The police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and the violent clashes between police and protestors in its aftermath have sparked a national debate about excessive force on the part of law enforcement. A report published in June by the ACLU examines the increasing use of military-style tactics by police departments across the country and the ominous implications of this phenomenon for public safety and security.
The report, entitled “The War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” is based on a survey of SWAT team deployments in over 260 police departments in 26 states and the District of Columbia. The study found that, in addition to the regular use of military style vehicles and ordnances, such as armored tanks and flash-bang grenades, police officers are often infused with a “warrior mentality,” which, the report’s authors argue, encourages them to “think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”
The report documents a trend of the use of SWAT teams and other paramilitary police units to serve routine search warrants. 62 percent of SWAT deployments in 2011-2012 were drug related. These deployments often resulted in civilian casualties and injuries, as in the case of Eurie Stamp, a 68-year old man in Framingham, Massachusetts, who was killed by SWAT team officers who entered his house seeking his girlfriend’s son, who was suspected of selling drugs. The report notes that such incidents of excessive force disproportionately impact minorities and the poor.
The report argues that police militarization is a phenomenon that has been abetted and encouraged by federal incentives. According to the report, military vehicles and accoutrements no longer needed in combat abroad are often transferred to local police departments.
“The Department of Defense operates the 1033 program through the Defense Logistics Agency’s (DLA) Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO), whose motto is ‘from warfighter to crimefighter.’ According to LESO, the program has transferred $4.3 Billion in property through the 1033 Program. Today, the 1033 Program includes more than 17,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies from all U.S. states and territories. The amount of military equipment being used by local and state police agencies has increased dramatically-the value of property transferred through the program went from $1 million in 1990 to $324 million in 1995to nearly $450 million in 2013.”
According to the report, police departments who acquire such equipment often subsequently feel compelled to make use of it in order to justify the expense. The report notes that the militarization of local law enforcement has occurred largely without public oversight.
Maryland has been the site of several incidents of excessive police force. The Sentinel has documented the increasing use of the Montgomery County Police Department’s SWAT team to serve routine search warrants.
In an incident that garnered national attention, Berwyn Heights mayor Cheye Calvo’s home was invaded by a SWAT team of Prince George’s County police and Sheriff’s Department officers, who held him, his wife, and mother-in-law at gunpoint and shot and killed his two dogs. The June 2008 raid was the culmination of an investigation into marijuana trafficking in which Calvo was later proven to have no part. As the report notes, a 2010 Maryland law requiring local law enforcement agencies to submit regular reports on the use of their SWAT teams will sunset this year.
The entire ACLU report may be read online at: https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/jus14-warcomeshome-report-web-rel1.pdf