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Drawing Down: How To Roll Back Police Militarization In America

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When the FBI finally located Whitey Bulger in 2010 after searching for 16 years, the reputed mobster was suspected of involvement in 19 murders in the 1970s and '80s, and was thought to be armed with a massive arsenal of weapons. He was also 81 at the time, in poor physical health, and looking at spending the rest of his life in prison. Of all the people who might meet the criteria for arrest by a SWAT team, one might think that Bulger would top the list.

Yet instead of sending in a tactical team to tear down Bulger’s door in the middle of the night, the FBI took a different appraoch. After some investigating, FBI officials cut the lock on a storage locker Bulger used in the apartment complex where he was staying. They then had the property manager call Bulger to tell him someone may have broken into his locker. When Bulger went to investigate, he was arrested without incident. There was no battering ram, there were no flash grenades, there was no midnight assault on his home.

That peaceful apprehension of a known violent fugitive, found guilty this week of participating in 11 murders and a raft of other crimes, stands in stark contrast to the way tens of thousands of Americans are confronted each year by SWAT teams battering down their doors to serve warrants for nonviolent crimes, mostly involving drugs.

On the night of Jan. 5, 2011, for example, police in Framingham, Mass., raided a Fountain Street apartment that was home to Eurie Stamps and his wife, Norma Bushfan-Stamps. An undercover officer had allegedly purchased drugs from Norma's 20-year-old son, Joseph Bushfan, and another man, Dwayne Barrett, earlier that evening, and now the police wanted to arrest them. They took a battering ram to the door, set off a flash grenade, and forced their way inside.

As the SWAT team moved through the apartment, screaming at everyone to get on the floor, Officer Paul Duncan approached Eurie Stamps. The 68-year-old, not suspected of any crime, was watching a basketball game in his pajamas when the police came in.

By the time Duncan got to him in a hallway, Stamps was face-down on the floor with his arms over his head, as police had instructed him. As Duncan moved to pull Stamps' arms behind him, he says he fell backwards, somehow causing his gun to discharge, shooting Stamps. The grandfather of 12 was killed in his own home, while complying with police orders during a raid for crimes in which he had no involvement.

The Obama administration has begun talking about reforming the criminal justice system, notably this week, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes to how federal prosecutors will consider mandatory minimum sentences. If government leaders are looking for another issue to tackle, they might consider the astonishing evolution of America’s police forces over the last 30 years.

Today in America, SWAT teams are deployed about 100 to 150 times per day, or about 50,000 times per year -- a dramatic increase from the 3,000 or so annual deployments in the early 1980s, or the few hundred in the 1970s. The vast majority of today's deployments are to serve search warrants for drug crimes. But the use of SWAT tactics to enforce regulatory law also appears to be rising. This month, for example, a SWAT team raided the Garden of Eden, a sustainable growth farm in Arlington, Texas, supposedly to look for marijuana. The police found no pot, however, and the real intent of the raid appears to have been for code enforcement, as the officers came armed with an inspection notice for nuisance abatement.

Where these teams were once used only in emergency situations, they're used today mostly as an investigative tool against people merely suspected of crimes. In many police agencies, paramilitary tactics have become the first option, where they once were the last.

“It’s really about a lack of imagination and a lack of creativity,” says Norm Stamper, a retired cop who served as police chief of Seattle from 1994 to 2000. “When your answer to every problem is more force, it shows that you haven’t been taught and trained to consider other options."

Why can’t drug suspects be arrested the way Bulger was -- with as little violence and confrontation as possible? One big reason is a lack of resources. Many police agencies serve several drug warrants per week. Some serve several per day. They simply don't have the time or personnel to come up with a Bulger-like plan for each one. It's quicker and easier for the police to use overwhelming force.

"There are just too many of these cases," says Joe Key, a longtime cop who served in the Baltimore police department from 1971 to 1995 and started the department's SWAT team.

Key adds that another reason police don't want to set up a perimeter and allow drug suspects to surrender peacefully is that it would give them an opportunity to destroy evidence. That, of course, means that, perversely, genuinely violent suspects are treated less harshly than people suspected of nonviolent crimes.

"Someone might say that's an indication that we need to reconsider these drug laws," Key says. "But that's a whole different argument."

Add to all of this a Pentagon program that gives surplus military equipment to local police agencies, a Department of Homeland Security program that cuts checks to police departments to buy yet more military gear, and federal grants specifically tied to drug policing and asset forfeiture policies, both of which reward police officials who send their SWAT teams on drug raids, and it isn't difficult to see how we reached the point where SWAT teams are deployed so frequently.

The question is, how could the U.S. roll all of this back? I interviewed numerous former police chiefs, police officers and federal officials, all of whom were concerned about the militarization of America's police forces. Here are some of their suggestions for reform:

End The Drug War

Holder’s announcement this week at least acknowledges the drug war’s role in mass incarceration. But the damage inflicted by the country’s 40-year drug fight goes well beyond prisons. It’s also been the driving force behind America’s mass police militarization since at least the early 1980s, and the best way to rein in the trend would be to simply end prohibition altogether.

Complete legalization is, of course, never going to happen. But even something short of legalization, like decriminalization, would take away many of the incentives to fight the drug war as if it were an actual war. The federal government could also leave it to the states to determine drug policy, and with what priority and level of force it should be enforced.

Your average small town SWAT team would probably continue to exist, at least in the short term. But these teams are expensive to maintain, and without federal funding, it seems likely that many would eventually disband.

End Anti-Drug Byrne Grants

Just ending the federal incentives for mass police militarization would help. The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, for example, distributes grants to agencies for a variety of criminal justice programs, many of them positive. But the grants can also go to police departments solely for drug policing. Even more destructive are grants that create multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, basically roving squads of narcotics cops that serve multiple jurisdictions, and often lack any real accountability. Even back in 2000, former FBI Director William Webster told NBC News that the federal government had become “too enamored with SWAT teams, draining money away from conventional law enforcement.”

End The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program

The federal HIDTA program is another inducement for more aggressive enforcement of drug laws. Once a police department reaches a threshold of drug arrests, the agency becomes eligible for yet more federal funding as a region with high illicit drug activity. This then becomes an incentive for police departments to desire the high drug trafficking label, which means they'll devote even more resources to drug policing, which means more raids.

End The "Equitable Sharing" Civil Asset Forfeiture Program

Under civil asset forfeiture, police agencies can seize any piece of property -- cash, cars, homes -- that they can reasonably connect to criminal activity. In most places, the proceeds of the seizure go to the police department. Since civil asset forfeiture is used overwhelmingly in drug investigations, this has created a strong incentive for police to send their SWAT teams to serve routine drug warrants.

In some states, however, lawmakers have recognized the perverse incentives at play, and have attempted to get rid of them by requiring any forfeiture proceeds to go to a state general fund, or toward public schools. Under the federal government's equitable sharing program, however, a local police agency can merely call up a federal law enforcement agency like the Drug Enforcement Administration to request assistance in an investigation. The entire operation is then governed by federal law. The DEA takes 10 percent to 20 percent of the seized assets, then gives the rest back to the local police agency. The effect is to restore the perverse incentives, and to thwart the will of state legislatures.

End The 1033 Program

The so-called 1033 program, passed in 1997, formalized a Pentagon policy of giving away surplus military equipment to domestic police agencies, which had been going on since the Reagan years. The new law also set up a well-funded, well-staffed office to facilitate the donations. Millions of pieces of equipment have since been given away -- $500 million worth in 2011 alone. Once they get the gear -- tanks, armored personnel vehicles, guns, helicopters, bayonets, you name it -- police agencies in tiny towns have used it to start SWAT teams. Even seemingly innocuous items like camouflage uniforms can reinforce a militaristic culture and mindset. One longtime cop (whose father was also a longtime cop and former police chief) wrote to me in an email, "One of the problems we both saw in the early 90's were departments leaving the formal police uniforms with leather belts and holsters in favor of the dark blue fatigues with nylon mesh belts and holsters. This put police in a more fighting posture."

Some law enforcement officials have been warning of the problem for years. One former Washington, D.C., police sergeant wrote in a 1997 letter to The Washington Post, "One tends to throw caution to the wind when wearing ‘commando-chic’ regalia, a bulletproof vest with the word ‘POLICE’ emblazoned on both sides, and when one is armed with high tech weaponry ... We have not yet seen a situation like [the British police occupation of] Belfast. But some police chiefs are determined to move in that direction." A Connecticut police chief told The New York Times in 2000 that switching to military-like garb "feeds a mindset that you’re not a police officer serving a community, you’re a soldier at war. I had some tough-guy cops in my department pushing for bigger and more hardware."

It isn't difficult to see how giving cops the weapons, uniforms, and vehicles of war might encourage them to take a more warlike approach to their jobs. That won't end simply by shuttering the 1033 program. But it would certainly be a start.

Reform Department Of Homeland Security Grants

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has handed out some $34 billion in grants to police departments across the country, many for the purchase of battle-grade vehicles and weapons. This program has created a cottage industry of companies to take DHS checks in exchange for guns, tanks and armored vehicles. In effect, it has given rise to a police industrial complex.

There's also little oversight. DHS can't even produce a comprehensive list of police departments that have received grants and how they've used them. Though ostensibly for anti-terrorism efforts, the grants are going to places like Fargo, N.D., where they're inevitably used for routine policing. (Or in the case of Fargo, an armored personnel vehicle with rotating turret has been used mostly for "appearances at the annual city picnic, where it’s been parked near the children’s bounce house.")

The federal government has a legitimate interest in protecting the country from terrorist attacks. So at least in theory, anti-terror grants to domestic police agencies make sense. But it seems unlikely that the grants in their current form are doing much to prevent terrorism.

End Federal Medical Marijuana Raids

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration set a dangerous precedent when it began sending federal SWAT teams to raid medical marijuana businesses in states that had legalized the drug for that purpose. By then, the use of SWAT teams to serve drug warrants was common, and the explosion in the number and use of SWAT-like teams had already happened. But until then, police agencies at least made the claim that the use of such force was in response to a genuine threat -- that drug dealers were heavily armed, dangerous, and had no qualms about killing police.

The medical marijuana raids couldn't be justified that way. These were licensed businesses, operating openly and in compliance with state laws. The show of force wasn't about officer safety or community safety. It was about sending a message. These people were openly flouting federal law, and they were to be made into examples. This isn't the sort of government action we commonly associate with free societies. And of course, these raids have continued ever since.

Return SWAT To Its Original Purpose

Legislatures or city councils could pass laws restricting the use of SWAT teams to those rare emergencies in which there’s an imminent threat to public safety. They could limit the use of no-knock raids or even forced entry to serve warrants only on people suspected of violent crimes. One policy might be to allow the deployment of a tactical team only when police have good reason to believe that a violent crime is in the process of being committed, or is likely to be committed imminently without police intervention.

Key, who started the Baltimore SWAT team, suggests a broader rule, but one that would still impose limitations. "I think you could limit SWAT teams and the dynamic entry tactics to those cases where police can obtain a no-knock warrant," he says. "The courts impose more restrictions for no-knock warrants. You have to show evidence that a suspect may attempt to arm himself and attack police, or may destroy evidence if there's an announcement."

At the very least, lawmakers should demand an end to SWAT mission creep. It's beyond comprehension that such violent tactics would be used to enforce regulatory law. SWAT teams also shouldn’t be raiding poker games, bars where police suspect there's underage drinking or the offices of doctors suspected of over-prescribing painkillers. They shouldn't be performing license inspections on barbershops, or swarming Amish farms suspected of selling unpasteurized cheese. Like the medical marijuana raids, these sorts of raids are straight-up abuse -- for the sake of sending a political message.

Mandate Transparency

In 2008, the Maryland legislature passed a bill requiring all police agencies in the state to issue twice-yearly reports on how often they use their SWAT teams, for what purpose, what the searches found, and whether any shots were fired. It's a simple bill that puts no restrictions on the use of SWAT teams, yet was opposed by every police agency in the state.

Other states could pass similar laws. And they could go further. Police departments could track warrants from the time they’re obtained to the time they’re executed, in a database that’s accessible to civilian review boards, defense attorneys, judges, and, in some cases, the media (acknowledging that the identities of confidential informants need not be revealed). Botched and bungled raids should be documented. These include warrants served on the wrong address, warrants based on bad tips from informants and warrants that resulted in the death or injury of an officer, suspect or bystander.

Police departments should also keep running tabs of how many warrants are executed with no-knock entry versus knock-and-announce entry, how many required a forced entry, how many required the deployment of a SWAT team or other paramilitary unit, and how many used diversionary devices like flash grenades. They should also make records of what these raids turned up. If these tactics are going to be used against the public, the public at the very least deserves to know how often they’re used, why they’re used, how often things go wrong, and what sort of results the tactics are getting.

It's clear that there has been a huge increase in the number of SWAT teams and the frequency of their use. But we can't have a real debate about police militarization without better data on its pervasiveness.

There are other policies that would make police departments more transparent. The remarkable advances in and democratization of smartphone technology have enabled a large and growing number of citizens to record the actions of on-duty police officers. Rather than fighting the trend, police officials and policymakers ought to embrace it. Legislatures could pass laws that clearly establish a citizen’s right to record on-duty cops, and provide an enforcement mechanism so that citizens wrongly and illegally arrested for doing so have a course of action. As many police officials have pointed out, such policies not only expose police misconduct, leading to improvements, but can also provide exonerating evidence in cases where police officers have been wrongly accused.

All forced-entry police raids could be recorded in a tamper-proof format, and the videos made available to the public through a simple open records request. This could be done efficiently and inexpensively. Even better, it wouldn't be difficult to equip the officers participating in a raid with cameras mounted on their helmets, jackets, or guns. Not only would recording all raids help clear up disputes about how long police waited after knocking, whether police knocked at all, or who fired first, but the knowledge that every raid would be recorded would also encourage best practices among the SWAT teams. Additionally, recordings of raids would provide an accurate portrayal of how drug laws are actually enforced. It’s likely that many Americans aren’t fully aware how violent these tactics can be. Perhaps many would still support tactical raids for drug warrants even after being exposed to videos of drug raids. But if the drug war is being waged to protect the public, the public should be able to see exactly how the war is being waged.

Local police departments that receive federal funding should also be required to keep records on and report incidents of officer shootings and use of excessive force to an independent federal agency such as the National Institute for Justice or the Office of the Inspector General. Those that don't comply should lose federal funding. Currently, while all police agencies are required to keep such data, that requirement isn't enforced.

We also need easy-to-find, publicly accessible records of judges and search warrants (and where applicable, prosecutors). The public deserves to know if all the narcotics cops in a given area are going to the same judge or magistrate with their narcotics warrants, or if a given judge hasn’t declined a single warrant in, say, 20 years. As more courts use computer software to process warrants, it will get easier to compile this sort of information and make it available to the public.

Change Police Culture

All of these policies have infused too many police agencies with a culture of militarism. Neill Franklin is a former narcotics cop in Maryland, who also oversaw training at the state's police academies in the early 2000s. “I think there are two critical components to policing that cops today have forgotten," he says. "Number one, you’ve signed on to a dangerous job. That means that you’ve agreed to a certain amount of risk. You don’t get to start stepping on others’ rights to minimize that risk you agreed to take on. And number two, your first priority is not to protect yourself, it’s to protect those you’ve sworn to protect. But I don’t know how you get police officers today to value those principles again. The ‘us and everybody else’ sentiment is strong today. It’s very, very difficult to change a culture.”

But there are some practical policy changes that may work. Police today are given too little training in counseling and dispute resolution, and what little training they do get in the academy is quickly blotted out by what they learn on the street in the first few months on the job. When you’re given abundant training in the use of force, but little in using psychology, body language, and other non-coercive means of resolving a conflict, you’ll naturally gravitate toward using force. “I think about the notion of command presence,” Stamper, the former Seattle police chief, says. “When you as a police officer show up at a chaotic or threatening or dangerous situation, you need to demonstrate your command presence -- that you are the person in command of this situation. You do this with your bearing, your body language, and your voice. What I see today is that this well-disciplined notion of command presence has been shattered. Cops today think you show command presence by yelling and screaming. In my day, if you screamed, if you went to a screaming, out-of-control presence, you had failed in that situation as a cop. You’d be pulled aside by a senior cop or sergeant and made to understand in no uncertain terms that you were out of line. The very best cops I ever worked around were quiet. Which isn’t to say they were withdrawn or passive, but they were quiet. They understood the value of silence, the powerful effect of a pause."

Stamper adds that these things aren’t emphasized anymore. “Verbal persuasion is the first tool a police officer has. The more effective he or she is as a communicator, the less likely it is he or she is going to get impulsive -- or need to.”

Franklin suggests that deteriorating physical fitness at some police departments may also lead to unnecessary escalations of force -- another argument in favor of foot patrols over car patrols. “When I was commander of training in Baltimore, one of the first things I did was evaluate the physical condition of the police officers themselves,” Franklin says. “The overweight guys were the guys who knew very little about arrest control and defensive strategy. Being a police officer is a physically demanding job. You can’t be so out of shape. When you are, you’re less confident about less lethal force. It can get so that the only use of force you’re capable of using is a firearm. You also fear physical confrontation, so you’re more likely to reach for your firearm earlier. Getting cops in shape is a confidence builder, and it gets people away from relying too much on the weapons they have on their belt.”

Police should also be required to learn and understand the effect that power can have on their own psyche. They should be taught the Stanford prison experiment, the Milgram experiment and similar studies. Having complete power over another person can be immensely corrupting. But simply being aware of its corrosive effects is an important step toward guarding against them.

Police departments and policymakers should also embrace real community policing. That means taking cops out of patrol cars to walk beats and become a part of the communities they serve. It means ditching statistics-driven policing, which encourages the sorts of petty arrests of low-level offenders and use of informants that foment anger and distrust. Community policing makes cops part of the neighborhoods they serve, gives them a stake in those neighborhoods, and can be the antidote to the antagonistic us-versus-them relationship too many cops have with the citizens on their beats. (And the mentality usually goes both ways.)

More generally, politicians be should called out and held accountable when they use war rhetoric to discuss crime and illicit drugs. Words and language from policymakers have an impact on the way police officers approach their jobs, and the way they view the people with whom they interact while on patrol. If we want to dissuade them from seeing their fellow citizens as the enemy, political leaders -- the people who set the policies and appropriate the budgets for those officers -- need to stop referring to them that way.

Ultimately, we're unlikely to see any real efforts to reform or rollback police militarization until politicians are convinced there is a problem and pay a political price for not addressing it. Today, domestic police officers drive tanks and armored personnel carriers on American streets, break into homes and kill pets over pot, and batter down doors to raid poker games. They’re now subjecting homes and businesses to commando raids for white-collar and even regulatory offenses. And while there has recently been some action from state legislators, there’s been barely any opposition or concern from anyone in Congress, any governor, or any mayor of a sizable city.

Until that happens, expect more tanks, more and bigger guns, more Robocob responses to protest, and more, increasingly violent raids for increasingly less serious crimes and infractions.

Radley Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for The Huffington Post. This essay is adapted from his new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

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