Pubdate: Fri, 29 Aug 2014
Source: Progress-Index, The (VA)
Copyright: The Progress-Index 2014
Author: Ronald Fraser
Page: A4


To the Editor:

In the 1960s, civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, and 
elsewhere faced local police officers armed with hand held batons, 
fire hoses, attack dogs and horse-mounted riot control officers.

Recently, in Ferguson, Missouri, civic rights protestors went up 
against aggressive local police officers equipped with body armor, 
automatic weapons, armored personnel carriers and at least one police 
sniper aiming a telescope-equipped assault rifle at the protestors.

Street protests today look a lot like those of the 1960s but, with 
drug war-driven militarization of local law enforcement agencies 
since then, the police response in Ferguson now looks a lot like urban warfare.

As is the case in many other nations, drug use might have been 
designated a public health and education issue. Instead, drug use was 
declared to be a criminal and law enforcement matter followed by a 
long, costly and failed "war" on drugs - especially against marijuana.

Tough on crime advocates flourished. Legislatures passed tough drug 
use laws that filled American prisons with a few drug kingpins and 
tens of thousands of recreational drug users and small time dealers.

Decades ago, as big time drug dealers in key cities became better 
armed and more violent, police departments reacted by creating 
special weapons and tactics teams (SWAT) to combat drug gangs. As 
SWAT teams became fashionable in law enforcement circles, smaller 
police departments climbed aboard.

Once upon a time, police departments first assessed their town's 
unique law enforcement, training and equipment requirements and only 
then went shopping. That process is now reversed.

Today police departments first load up on "free," hand-me-down 
military equipment available from the Department of Defense thrift store.

Once formed and equipped, police chiefs needing to keep their 
militarily-armed and trained, violence-ready troopers busy, turn to 
less violent tasks, such as serving court warrants. Actual 
situations, for which SWAT teams are genuinely needed, such as the 
Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, are rare.

A June 2014 American Civil Liberties Union study, War Comes Home: The 
Excessive Militarization of American Policing, found that 
seventy-nine percent of the SWAT deployments examined were search 
warrant executions in support of drug investigations. In the majority 
of the cases the police did not face genuine threats to their safety 
and security.

The study adds that, "SWAT teams were often deployed - unnecessarily 
and aggressively - to execute search warrants in low-level drug 
investigations; deployments for hostage or barricade scenarios 
occurred in only a small number of incidents.... Thus, the use of a 
SWAT team to execute a search warrant essentially amounts to the use 
of paramilitary tactics to conduct domestic drug investigations in 
people's homes."

Tens of thousands of police SWAT raids take place each 
year  resulting in excessive damage to private property and injury 
and death for innocent bystanders.

These raids, concludes a recent New York Times analysis, drives up 
the demand for combat weapons and equipment. Since 2006, according to 
the Times, a sampling of the combat gear received by state and local 
law enforcement agencies includes, in addition to assault rifles, 
body armor and grenade launchers: 432 mine-resistant, ambush 
protected armored vehicles; 435 other armored vehicles; 93,763 
machine guns, 44,900 night vision sights, binoculars and goggles.

Do 432 American cities really need mine-resistant armored vehicles? 
Do American police departments really need 93,763 machine guns?

The ACLU study once again confirmed that Blacks are more likely to be 
impacted by a SWAT raid than whites.

For example, in Allentown, Pa., police SWAT raids were 23 times more 
likely to impact blacks. The comparable figures for other police 
departments are: Burlington, N.C., 47 times; Fort Worth, Texas, 12 
times; Huntington, W.Va., 37 times; Ogden, Utah, 39 times; and 
Spokane, Wash., 10 times.

The events in Ferguson make the ACLU's advice for change even more urgent:

"The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics to conduct ordinary law 
enforcement-especially to wage the failed War on Drugs and most 
aggressively in communities of color-has no place in contemporary society.

It is not too late to change course-through greater transparency, 
more oversight, policies that encourage restraint, and limitations on 
federal incentives, we can foster a policing culture that honors its 
mission to protect and serve, not to wage war."

Ronald Fraser DKT Liberty Project Washington, D.C.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom