Recently a black family was awakened to the thunderous sounds of their front door crashing in and Gestapo-like footsteps fanning throughout their home. It was the St. Louis SWAT Team with no search warrant or explanation of their intrusion.
This is just one example of the militarization of domestic police which has accelerated over the years with little public scrutiny or restraint. And now, Police Chief Sam Dotson wants to add drones to his arsenal.
The mother in the no-knock raid was temporarily put in hand-cuffs and the father was thrown on the floor. Their juvenile son was taken to police headquarters and questioned without the presence or permission of his parents.
The first Special Weapons and Technical (SWAT) team was unleashed in Philly around 1964. But it was the LAPD 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 response to the social unrest of the 1960s, particularly the anti-war and black liberation movements; it was referred to as a counter-insurgency tactic.
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 the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, where surplus military equipment is donated to local police departments. It’s a buyer’s delight – free war equipment.
We’re all familiar with the billions of dollars that police departments have justified for their wars on drugs and terrorism. You may be less familiar with the kind of hardware that’s coming from the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq to streets in your hometown.
Local police departments can order up anything from a 20-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, aka MRAPs, to grenade launchers to 360-degree-rotating machine guns. 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 the fact that taxpayers have to pick up the tabs for their use and maintenance (MRAPs 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 buddies of cops.
More frightening is the fact that since police have these super toys, they feel compelled to use them, resulting in over-reactions and over-kill such as botched raids and deadly encounters with innocent citizens. Peaceful protesters, like Occupy, have felt the wrath of militarized police. Activists know that most SWAT raids and engagement of military equipment have been used for non-violent offenses or situations.
The creed of police departments is allegedly to protect and to serve. A soldier’s mission is to engage in combat and kill his enemy. These are conflicting missions, philosophies and behaviors and are troubling in the face of overall declining violent crime rates.
Citizens want safety, but not at the expense of their privacy rights, civil liberties or their peace of mind. Community security is achievable; a police state is undesirable.
A series of community forums are being sponsored by Drone Free St. Louis. For more information, visit www.dronefreestl.org.