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Live from FreedomFest: Radley Balko Documents the Militarization of America’s Police

Author Radley Balko at FreedomFest 2014

One aspect of American political and military tradition that (formerly) separated us from the rest of the world was that we kept military and police missions separate. Americans understood the job of the military was to annihilate the enemy and the job of the police was to keep the peace, and it is dangerous to conflate the two.

“So how do we get to the point where 150 times a day” police in full body armor with automatic weapons kick-in the doors of homes in America, and more importantly asks journalist Radley Balko, author of The Rise of Warrior Cop, “how is it that we’ve become so comfortable with this tactic?”

Such tactics appear to directly contradict the Fourth Amendment and are similar to the actions of the British that so angered the Founding Fathers and were among the leading causes of the American Revolution.

Two trends, says Balko, led to the current practices of militarized police departments. One was the rise of the “war” on drugs, and the second was the creation, and glorification, of the SWAT team.

The “war” on drugs created an environment in which it was acceptable to apply the language and tactics of the military to fight even low level drug crime.

The rise of the SWAT team gave local police the weapons and tactics to apply first to major violent crimes and civil disturbances, and now to such routine police operations as serving a search warrant on a low level drug suspect.

The 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles were the impetus for the creation of the first SWAT team, conceived by then-LA police inspector Daryl Gates as a response to an environment where civil insurrection or urban warfare seemed to be a real possibility and terrorist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army were front page news.

In 1970 there was one SWAT team (in Los Angeles) but by 1975 there were some 500 SWAT teams including small cities and rural jurisdiction that had no evidence of the type of crime that led Gates to develop the LAPD’s SWAT team noted Balko.

The militarization of the police was further encouraged by federal programs that allowed local police departments to acquire surplus military equipment. Millions of items from the Pentagon found their way to local police departments said Balko, including grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers, tanks and machine guns.

The result of this escalation in the militarization of the police is an escalation of the use of the SWAT team. In 1980 there were about 2,000 SWAT team deployments, by 2005 that number had risen to about 50,000 raids that year and is posited to have continued to rise.

But that isn’t because of a rise in violent crime or civil unrest, claims Balko. It is because 75% to 80% of SWAT raids are for the routine policing activity of serving a search warrant.

And the “mission creep” of SWAT teams and highly militarized police units continues says Balko. Federal regulatory agencies now use SWAT equipped officers for regulatory enforcement, with the government using the threat of military-level violence to send what is essence a political message.

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