The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched a nationwide campaign to assess police militarization in the United States. Starting Wednesday, ACLU affiliates in 23 states are sending open records requests to hundreds of state and local police agencies requesting information about their SWAT teams, such as how often and for what reasons they’re deployed, what types of weapons they use, how often citizens are injured during SWAT raids, and how they’re funded. More affiliates may join the effort in the coming weeks.
Additionally, the affiliates will ask for information about drones, GPS tracking devices, how much military equipment the police agencies have obtained through programs run through the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, and how often and for what purpose state National Guards are participating in enforcement of drug laws.
“We’ve known for a while now that American neighborhoods are increasingly being policed by cops armed with the weapons and tactics of war,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, which is coordinating the investigation. “The aim of this investigation is to find out just how pervasive this is, and to what extent federal funding is incentivizing this trend.”
The militarization of America’s police forces has been going on for about a generation now. Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates first conceived the idea of the SWAT team in the late 1960s, in response to the Watts riots and a few mass shooting incidents for which he thought the police were unprepared. Gates wanted an elite team of specialized cops similar to groups like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs that could respond to riots, barricades, shootouts, or hostage-takings with more skill and precision than everyday patrol officers.
The concept caught on, particularly after a couple of high-profile, televised confrontations between Gates’ SWAT team and a Black Panther holdout in 1969, and then with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973. Given the rioting, protests, and general social unrest of the time, Gates’ idea quickly grew popular in law enforcement circles, particularly in cities worried about rioting and domestic terrorism.
From Gates’ lone team in LA, according to a New York Times investigation, the number of SWAT teams in the U.S. grew to 500 by 1975. By 1982, nearly 60 percent of American cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team.
Throughout those early years, SWAT teams were generally used as Gates had intended. They deployed when there was a suspect, gunman or escaped fugitive who posed an immediate threat to the public, using force to defuse an already violent situation.
By 1995, however, nearly 90 percent of cities with 50,000 or more people had a SWAT team — and many had several, according to Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, who in the late 1990s conducted two highly publicized surveys of police departments across the country, and a follow-up survey several years later. Even in smaller towns — municipalities with 25,000 to 50,000 people — Kraska found that the number of SWAT teams increased by more than 300 percent between 1984 and 1995. By 2000, 75 percent of those towns also had their own SWAT team.
Kraska estimates that total number of SWAT raids in America jumped from just a few hundred per year in the 1970s, to a few thousand by the early 1980s, to around 50,000 by the mid-2000s.
The vast majority of those raids are to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes. Police forces were no longer reserving SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics for events that presented an immediate threat to the public. They were now using them mostly as an investigative tool in drug cases, creating violent confrontations with people suspected of nonviolent, consensual crimes.
Read more at The Huffington Post