The militarization of the police has hardly been stealth yet progressives and freedom-loving citizens have not mounted the kind of spotlight on the issue to bring about some collective action. In St. Louis, that inertia has started to change when the police chief announced he’d like some drones in his arsenal of crime-fighting weapons. That was the proverbial straw that finally broke the camel’s back.
The first Special Weapons and Technical team was unleashed in Philly around 1964. But it was the Los Angeles Police Department who perfected the SWAT team making history with its first significant target being the Black Panthers. It became clear that SWAT was designed as a counter-insurgency response to the social unrest of the 1960s, particularly the anti-war and black liberation movements.
We’re all familiar with the billions of dollars that police departments have justified for their wars on drugs and terrorism. They use every opportunity of shoot-outs with gang members or terrorists threats to bemoan their disadvantage and the need for more money and more deadly weapons for their operations.
Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, says that the number of SWAT team raids has soared from a few hundred annually in the 1970′s to more than 50,000 per year by 2005.
The dramatic increase in raids is due to the so-called war of drugs, post 9/11 counter terrorism initiatives and Pentagon’s 1033 Program where surplus military equipment is donated to local police departments.
Most citizens are less familiar with the kind of hardware that’s coming from the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq to streets in your hometown. Local departments can order up anything from a 20-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected aka MRAPs to grenade launchers to 360-rotating machineguns. In 2011, $500 million in war toys was handed out to U.S. cities and towns, a record for the obscure program. Since the program started in 1997, over 17,000 law enforcement agencies have accepted $2.6 billion in military equipment.
There are some real problems emerging with the militarization of local police. Regarding the 1033 Project, local cops are ill-trained to handle this level of military equipment not to mention that taxpayers have to pick up the tabs for the use and maintenance (MWAPs get 5 miles to a gallon of gas.) Because there is little oversight, fraud and misuse are rampant. Equipment has shown up on e-Bay, been lost or distributed to the buddies of cops.
More frightening is the fact that since police have these super toys, they feel compelled to use them resulting over-reactions and over-kill such as botched raids and deadly encounters with innocent citizens.
Seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was accidentally killed by a Detroit SWAT raid gone horribly wrong. There are many more instances where doors were kicked in, walls knocked down, personal property destroyed and residents traumatized, only to find out it was the wrong house or no cache of drugs found.
Many of us don’t buy into the “serve and protect“ motto. Using military weapons designed for combat and killing of foreign enemies is more than a philosophical contradiction; it is the roots of a police state. It is a dangerous trend that has no place in our schools and neighborhoods. The militarization of police is particularly troubling in the face of overall declining violent crime rates (even though homicides remain high among young black and brought).
The data tells us that it will likely be social justice activists staring down the barrel of an armored personnel carrier (APC) than a terrorist. Peaceful protesters, like Occupy, have felt the wrath of militarized police. Most of the SWAT raids and engagement of military equipment have been used for non-violence offenses or protests. That’s incentive enough for us to ramp up our efforts to shut down the 1033 Program and to begin the necessary efforts to de-militarize local police.
In St. Louis, we’ve decided to hone in on the drone. Drone Free St. Louis plans to raise the safety issues along with the potential desecration of privacy rights and civil liberties.
Citizens want safety and peace of mind but not at the expense of lives and liberties.