involves breaking the door down, tossing in a flash-bang grenade designed to both temporarily blind anyone around, and to deliver a 136-decibel explosion so loud it screws with your inner ear and knocks you off your feet.
People dressed in black who might not identify themselves as police officers throw to the floor anyone who is in the house, including children and grandparents, and aim guns at their heads, all the while shouting and cursing. If there is a pet dog, it is likely to be shot and killed. The house is then ransacked and various items confiscated.
Again and again, these SWAT teams invade the wrong houses. Or they act on bad information from an unreliable informant. If you’re lucky, they realize their mistake and leave without ever apologizing or paying for what they have broken, or whatever pets they may have killed.
You and your children may never again feel safe in your own home. But people get high and this is a war on drugs, and you’re just collateral damage. Tough luck.
You may be wondering how often this sort of thing happens. According to Balko, “Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than one hundred times per day.”
A local SWAT team is a useful tool if you have a hostage situation or a violent criminal resisting arrest. What percentage of SWAT team raids are used in such situations?
According to an analysis conducted by The Baltimore Sun of SWAT team raids in Maryland (the only state to have passed a law requiring accountability regarding SWAT team activities) during a six-month period in 2009, raids involving emergency situations, such as hostage-taking and bank robberies, comprised a mere six percent of SWAT team assaults.
That leaves roughly 94% of SWAT team raids aimed at apprehending people who possess illegal drugs.
The use of no-knock entry is justified, police assert, because the residents might flush their drugs down the toilet by the time the police knock on the door and then wait the required fifteen seconds (fifteen seconds!) for someone to answer before they force their way in.
But think about it: If the resident has such a small amount of drugs on hand that it can be disposed of in a single flush of the toilet, we’re talking about very small potatoes. Is the person with just a baggie of pot SWAT-team worthy?
As if that weren’t bad enough, the use of SWAT teams has expanded to include regulatory agencies. Remember the April 11th Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control assault in Charlottesville’s Harris Teeter parking lot? Two UVA students had bought a six-pack of sparkling water, and the hyper alert ABC undercover team presumed the girls had (horrors!) bought a six-pack of beer. The seven agents surrounded the terrified girls’ car; one of them pulled a gun, others attempted to break the windows.
You’ll also recall, last spring, the raid mounted to bust the trio on Rugby Road who were alleged to be creating fake IDs that allow underage students to buy alcohol. The neighborhood was shut down as officers who were dressed for combat and bearing assault rifles appeared with an armored vehicle to apprehend the suspects.
If you’re the sort of person who loses sleep thinking about how outrageous it is for someone on food stamps to go home from the grocery store with a bag of Doritos— on your dime!— then these billion-dollar expenditures for the militarization of Mayberry should make you apoplectic.
Your elected representatives are pissing away massive amounts of your hard-earned money on a local arms race that continues to escalate, with no end in sight. Ready access to heavy equipment discourages the more subtle practices of community policing, wherein cops walk a beat and know the people they are serving and protecting. Military hardware creates barriers, and fosters a sense of “us versus them.”
Consider this bizarre twist: In our fear of foreign attackers, we are amassing obscene amounts of military weapons, and turning them on our own citizens. The asses we’re kicking are our own.
What can we do about this? For one thing, we can turn off the money spigot and stop the Department of Homeland Security grants.
Of course, you and I don’t have the power to do that. We do, however, have the power to elect candidates who will demilitarize local police departments, turn off the tsunami of taxpayer funds which is, for no good reason, bringing helicopters, tanks, and grenade launchers to every village and town.
Fear of being assaulted by a SWAT team is the new boogeyman. It’s high time for aspiring politicians to leverage that fear, win our votes, and put an end to this madness.