7 Ways The Obama Administration Has Accelerated Police Militarization

07/10/2013 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jul 10, 2013
  • Radley Balko Senior Writer and Investigative Reporter, The Huffington Post

There were signs that President Barack Obama might rein in the mass militarization of America's police forces after he won the White House. Policing is primarily a local issue, overseen by local authorities. But beginning in the late 1960s with President Richard Nixon, the federal government began instituting policies that gave federal authorities more power to fight the drug trade, and to lure state and local policymakers into the anti-crime agenda of the administration in charge. These policies got a boost during Ronald Reagan's presidency, and then another during President Bill Clinton's years. Under President George W. Bush, all of those anti-drug policies continued, but were supplemented by new war on terrorism endeavors -- yet more efforts to make America's cops look, act and fight like soldiers.

But Obama might have been different. This, after all, was the man who, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, declared the war on drugs an utter failure. As Reason magazine's Jacob Sullum wrote in a 2011 critique of Obama's drug policy:

Obama stood apart from hard-line prohibitionists even when he began running for president. In 2007 and 2008, he bemoaned America’s high incarceration rate, warned that the racially disproportionate impact of drug prohibition undermines legal equality, advocated a “public health” approach to drugs emphasizing treatment and training instead of prison, repeatedly indicated that he would take a more tolerant position regarding medical marijuana than George W. Bush, and criticized the Bush administration for twisting science to support policy -- a tendency that is nowhere more blatant than in the government’s arbitrary distinctions among psychoactive substances.

Indeed, in his first interview after taking office, Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, said that the administration would be toning down the martial rhetoric that had dominated federal drug policy since the Nixon years. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," Kerlikowske told The Wall Street Journal. "We're not at war with people in this country."

This was an notable break from previous administrations. Rhetoric does matter, and for a generation in the U.S., cops had incessantly been told that they were in a war with drug offenders -- this, in a country where about half the adult population admits to having smoked marijuana.

Unfortunately, while not insignificant, the change in rhetoric has largely been only that. The Obama administration may no longer call it a "war," but there's no question that the White House is continuing to fight one. Here's a quick rundown of where and how Obama's policies have perpetuated the garrison state:

1. Pentagon Giveaways

In 1997, Congress added a section to a defense appropriations bill creating an agency to transfer surplus military gear to state and local police departments. Since then, millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on a battlefield -- such as tanks, bayonets, M-16s, and armored personnel carriers -- have been given to domestic police agencies for use on American streets, against American citizens.

Under Obama, this program has continued to flourish. In its October 2011 newsletter (motto: “From Warfighter to Crimefighter”), the agency that oversees the Pentagon giveaways boasted that fiscal 2011 was the most productive in the program's history. And by a large margin. “FY 11 has been a historic year for the program,” wrote program manager Craig Barrett. “We reutilized more than $500M, that is million with an M, worth of property in FY 11. This passes the previous mark by several hundred million dollars. ... Half a billion dollars in reutilization was a monumental achievement in FY 11.”

2. Byrne Grants

In 1988, Congress created a new federal crime-fighting program called the Byrne grant, named for Edward Byrne, a New York City narcotics officer killed by a drug dealer. Over the years, these grants have created multi-jurisdictional anti-drug and anti-gang task forces all over the country. Because these task forces usually cover more than one jurisdiction, they often aren't fully accountable to, say, a police chief or an elected sheriff. Moreover, they're often funded either with additional Byrne grants, or with money seized in asset forfeiture proceedings. They can operate with little or no funding from the polities they police.

The results have been unsettling. These task forces have caused numerous deaths, been responsible for botched drug raids on the wrong houses, and have been implicated in corruption scandals. It was Byrne-funded task forces that were responsible for the debacles in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, about a decade ago, in which dozens of people -- nearly all poor and black -- were wrongly raided, arrested and charged with drug crimes. One woman falsely charged in Hearne was Regina Kelly, subject of the movie "American Violet." In a 2007 interview, Kelly told me that the violent raids had been going on for years in Hearne before the task force was finally caught.

"They come on helicopters, military-style, SWAT style,” Kelly said. “In the apartments I was living in, in the projects, there were a lot of children outside playing. They don’t care. They throw kids on the ground, put guns to their heads. They’re kicking in doors. They just don’t care.”

The George W. Bush administration had actually begun phasing out the Byrne program. It had been funded at a half-billion dollars per year through most of the Clinton presidency. By the time he left office in 2008, Bush had pared it to $170 million a year. But the grants have long been a favorite of Vice President Joe Biden. And so Obama campaigned on fully restoring their funding, declaring that the Byrne grant program “has been critical to creating the anti-gang and anti-drug task forces our communities need.” On that promise at least, he has delivered. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Obama infused the program with $2 billion, by the far the largest budget in its history.

3. COPS Grants

The Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program has followed a similar trajectory. Its aim is noble, at least in theory. Community policing is the idea that cops should be proactive, and consider themselves part of the communities they serve. They should know the names of school principals, be friendly with business owners, attend neighborhood meetings.

This isn't the definition of community policing held by many police officials. In the late 1990s, criminologist Peter Kraska found, for example, that many police chiefs consider frequent SWAT raids and similarly aggressive policing to be a core part of a community policing strategy. In fact, some said they considered sending SWAT teams to patrol entire neighborhoods to be sound community policing.

Moreover, police department budgets are fungible -- there's really no way to control how these grants are spent once they arrive at the police station. A 2001 report by the Madison Capital Times found that many Wisconsin police agencies that received COPS grants in the 1990s had in fact used them to start SWAT teams. When presented with these findings, one criminologist was aghast, telling the paper, "Community policing initiatives and stockpiling weapons and grenade launchers are totally incompatible.”

Just as it had with Byrne grants, the Bush administration was phasing out the COPS program in the 2000s. But like the Byrne grants, COPS grants have long been a favorite of Biden. In fact, Biden often takes credit for creating the program, and claims it's responsible for the sharp drop in violent crime in America that began in the mid-1990s. (There's no evidence to support that contention, and a 2007 analysis in the peer-reviewed journal Criminology concluded “COPS spending had little to no effect on crime.”)

And so Obama resurrected COPS, too. During his first year in office, he increased the program's budget by 250 percent.

4. DHS Anti-Terror Grants

The Department of Homeland Security has been giving its own grants to police agencies. These grants have been used to purchase military-grade equipment in the name of fighting terrorism. The grants are going to cities and towns all over America, including to unlikely terrorist targets like Fargo, N.D.; Fond du Lac, Wis.; and Canyon County, Idaho. Once they have a new armored personnel carrier, or new high-powered weapons, most of these police agencies then put them to use in more routine police work -- usually drug raids.

According to a 2011 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the federal government has handed out $34 billion in grants since Sept. 11, 2001. The grants have also given rise to contractors that now cater to police agencies looking to cash DHS checks in exchange for battle-grade gear. All of which means there's now an industry -- and inevitably a lobbying interest -- dedicated to perpetuating police militarization.

5. Medical Marijuana Raids

Despite campaign promises to the contrary, Obama has not only continued the Bush and Clinton administration policy of sending SWAT teams to raid medical marijuana growers, shops, and dispensaries in states that have legalized the drug, he appears to have significantly increased enforcement. Just two years into his presidency, Obama's administration had conducted about 150 such raids. The Bush administration conducted around 200 medical marijuana raids over eight years.

Obama has also stepped up the heavy-handed raids often used to enforce immigration laws. In 2012, his administration deported more people than in any prior year in American history. He's on pace to deport 2 million people by 2014, a figure equal to the total number of people ever deported from American until 1997.

6. Heavy-Handed Police Tactics

In 2011, an armed team of federal agents raided the floor of the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville, Tenn. The raid made national headlines and picked up traction in the the tea party movement, largely because it had been conducted to enforce the Lacey Act, a fairly obscure environmental law -- not the sort of policy most people would think would be enforced by armed federal agents. The same year, a SWAT team from the Department of Education conducted a morning raid of what they thought was the home of a woman who was suspected of defrauding federal student loan programs -- again, not the sort of crime usually associated with a SWAT action. (They also got the wrong house -- the suspect had moved out months earlier.)

The Obama administration has defended the use of aggressive, militaristic police actions in court. In the case Avina v. U.S., DEA agents pointed their guns at an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old during a drug raid on the wrong house. The agents had apparently mistaken the license plate of a suspected drug trafficker for the plate on a car owned by Thomas Avina. Obama's Justice Department argued in federal court that the lawsuit should be dismissed before being heard by a jury because the agents’ actions were not unreasonable.

To be fair, the Justice Department almost always defends federal employees from lawsuits. And it seems likely that any other modern administration would do the same thing. But it wasn't always this way. In 1973, even the drug-warring Nixon administration fired, and then criminally indicted, 12 narcotics cops for raiding the wrong homes and terrorizing innocent families. Obama may be no different than Bush, Clinton, or his rivals for the presidency in defending drug cops who point guns at children during botched raids. But there was a time in America when even the original tough-on-crime administration was appalled enough at the idea to hold such overly zealous drug cops accountable.

7. Asset Forfeiture

Under the policy of civil asset forfeiture, the government can seize any cash, cars, houses, or other property that law enforcement can reasonably connect to a crime -- usually a drug crime. The owner of the property must then go to court to show that he legitimately earned or owns it. Often the owner is never actually charged with a crime. And often, these seizures are made against people suspected of low-level crimes, so the value of the property seized can be less than the costs and hassle of hiring an attorney and going to court to win it back.

If the owner doesn't try to get his assets back, or if the court rules against him, asset forfeiture proceeds go to the police department that made the seizure. Critics say the policy creates perverse incentives for police to find drug connections that may not exist. But the policy has been lucrative for police agencies, and has been a huge contributor to the growth and use of SWAT teams to serve drug warrants. SWAT teams can be expensive to maintain. Instead of reserving them only for genuinely dangerous situations, asset forfeiture (along with Byrne grants) creates a strong incentive to send them on drug raids. A number of states have tried to curb forfeiture abuses by requiring that proceeds from seizures go to schools, or to a general fund. But under the Justice Department's equitable sharing program, a local police agency simply needs to ask the DEA for assistance with a raid. The operation then becomes federal, and is governed by federal law. The DOJ takes a cut of the assets, then sends a large percentage back to the local police agency, effectively getting around those state laws.

Under Obama, forfeiture has flourished. According to a 2012 report from the General Accounting Office, the Justice Department's forfeiture fund swelled to $1.8 billion in 2011, the largest ever. That same year, equitable sharing payouts to local police agencies topped $445 million, also a record.

Obama has fought for broad asset forfeiture powers in court, even for local governments. In the 2009 case Alvarez v. Smith, the Obama administration defended a provision of Illinois' asset forfeiture law that allows police to seize property they believe is connected to drug activity with little evidence, then hold it for up to six months before the owner gets an opportunity to win it back in court. It's one of the harshest such laws in the country.

The argument could be made here that the Justice Department has a responsibility to defend law enforcement in court. But Obama has shown a willingness to back down from laws he opposes -- notably by instructing government attorneys to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act from court challenges.

But even if one believes that the solicitor general has an obligation to defend federal law, this is a state law. Moreover, it's a state law that's actually harsher on property owners than corresponding federal laws. The Illinois law also applies only to property valued at less than $20,000, meaning it disproportionately affects the poor. The Obama administration could have plausibly argued against the law, or simply not taken a position. Instead, Justice Department attorneys argued for it to be upheld. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the case without ruling on the law.

In many of these examples, Obama is merely continuing policies that began in previous administrations. And there are some areas where he has made progress, notably by apportioning a greater portion his anti-drug budget to treatment instead of enforcement. But in several of the examples above, he has actually stepped up the policies he inherited.

Obama the candidate made some unusually frank and critical statements about the drug war, incarceration, and the criminal justice system. His drug czar then showed some rare insight into the dangers of war rhetoric when discussing domestic policing. Obama the president has been more of the same, and in some cases worse.

HuffPost investigative reporter Radley Balko is author of the new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, from which this article was adapted.

Also on HuffPost:

  • 1 Former President Bill Clinton
    AP
  • Bill "Didn't Inhale" Clinton has supported decriminalizing marijuana for more than a decade and more recently has spoken out against the war on drugs.

    “I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be," he said back in 2000 in an interview with Rolling Stone. "We really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment.”

    He's since spoken about the issue of marijuana and drug prohibition a number of times. Last year, he appeared in the documentary, "Breaking the Taboo," where he argued that the war on drugs has been a failure.
  • 2 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
    AP
  • Paul exhibited his libertarian tendencies earlier this year when he explained that he'd favor reforming marijuana laws to either decriminalize or reduce penalties for possession.

    “I don't want to promote that but I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake," Paul said. "There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on in their twenties they grow up and get married and they quit doing things like this. I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives."

  • 3 Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
  • As a congressman, Paul took his opposition to marijuana and drug prohibition a step farther than his son has so far. He supported a number of bills that would have removed the plant from its current status as a Schedule I substance under federal law, where it is considered alongside heroin and PCP. Because his history on the topic is so expansive, just take a look at the video to the left for a selection of his comments.
  • 4 Evangelist Pat Robertson
    AP
  • While the 83-year-old Robertson may say a lot of things that make him sound like a kooky old man, he's also made a few remarks to endear himself to marijuana advocates.

    "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol," Robertson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2012. "I've never used marijuana and I don't intend to, but it's just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded."

    Robertson has made similar remarks on his "700 Club" show before, but the Times, like many others, perhaps felt they must have misheard him.
  • 5 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
    Getty Images
  • In a state of the city address earlier this year, Bloomberg made it clear that he supported a promise by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to push marijuana decriminalization. "I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it." A similar effort specific to NYC has made some progress, but faces an unclear path forward with New York lawmakers.
  • 6 Actor Bryan Cranston
    Getty Images
  • Some may think of Cranston as more of a meth guy thanks to Walter White, his character on AMC's hit show "Breaking Bad," but in real life he's spoken out against current pot laws, suggesting that recreational marijuana use isn't a big deal -- and shouldn't be treated like it.

    “[T]o me, marijuana is no different than wine," he said in an interview with High Times. "It's a drug of choice. It's meant to alter your current state -- and that's not a bad thing. It's ridiculous that marijuana is still illegal. We're still fighting for it ... It comes down to individual decision-making. There are millions of people who smoke pot on a social basis and don't become criminals. So stop with that argument -- it doesn't work.”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 7 Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R)
    AP
  • Unlike many politicians, Johnson, a Libertarian presidential candidate in 2012, has unabashedly admitted using marijuana. But beyond his personal history with pot, he's been an outspoken advocate for legalizing and taxing it.

    From his campaign platform:

    "By managing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco - regulating, taxing and enforcing its lawful use - America will be better off. The billions saved on marijuana interdiction, along with the billions captured as legal revenue, can be redirected against the individuals committing real crimes against society."
  • 8 Author Stephen King
    Getty Images
  • King hasn't been shy about advocating for a legal marijuana industry that could give easy access to recreational users and revenue to the states.

    “Marijuana should not only be legal, I think it should be a cottage industry," he said in an interview with High Times. "My wife says, and I agree with her, that what would be really great for Maine would be to legalize dope completely and set up dope stores the way that there are state-run liquor stores.”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 9 Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)
    Getty Images
  • Rohrabacher was a co-sponsor of the 2013 "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act," which seeks to protect marijuana users or businesses acting legally according to state marijuana laws from being prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

    While marijuana has been made legal for various uses in a number of states, the Obama administration continues to enforce federal laws across the nation. This has led to numerous raids of marijuana-based businesses, as well as prosecutions of growers and other people involved in pot.

  • 10 Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)
    AP
  • Young was also a co-sponsor of the 2013 "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."
  • 11 Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
    Getty Images
  • Amash was also a co-sponsor of the "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act."
  • 12 Glenn Beck
    AP
  • Back in 2009, when Beck had a Fox News show, he suggested that marijuana legalization could be a worthwhile solution to raging drug violence on the nation's border with Mexico.

    "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana," he said. "We have to make a choice in this country. We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we're playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border."
  • 13 Billionaire Richard Branson
    AP
  • From an op-ed by Branson arguing for an end to the war on drugs:

    "Decriminalization does not result in increased drug use. Portugal's 10 year experiment shows clearly that enough is enough. It is time to end the war on drugs worldwide. We must stop criminalising drug users. Health and treatment should be offered to drug users - not prison. Bad drugs policies affect literally hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities across the world. We need to provide medical help to those that have problematic use - not criminal retribution."
  • 14 GOP Mega-Donor David Koch
    AP
  • Koch may have funneled countless dollars to conservative candidates who oppose reforming marijuana laws, but back in 1980, when he was the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, he suggested that it was "ridiculous" to consider people who smoked pot "criminals."
  • 15 Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
    Getty Images
  • In 2010, Perry told Jon Stewart that he believed in a federalist approach to marijuana laws -- that is, to allow states to determine their own approach and to tell the federal government to butt out. He's since suggested he'd be willing to support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
  • 16 Comedy Central's Jon Stewart
    Getty Images
  • Stewart has made a habit of taking down politicians who exhibit an uncompromising stance on marijuana prohibition. In 2012, Stewart took New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to task for vetoing a marijuana decriminalization bill.

    “Alright, as much as I disagree, I don’t think marijuana should be illegal, but it is illegal on the federal level," Stewart began. "Christie is a former prosecutor, a man of conviction, of principle, doesn’t believe that the state should supersede federal law."

    The praise in the second sentence is a good sign that Stewart is about to shred Christie. Watch the rest of his takedown above.
  • 17 Actor Jack Nicholson
    AP
  • In an interview with the UK's Daily Mail in 2011, Nicholson said that he personally still used marijuana, before making the case for ending the prohibition on pot as well as other drugs.

    "I don't tend to say this publicly, but we can see it's a curative thing. The narcotics industry is also enormous. It funds terrorism and - this is a huge problem in America - fuels the foreign gangs," he said. "More than 85 percent of men incarcerated in America are on drug-related offences. It costs $40,000 a year for every prisoner. If they were really serious about the economy there would be a sensible discussion about legalization."
  • 18 Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R)
    AP
  • In a 2013 American Conservative op-ed chock full of moderate Republican views, Huntsman snuck in a call to "applaud states that lead on reforming drug policy."

    While Obama and his administration have responded to state marijuana reforms by saying they must enforce federal laws against marijuana, the president has the power to reschedule the drug, which would allow federal authorities to shift resources away from a prohibitive approach.
  • 19 Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R)
    AP
  • Palin spoke out on marijuana in 2010, saying she didn't support legalizing it but also calling it a "minimal problem" for the nation.

    "However, I think we need to prioritize our law enforcement efforts," Palin said. "If somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody any harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems we have in society." While Obama has spoken repeatedly about not being interested in prosecuting small-time marijuana users, he hasn't done anything to prevent them from being busted by law enforcement in states where the drug is still illegal.
  • 20 Comedian Jimmy Kimmel
    Getty Images
  • Kimmel notably took a shot at Obama while serving as host of the 2012 White House Correspondents Dinner, questioning a continued marijuana crackdown under the president's administration. He then went on to say that the issue of its continued illegality was a serious political concern for many Americans.

    (Check out the video above.)
  • 21 Former President Jimmy Carter
    Getty Images
  • Carter hasn't minced words in expressing his opposition to harsh marijuana and drug prohibition policies.

    In 2012, the former president said he was fine with state legalization efforts, though he himself doesn't necessary support legalizing the drug.

    “As president 35 years ago I called for decriminalizing -- but not legalizing -- the possession of marijuana,” Carter said. “Since then, U.S. drug policies have been very horrible to our own country because of an explosion in prison populations.”
  • 22 Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli
    AP
  • A staunch conservative who failed in a run for the U.S. Senate last year, Cuccinelli suggested in 2013 that he was "evolving" on marijuana legalization, and that he supported the rights of states to determine their own pot laws.

    "I don't have a problem with states experimenting with this sort of thing I think that's the role of states," Cuccinelli said, according to Ryan Nobles of WWBT.
  • 23 Columnist Dan Savage
    AP
  • Savage slammed Obama for perpetuating the war on drugs while on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" in 2009.

    “The proof will be in the policy. The war on drugs has gotten a really bad rap, when you ask people if they support the war on drugs they say no ... [Obama's] budget once again has the same old drug warrior policy ... I reject the assumption that everybody who is using drugs needs treatment or is an addict and needs to get arrested ... Not all drug use is abuse.”

    He's kept up the fight for drug policy reform since.

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 24 MSNBC's Al Sharpton
    Getty Images
  • Sharpton has repeatedly spoken out in favor of reforming drug laws. In 2011, he suggested that the nation had wasted trillions of dollars in an ill-fated effort that had weighed particularly heavily on the African American community.

    “We've been fighting the war on drugs since the '60s. And guess what? Trillions of dollars later, we are losing," Sharpton said during a segment on MSNBC. "When you look at the disparities in sentencing drug offenders, hasn't this kind of injustice undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system?”

    [H/T Marijuana Majority]
  • 25 Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.)
    AP
  • Tancredo came out aggressively in favor of reforming marijuana laws in 2010, telling the Colorado Independent that the correct path forward was "Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it."

    Tancredo continued, “The arguments against marijuana today are the same as the arguments against liquor years ago.”

    Years later, the former congressman agreed to smoke pot on camera with a documentary filmmaker, a deal that he later backed out of.

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