Friday, March 24, 2006

S.W.A.T. Nation

Is the United States relying too heavily on SWAT teams to police its streets? Has the use of these military-style squads raised the number of police shootings, or actually helped to bring them down? Is SWAT just another example of how our municipal law enforcement agencies are becoming increasingly more militarized?

Professor Peter Kraska, an expert on police militarisation from Eastern Kentucky University, produced a report back in '97 on the subject, and cites some interesting stats that chart the rise of SWAT in the last 20 years. For instance, in the 1980s there were about 3,000 SWAT team deployments annually across the US, but he says now there are at least 40,000 per year.

Daniel Engber refers to Kraska in this article for Slate, when he writes that "In SWAT units formed since 1980, their use has increased by 538 percent. By the mid-1990s, more than 80 percent of American cities had active teams, as did more than half of all law enforcement agencies in the country with more than 50 officers. (There are even SWAT teams for the U.S. National Park Service and for one of the subway systems in the Bay Area.)"

Apparently, no single square inch of public space should be deprived of having its very own "Special Weapons and Tactics" team. SWAT on the bus, SWAT in the mall, in the library, SWAT-recruiters at school, SWAT on your way to work, in the grocery store, etc. Chat with the SWAT before you go into to see their movie. Isn't SWAT really just one big advertisement for the military? Doesn't their presence just feed the culture of fear? Actually, doens't SWAT omnipresence interfere with community policing efforts which have developed close ties to residents over years and years of time?

All you need to do is flip on the tube: Dallas SWAT the docudrama, Texas SWAT the soap opera, SWAT the movie, SWAT the game, SWAT the lifestyle. It's all one big advertisement to get you to buy in to a culture of security, a culture which boasts an overwhelming deployable police force that is as capable of responding to American streets all the same it is anywhere else in the world. A complete cultural militarization of all future cities. Urban design as the ultimate SWAT playground. SWAT are the poster children of a U.S. military urbanism. Rummy's home front heroes in the war on terror.

Bradford Plumer reminds us that many of these units have been trained by the military and armed by the Defense Department, as part of Reagan's "war on drugs" campaign which has created a legacy of a hyper-involved military in domestic law enforcement. With all the needed policy backing to boot. The 1981 Congressional amendment to the Posse Comitatus Act authorized the military to "assist" civilian police in the enforcement of drug laws. In 1999 there was the CATO Institute Report, which documents a frightening history of the explosion of paramilitarism in American police departments:

Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired 600 Army surplus M-16s….

Kraska adds to this, "Of 459 SWAT teams across the country, 46 percent acquired their initial training from 'police officers with special operations experience in the military,' and 43 percent with 'active-duty military experts in special operations.' Almost 46 percent currently conducted training exercises with 'active-duty military experts in special operations.'… Because of their close collaboration with the military, SWAT units are taking on the warrior mentality of our military's special forces."

He also goes on to mention that while these units are meant to assist the local police force under certain conditions where a SWAT team is needed only as a last option, these units are actually now being deployed as full-time roaming patrols. It's also easy to view their role, somewhere between the military, a private mercenary contractor, and a local law enforcement agency, as "reflecting a shift in the culture of police work", not only in the way it is practiced, but in the way the military is pitched and the way it is sold to the police force.

In his own words, "These elite units are highly culturally appealing to certain sections of the police community. They like it, they enjoy it," he says. "The chance to strap on a vest, grab a semi-automatic weapon and go out on a mission is for some people an exciting reason to join - even if policing as a profession can - and should - be boring for much of the time. [...] The problem is that when you talk about the war on this and the war on that, and police officers see themselves as soldiers, then the civilian becomes the enemy."

As time always tells, the BBC just ran an article about a case in which a SWAT team gunned down an unarmed Virginia doctor, stoking concerns that the proliferation and overuse of these proto-militant police squads in everyday circumstances creates an unnecessary potentiality for mistakes and abuse.

Of course, SWAT could also be seen as embodying the apparent policy ambiguity preserved under the guise of Homeland Security (as a way to hijack local authorities with federal security mandates), which seems to give the powers of law enforcement in this country, without impunity, the right to use preemptive brute force whenever they see fit, even on their own people.

Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments (Diane Cecilia Weber)
S.W.A.T. Team Use In U.S. Law Enforcement Dramatically Increases (Professor Peter Kraska - 1997)
SWAT Teams Everywhere (Mother Jones)
Death raises concern at police tactics (BBC)
SWAT Did You Say? (Slate)


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