SWAT teams are familiar figures from films and TV shows. But where did they come from? I’ve been fascinated for years by the militarization of policing and it stems, in part, from wanting to understand how this basically* sinister trend was so rapidly normalised through popular culture. It’s one of those topics I occasionally find myself losing a few hours to reading about online, in this case prompting the present post.
Surprised as I am to find myself reading, let alone posting, something from a right wing libertarian think tank, this analysis from CATO of the paramilitarization of US policing is excellent. It offers an incisive summary of how a number of trends (e.g. the ‘war on drugs’, the rise of ‘knock raids’, the building of links between police and the defence department, the reutilisation program which transfer military hardware to police forces) have converged to drive a heretofore unprecedented degree of militarization in US policing. Police departments are now imposing quotas for drug arrests in order to win federal funding, which they’re pursuing through raids which utilise ‘donated’ military hardware:
A little-known Pentagon program has been quietly militarizing American police forces for years. A total of $4.2bn worth of equipment has been distributed by the Defense Department to municipal law enforcement agencies, with a record $546m in 2012 alone.
In the fine print of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1997, the “1033 program” was born. It allows the Defense Department to donate surplus military equipment to local police forces.
Though the program’s existed since the 1990s, it has expanded greatly in recent years, due, in part, to post-9/11 fears and sequestration budget cuts. The expanse, however, seems unnecessary given that theDepartment of Homeland Security has already handed out $34bn in “terrorism grants” to local polices forces – without oversight mind you – to fund counter-terrorism efforts.
Additional militarization, then, deserves congressional attention as the program is harmful and must be scaled back for a number of reasons.
First, the program is transforming our police into a military. The results of such over-militarized law enforcement are apparent from the dispersion of Occupy protesters in Oakland to the city-wide lockdown in Boston.
This is what these teams look like in action:
*Note: I use the qualifier ‘basically’ here in a deliberate fashion. I completely accept that there may be some situations which render something like a SWAT team a good idea. But the rapid expansion of this model is deeply disturbing.
Categories: Rethinking The World