[Media Awareness Project]

US: The Rise in Paramilitary Policing

Newshawk: Steve Young Pubdate: Fall 1997 Source: Covert Action Quarterly Contact: caq@igc.org Page: 20-25 Website: http://mediafilter.org/caq Author: Peter Cassidy

The Rise in Paramilitary Policing

At 4:30 a.m., the first wave of SWAT teams- clothed in battle dress uniforms (BDUs) with black hoods and wielding submachine guns - swarmed into nine homes in a rural community in Washington state. Some 150 officers executed search warrants in 1994, alleging that the residents were running a massive international drug cooperative and harvesting marijuana in underground farms.

The multi-jurisdictional SWAT team members came from 13 separate police agencies including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms, the Washington Air National Guard, the Washington State Patrol, three county sheriff's SWAT teams, and four small city police departments.

A massive, essentially military operation, the raid netted a few arrests for possession and 54 marijuana plants. It also terrorized eight children asleep in their beds when hooded figures burst in, guns ready. One officer put a gun to the head of a three-year old, according to witnesses, and ordered him down on the floor. Because the police were masked, had no badge numbers, and represented so many different agencies, the victims decided to settle out of court.

That July, on the other side of the country, another SWAT team ran amok. As Cleave Atwater tended to his customers at his club and pool room in Chapel Hill, North Caroline, the door suddenly splintered open and a mob of men in ninja hoods and fatigues waving automatic rifles rushed in and shouted for people onto the floor. Terrified, Atwater slipped out while his bar assistant sprawled face down in a pool of his own terror-provoked urine. On reaching the street, Atwater entered a surreal landscape in which paramilitary-style police taking part in a "Operation Readi-Rock" were selectively stopping and searching black people.

Atwater, proprietor of the Village Connection, had called the police months before to complain about drug trafficking near his Graham Street business. But when the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's Special Response Team (SRT) and the local police that held the warrant for the block-wide raid finally arrived in full battle dress, they brought little comfort or remedy.

The victims of North Carolina's Operation Redi-Rock raids survived their ordeals. In another incident, In Oak City, about 70 miles north of Chapel Hill, Jean Wiggins, a cleaning woman, was less fortunate. The SRT team that went into Graham Street put seven rounds through her body as she ran from a bank where she had been held hostage for 15 hours after a robbery attempt. In less that two years, a single paramilitary police team destroyed a lot of public trust and claimed the life of a woman who should have had every reason to expect she would be safer with the police than with her captors.

Occupied Territories USA

Atwater, Wiggins and the Washingtonians were witnesses to a fundamental shift in policing: the militarization of local law enforcement. This transformation is largely a consequence of a drug war that has incrementally evolved into a real domestic offensive with all the accouterments and ordnance of war.

Increasingly, America's neighborhoods, especially within minority communities, are being treated like occupied territories. In the past 25 years, police agencies have organized paramilitary units (PPUs) variously called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) or SRT (Special Response Team), outfits that go to work in battle dress uniforms with automatic assault rifles, percussion flash-bang grenades, CS gas - and even armored personnel carriers. The number of these unites and the situations in which they are been deployed are rapidly expanding. With predictable results: "civilian casualties"; police killed by friendly fire; and a growing, uneasy antagonism between the "peace-keepers" and the kept. Within the police, the elite, highly militarized unites have fueled a culture of violence and racial antagonism.

A landmark study by Professors Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler at Eastern Kentucky's School of Police Studies revealed the depth of saturation that these paramilitary units have achieved in US communities. For one thing, they are no longer confined to big cities. In 1982, 59 percent of police departments had an active paramilitary police unit. Fifteen years later, in a huge increase, nearly 90 percent of the 548 responding departments funded such units.

More troubling, however, Kraska and Kappeler found that police paramilitary units are now called in to perform relatively mundane police work - such as patrolling city streets and serving warrants. Indeed, with the mainstreaming of police paramilitary units, cities including Fresno, California, and Indianapolis, Indiana, send police to patrol non-emergency situations in full battle dress - giving these communities all the ambience of the West Bank. Of 487 departments answering questions about deployment scenarios, more than 20 percent said that their tactical teams were used for community patrols. Ironically, the rise in the number of PPUs is occurring at the same time as the concept of "community policing" is gaining popularity.

One commander of a paramilitary unit in a midwestern town of 75,000 described how his team patrols in BDU, cruising the streets in an armored personnel carrier. "We stop anything that moves. We'll sometimes even surround suspicious homes and bring out the MP5s (an automatic weapon manufactured by gun manufacturer Heckler and Koch and favored by military special forces teams). We usually don't have any problems with crackheads cooperating."

Just 15 years ago, city departments called out their tactical units little more than once a month on average, usually for those rarest of situations - hostage situations, terrorist events, or barricaded suspects. The mean number of call-outs for these unites rose precipitously to 83 events - or about 7 a month - in 1995. Of that sample, more than 75 percent were for thrilling, no-knock drug raids like Operation Redi-Rock.

Lt. Tom Gabor of the Culver City, California Police Department contends that PPU call-outs have "less to do with officer or citizen safety issues than with justifying the costs of maintaining units ... There exist literally thousands of unnecessary units." Moreover, he claims that regular police officers could have handled 99 percent of the cases in which SWAT units were utilized.

Targeting Blacks

One of the greatest costs of this militarization of local law enforcement, says Joseph McNamara, a research fellow in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has been the loss of public trust in police institutions, alienating communities from those resources. According to McNamara, a rotation onto these units is often given as a reward. "When you have police in military uniforms with military weapons - sometimes with tanks and armored personnel carriers, this reinforces the idea that the police are an occupation army as opposed to partners in the community," said McNamara. "People often feel these raids do not take place in white middle class neighborhoods and, by and large, that is accurate."

Nowhere has that alienation been more profound than in African American communities. In "Operations Readi-Rock" an entire block of an African-American neighborhood was raided and nearly 100 people were searched and detained. After Operation Readi-Rock, plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit claimed that all those arrests were black - whites were allowed to leave the area. No prosecutions resulted from the raid. The survey by Kraska and Kappeler substantiated that black urban communities in the US are bearing the brunt of paramilitary police activity. In some 126 follow-up telephone interviews in his survey, Krask found, "First and foremost most of the paramilitary activity we found was focused on a very small part of the black community - gangs and drug dealers."

Kraska also found racism within the ranks of one of these paramilitary units, apparently amplified by its culture and experiences. In response to Kraska and Kappeler's survey, a PPU commander wrote of his patrols: "When the soldiers ride in, you should see those blacks scatter." At one "training" session, the researcher observed members of three police agencies - including the state police - from a large industrial "heartland" state as they were developing a multi-jurisdictional paramilitary unit. (Officers shot automatic weapons at "head-sized" jugs of water.) One of the officers there was casually - and, apparently, unremarkably - attired in a T-shirt embossed with a drawing of a burning city; the caption read: "Operation Ghetto Storm."

In terms of public policy, the arrival of police ninja corps was preceded by a number of factors that initially had little relation to one another. Paramilitary police units in the US were established in two separate waves. The first modern urban police paramilitary team was put together by then-Los Angeles Police Commissioner Daryl Gates when he founded the country's first local SWAT team in the mid-1960s. Los Angeles and other big cities that followed its example created paramilitary units in response to civil disturbances of the 1960s and 1970s. At first, these teams were eyed with suspicion and used sparingly.

The War at Home

Then came the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s. Suddenly, there was a new rationale for aggressive use of state-sponsored violence since - any teenage moviegoer knows by now - drug dealers are wanton, diabolically violent characters, armed to the teeth, eager to fight to the death, and stereotypically non-white. From 1985 to 1995, the survey found, a second wave of paramilitary units was established - most in the smaller, less populous jurisdictions - to fight the drug war.

Starting in the 1970s, the military had been only casually involved in drug interdiction activities. Its participation sparked court cases charging violations of the Posse Comitatus Act, which was passed to end the state of martial law that existed in occupied southern states after the Civil War. During that period of repression, in which internal passports, arbitrary search and arrest, public beatings and lynchings were the norm, and the line between military and policing functions was routinely blurred. The Posse Comitatus Act became a guiding tenet of American democratic governance: the military is designed to engage in war, and the civilian police are charged with enforcing the law.

Then two changes in the law, first in 1983 and then in 1989, brought the military and police institutions side by side - formally and legally - at exactly the same time that the post-Cold War military was looking for a new mission. After those amendments to Posse Comitatus, the military could provide intelligence, materiel, transport services and training, as well as participate in drug interdiction efforts in almost every way short of direct search, seizure and arrest.

Subsequently, through programs including Joint Task Force Six at Ft. Bliss in El Passo , Texas, local police began receiving some of the same kind of military training as the Special Forces units. More than 20 of the respondents in Kraska and Kappeler's survey reported their paramilitary teams were trained by Army Rangers of Navy SEALS, military units that specialize in commando tactics. One commander told Kraska in a follow-up interview: "We've had teams of Navy SEALs and Army Rangers come here and teach us everything. We just have to use our own judgment and exclude the information like: 'at this point we bring in the mortars and blow up the place.'"

The similarities between police and military operations have raised serious questions about civil liberties. In May 1997, Marines conducting a border control "anti-drug" training mission shot dead a goat herder tending to his flock in Texas at the Mexico border. The four soldiers, dressed in camouflage, claimed that the herder - armed with a World War II era single-shot rifle, as is usual when protecting livestock in rattlesnake and coyote territory - had fired on them But where police would be required by law to announce their presence and fire only when their lives were in danger, the soldiers remained hidden and unannounced as they stalked high school student Ezequiel Hernandez for several hours.

As the army assumes civilian police functions, the police are acting - and looking - more like soldiers. McNamara, who served as a police chief in San Jose and Kansas City after 15 years in the new York City police department, partially blamed the militarization of police forces on the proliferation of assault weapons: "I predicted a long time ago, the failure to control military-style weapons into the general population would lead to further militarization of police." The drive toward high-tech weaponry was facilitated soon after the end of the Cold War when military spending reductions brought cheap war-surplus materiel into the market. (St. Petersburg, Florida, just bought its first armored personnel carrier this Spring - for $1,000 - from the US military.) Gun companies, perceiving a profitable trend, began aggressively marketing automatic weapons to local police departments, holding seminars, and sending out color brochures redolent with ninja-style imagery.

This confluence of experiences with martial-style ordnance, immersion into military culture, and popular media imagery quickly conspired to create a new hybrid agent of state-sponsored force that behaves much more like a war-making soldier than a constable on patrol. Almost immediately after type of "elite" training and ordnance became available to local police, fellow officers, bystanders and suspects alike started dying under bizarre circumstances surrounded by heavily armed, cinematically attired cops in military drag.

When police SWAT and Navy SEAL units teamed up in Albuquerque in 1990, they used a tow truck to tear the door off an apartment building, fire twice and kill the suspect, who had all of two marijuana joints on the premises. A 1994 SWAT raid at the wrong address precipitated the death of Accelyne Williams, a 75-year old retired minister in Boston who was chased to his death in his own apartment and died handcuffed, face down, his heart palpitating to its last. A March 1996 tactical raid in Oxnard, California, ended in the "friendly fire" death of a tactical team member in the confusion following the explosion of a flash-bang grenade. Last year, a Reno SWAT team member died in a parachute jump from a Navy helicopter. Every month it seems, another overzealous paramilitary gang kills another cop, a bystander or suspect - or settles a subsequent suit with the survivors.

Martialing Resources

How long this trend in policing continues is contingent on America's tolerance of police-sponsored violence in the name of crime prevention - and how long the public will continue misreading crime rates. Politicians eager for votes, police hoping to expand their budgets and turf, military planners seeking post-Cold War missions, and arms and training companies looking for profits, all have an interest in exaggerating the threat to the public posed by street crime.

Thus, while crime rates in most areas are falling, public fear that crime is spiraling out of control is increasing - as are demands to remedy the threat by extraordinary, even martial, measure. Neither the police nor the public is well-served by these misconceptions which promote empty, cinematically inspired displays of force over the unglamorous, long-term community policing schemes that put officers face to face with the people they are charged to serve. Such community-based law enforcement helps to build the unspoken covenant of trust that is the basis of effective, humane policing.

Kraska is not optimistic about which approach will triumph. he sees martial force being answered by greater force by law-breakers and fears a Cold War-style escalation of armaments in the streets of America. For besieged communities - often underserved by routine policing - the paramilitary teams are often seen as bringing relief.

Joseph McNamara believes that crime reduction associated with the deployment of PPUs is temporary because these units must always maintain pressure on the communities. The greatest concern is that these paramilitary forces will eventually be seen and perceived as an occupation army. How long can a community be, in effect, garrisoned? Tension kept this high, Kraska predicts, could lead to a flashpoint. "All it takes is one kid taken out by a submachine gun."

Philosophically, America has arrived at this threshold through its own militarism, its pathological puritanism, and its unshakable racism. After a decades-long national addiction to waging war on drugs - framed largely as a war against "unruly minority ethnics" - the deployment of cops dressed like extras in a Stallone movie waving automatic weapons around poor neighborhoods seems almost inevitable. And after 50 years of living as a nation in a peacetime state of emergency managed by the military, the sight of cops cruising the streets in war-surplus armored personnel carriers to remedy social, cultural, and economic problems shouldn't be such a shock.

Previous US: OPED: Siccing Cops On Teen Smokers Fri, 12 Dec Is Gross Overkill 1997

Next US: Selling SWAT Fri, 12 Dec 1997


[MAP] [Drug News] [Political Links] [Letter to Congress][Mailing Lists] [Feedback] [MAP Chat] [MAP Forum] [Guest Book] [Search]

Media Awareness Project Contact: Mark Greer (mgreer@mapinc.org) P. O. Box 651 Porterville, CA 93258 (800) 266-5759 Webmaster: Matt Elrod (webmaster@mapinc.org)