Police officers dressed in armored military gear, spraying crowds of protesters with tear gas and riding in armored military vehicles, became a common image since the country-wide protests that began as a result of the police killing of George Floyd in late May. However, this behavior from police is not new. Since the implementation of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in the mid-1960s, police departments have become increasingly more aggressive when carrying out routine operations, especially within communities of color. Military grade weapons, equipment, and vehicles have no place within routine police work in American communities. In order to protect vulnerable populations from an overbearing police presence, the use of military grade weapons and equipment must be regulated.
The first SWAT team emerged in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a response to the Watts Race Riots that took place in August 1965. These specialized units consisted of officers with prior military or special weapons training. Previously, specialized training was only authorized for use in emergency situations such as hostage, barricade, terrorist, or active shooter events. Since then, SWAT teams have been used in increasing frequency for non-emergency scenarios, specifically to serve search warrants in drug investigations. Only a few hundred SWAT deployments took place in the 1970s, that number jumped to 3,000 in the 1980s. By 2005, that number increased to a shocking 50,000 deployments.
The so-called “War on Drugs” of the 1980s had a significant influence on the increased use of SWAT teams, specifically for drug search warrants, and its impacts can still be seen in recent years. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study of 800 SWAT deployments, from 20 different law enforcement agencies between 2011-2012 found that 79% of SWAT deployments were used to serve search warrants in drug investigations. A majority of these deployments targeted people of color. Conversely, this study also found that only 7% of deployments were for hostage or barricade situations, of which white people were more likely to be the intended target.
Using SWAT teams to conduct routine policing has been detrimental to minority communities across the U.S. A study conducted in 2017 found that when utilizing military grade equipment in police work, police or SWAT officers were more likely to act violently. However, search warrants are used to collect evidence of a crime and an individual has not yet been charged, therefore specialized training and equipment may not be appropriate for these situations. Raids such as these often turn up a menial amount of drugs – meaning minority individuals have their doors broken down and their families traumatized in response to a small legal infraction.
Recently, through news and social media, we have seen images of police in military gear using physical violence, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and free speech. In these situations, the police treatment of the communities they are sworn to protect is analogous to how soldiers would treat enemies on a battlefield. Not only does this increased militarization cause unnecessary harm to communities, it also demolishes the trust that communities have in their law enforcement officers. Building trust within communities is an important factor in successful crime control and prevention efforts. When the police threaten those they intend to serve, this delicate trust is broken.
The question remains: how can we prevent the misuse of important emergency equipment while keeping our communities safe? One answer may seem obvious: regulation. Regulation should dictate how military-grade equipment can be used and assess if the agencies acquiring this equipment actually need it. According to the ACLU, “there is no single entity at the local, state, or federal level responsible for ensuring that SWAT is appropriately restrained and that policing does not become excessively militarized.” Not only is the militarization of police not regulated by government agencies, but this militarization also has no public or community oversight. Additionally, law enforcement agencies are not keeping adequate records of how this equipment is being used. This lack of data makes it difficult for researchers or other agencies to gain accurate insight into the use of such equipment.
State and local law enforcement agencies acquire military weapons and equipment from three federal programs: the Department of Defense’s (DOD) 1033 program, grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and through the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. Through these programs, the U.S. government has allocated over $43 billion in grants intended to purchase military grade equipment for law enforcement agencies. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, military-grade equipment was given to state and local law enforcement agencies as a way to better respond to terrorist attacks. However, as mentioned above, it is a rare occurrence that this equipment is used for its intended purpose.
The police force and the military are designed to be two separate entities. Although an armed police response may be necessary in some emergency situations, police are not using this equipment only for emergency situations. The problem arises out of using military equipment for routine police work, such as serving search warrants. Use in this way harms American communities–especially communities of color–and disrupts public trust in police. Police militarization creates a larger divide between police and the communities they serve. In the end, no one will win in the war of police militarization. The only way to protect American communities is through cooperation and trust, not violence and aggression.
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