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.


32 comments

Agreed. The first step is to get rid of the Dept of Homeland Security which keeps funding this nonsense.

Thank you for writing this.

Don't forget we can also be guilted into voting

No money for social services, but plenty for the police to terrorize citizens for mostly trivial infractions. Just saw "Grapes of Wrath" a couple weeks ago on TMC. Great movie, much hated by Republicans back then (big surprise, eh?).
Noticed how in a time of hardship, the movie depicted plenty of officious cops. Beware, people.... In bad times the govt. will expand police powers to the exclusion of all else. They need this to maintain control when their legitimacy starts to slip and they lose the "consent of the governed". The militarization of the police and the proliferation of SWAT teams equipped with military hardware is a harbinger of fascism. I walked by Scott Stadium last year just before a football game and the streets outside and leading to the stadium were absolutely crawling with edgy cops, all spoiling for trouble. Some dressed in paramilitary drag were racing up and down McCormick Road on ATVs at speeds dangerous to pedestrians. You couldn't PAY ME to go to a football game under these circumstances, but what's really scary is that thousands of people are quite willing to go anyway.
Though the writer has irritated me with some of her past writings, I applaud this latest effort.

Great artical .

Its time to start at home and defund these fascist .

Agree with the thesis here. Although the author manages to get in some barbs implying that this is a "conservative" tendency, it has more to do with pure power. Love the food stamp reference: a lib cannot keep her (um, or his) desire for intoxicating levels of federal spending on failed social programs inside the sleeve, can she (or he)?

FYI, John Whitehead--I believe--has also written a book on this.

Spending on military vs social programs is a red herring. We waste too much money on both and they both need to be evaluated as to actual need and efficiency. Besides that both programs are funded with borrowed money we have no interest borrowing.

That having been said when we have too many people with power that need to justify a budget they will look for an excuse to spend money. When there is a shortage of police, cops tend to look the other way for small things, when there are too many you have 5 cops at Barraks Road chasing college girls for bottled water.

Angel eyes comments are proof that an enlarged government with a diverse agenda has successfully splt the populace which allows them to spend as much as they want on whatever they want and we just watch it happen because no one wants a cut in something they like. At some point when the oppression gets too much and the financial burden and social destruction from coddling lazy people (as opposed to the truly needy) becomes overwhelming the people will come together for the common good and replace the whole lot of them. Hopefully it will not be because the government is killing citizens with drones or because of a massive depression caused by overwhelming debt.

Many of our elected leaders are year after year trying to pass laws to take guns away from citizens when at the same time our government is arming localities to the teeth.
Google "Fema Camps" what’s that all about? Why are we building them? Why is DHS stock piling hundreds of thousands of multi-person coffins? Why did the park authority ABC and other government agencies purchase millions of rounds of ammunition this year? It is no longer absurd to think that crises will be created by our government, and pinned on a straw man, in order to gain acceptance by the populace for implementing Marshall Law. They certainly seem to be preparing for just such a scenario.

Before I even read this I knew this was a Janis Jaquith article. I smelled the righteous indignation and poorly constructed sentences from the front page. Voice of the Hook!

"..home to 23,409 souls" - do you mean people? Or are you suggesting that animals/plants/insects/stones don't have souls?

I hope that those of you who voted for big government are not too surprised that they spent our money on things you don't like.

Every person in America should read this book about police militarization:

http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Warrior-Cop-Militarization-Americas/dp/161039...

I just finished it last week. A lot of great history and accounts of militarization-gone-wrong. So much of it will leave you shaking with rage. A lot of the problems could be fixed if cops would just be held personally liable when their use of excessive force goes wrong (i.e. they would use excessive force a lot less), but we have given them near-total immunity.

The incident in Culpeper of a cop murdering that Sunday School teacher -- it was actually surprising that he was eventually held accountable, but if the Culpeper police department had gotten their way, he would have been let off the hook.

@Angel eyes..."No money for social services? Are you serious? 100 million people taking Gov assistance in one form or another. Charlottesville just built a 6 million dollar bum motel on 4th & Preston. If your poor, or claim you are, you get a free phone, food, housing, health care...Social services are running this country into the ground. Chicago is the first fatality, many more to come. Social services are great until you tax everyone into the poor house to pay for it and run out of money.

I'm confused. What exactly is the reason it was a bad idea to go into the Rugby Road situation with a SWAT team? A man and woman and their little children were home next door when law enforcement knocked to let them know what was to transpire, warning them to stay inside (they themselves chose to head to the opposite side of the house). Of course, that young family didn't know there were more than a dozen other guns including the same type of assault weapon used at Sandy Hook and more than $1 million in cash over there they clearly were willing to fight to protect. Those facts, even without the presence of law enforcement, turn that little stretch of fancy-schmancy Rugby Road into a scary neighborhood. LE arrived armed for bear, because that's what they were going in to capture. Imagine if things had gone the other way and the accused criminals had decided to shoot their way out. Happens all the time. I'm really glad they turned out to be overarmed. Better than the alternative. As for the other things you talk about, I'm with you. (The Harris Teeter fizzy water debacle makes me sick.) But I believe the only way to get back on the right course is to be vigilant when it comes to discussing whether LE has used the correct amount of muscle for a given situation. When it's too much, say so. When it's not enough, say so. When it's just right, say so. And learn from each of these three scenarios. I know we won't always agree. So thank you, Janis, for putting it out there. I hope this is merely the beginning of the conversation. To read more about local and national law enforcement gone amok (sometimes with horrible consequences), visit this Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-Patricia-Cook/405709186116293

What exactly is the reason it was a bad idea to go into the Rugby Road situation with a SWAT team?

Well for starters, if LE was not so preoccupied with all of their new big boy toys, maybe they would have, you know.. actually caught the perp. Remember that little detail? During all the flexing, the perp actually got away - in a car no less! Luckily for LE, perp was an idiot and was apprehended shopping at Barracks Road a day later.

Janis your argumentation here is about as substantiated as the Conservative rants about the 47%, welfare spending, etc. It doesn't mean that you're wrong but the argumentation is weak at best.

Change a few terms and this is Michigan Militia rhetoric: "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".

Amy Lemley August 30th, 2013 | 3:10pm

Imagine that if they had enough intel there was a need to arrest the occupants of the house they simply follow with plain clothes and slap handcuffs on them at the burger king or start bucks

Sans draconiam show of force.

This is gross overkill

Ahhh well, the official that turns of the spigot on Law Enforcement will just turn it on high for deadbeats. It is big government, who will always find ways to piss away money that is made by those that pay taxes.

Janis: Well done as always. The reason as best I could tell for this overkill raid was that the target of the police investigation lawfully owned a variety of firearms (most inherited) that he legally acquired using his real name. With no previous record, he was qualified to purchase or acquire any firearm he wanted. Despite this, there was no real or logical connection between this gun enthusiast and his non-violent enterprise. The fear that there could be such a nexus motivated the SWAT team to come out in force taking no chances when taking prisoners. This arms escalation is really less about the scare of terrorists than the fear of law enforcers raiding private homes occupied by both decent and not so decent citizens who, for the most part, acquired their arsenals by their legal exercise of their mostly unregulated Second Amendment rights. Instead of battling the Cold War or real terrorists, we are watching an arms race escalate between ordinary citizens who generally don't trust government and those sworn to protect them. This simply results from the NRA and their elected representatives believing that even the most reasonable and modest weapons regulations to protect us from automatic military weaponry, that don't give Bambi or any living creature a sporting chance, belong in every private home if that's your desire.

Best bumper sticker recently observed? - "The founding fathers would already be shooting back"

The Philly Police Department is missing an M-16 from their warehouse. They inventory these rifles using a paper system; no computer inventory. The vault in which they're kept has only a combination lock and video surveillance; no electronic, traceable access and no video surveillance. Don't worry, folks; this missing M-16 is one of 1,356 the PPD possesses, given to them by the Federal Government. That is about 1 rifle for every 1,000 residents of the city.

Add to that debacle the increasing brutality of SWAT raids as well as the growing number of erroneous raids. Then sprinkle in the declining standards of hiring in police departments in the past thirty years. Then add a dash of sloppy hiring practices of those whom they think are qualified (e.g., Culpeper PD).

And folks like Heilberg wonder why there is such distrust? He thinks the NRA is some kind of villain in this pantomime?

@Heilberg...what would you suggest we hunt Bambi with, a sling shot? Would that give Bambi a fighting chance? LMAO
By the way, automatic military weaponry is illegal, you haven’t heard? And the NRA backs that position.

WhoaNelly:

I'm not the expert but not all automatic military weaponry is illegal. Imitation knock offs that are considered to be "civilian" weapons aren't covered. The 1994 ban on assault weapons was allowed to expire by Congress a few years ago. The NRA opposes its re-enactment and, while it might be true that actual military weapons procured by the DOD are agreed to by the NRA, I've never seen it. I've never seen the NRA agree that a single firearm should be banned anywhere although somewhere somehow there must be something to back your point. Many assault weapons are grandfathered in or allowed by loopholes. While I doubt it will ever pass Congress, you can figure out what is currently legal by reviewing what they are unsuccessfully trying to make illegal:

http://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/assault-weapons-ban-sum...

Perhaps, to prove your point, you should provide actual links from the NRA website that call for banning any kind of automatic weapons or any firearms at all.

C-vill about to get a taste of the Police State .... look in the sky .

Here come the Marines .

No shortage of funds for more of the same .

The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. —

State and local government agencies in Virginia are getting $17 million in homeland security grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

http://www.whiotv.com/news/ap/defense/va-getting-17m-in-homeland-securit...

@Dave Heilberg
The "assault weapons" that you are referring to are not automatic. The idea that Police are in an arms race against highly armed criminals is a fantasy. No new automatic weapons have been available to civilians since 1986.

The older used ones that are legal to own are so tightly controlled (and are very expensive collectibles, I'm talking 10 to 15 thousand $) that they are very, very, rarely used in crimes. Half of the criminal uses (which total 4 murders over 25 years) were actually by LEOs gone bad.

Author Randy Balko was a recent guest on the radio show:
http://insidecville.com/nation/swat-raid-organic-farm/

make that Radley Balko, apologies.

Inside Charlottesville September 5th, 2013 | 12:55am

That was a very interesting broadcast.

The swatt raid on the organic farm just seems so far out there and over the top I am unable to see how the general public supports these tactics from the sidelines and public coffers.

Did you interview any of our local SWAT teams for this?

http://www.crozetgazette.com/2013/09/county-police-propose-a-station-in-...

HELP! We are all in a great deal of trouble with the impending loss of the hook, and expansion of gangs in western Albemarle! Please do not let the police expand into Crozet!

Regarding a Albemarle County police substation in Crozet-This is a terrible idea. I don’t feel that increased police presence in Crozet is either necessary or welcome. We are already subject to multiple “safety stops”, and I do not wish to be an expanded revenue base for the police. There are far more worthy project to spend $349,000, and this historic building should be put to better use, like a teen center or a train station. I for one, do not wish to make it a nice sleep over place for the police, and I do not want any sort of jail in Crozet. Beware the expansion of this organization. The actually location is totally inappropriate, as parking is already limited in the area, and is currently utilized by nearby businesses after hours. Also, due to the driving habits of the police officers have observed, someone is likely to get run over and then charged for jay walking. It sounds like this has already been decided without any public input, gosh, (they already know how much money they need, but hey, they will compromise, and even concede to sharing the space) and I find this unacceptable. No one I have spoken to about this is in favor of it. I looked on the agendas of the board of supervisors, and I did not find any .discussions regarding this. I for one, say NO! Please read this article, and consider the actions of the recent actions of the police department. Do we want them in our town with all their guns which they readily use? Do we need this kind of defense? I think the cost MUCH to high, and the return of limited value.

http://www.readthehook.com/110051/swat-overkill-our-military-weaponry-no...

Please remember the words of Ben Franklin

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Reply

The loss of the Hook is the los of any public voice in Albemarle County!

The plans for a police substation in Crozet are in it's final stages. If we wish to stop this, we must act now.