Cop or soldier?

22 Jul

swat-team-sizedThere’s an interesting discussion going on in parts of the Internet.

It’s not just conservatives and liberals hashing it out – but people we call plain-ol-Americans.

The subject has to do with our police and have they slid over to being too much like the military.

Let’s define a few things first:

The military’s job is to kill people and break things.

Sorry, that’s what they do although humanitarian efforts are becoming part of the mission.

The police officer’s job is to protect, although defend has entered into it since 9/11.

Almost any person will agree that police tactics have changed over the past decade.

There are those who argue that law-enforcement across the nation, at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier.

With the availability (and purchasing) of military-style equipment – from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers –  police forces seem to have adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.

The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop – armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

The acronym SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics.

Such police units are trained in methods similar to those used by the special forces in the military.

They learn to break into homes with battering rams and to use incendiary devices such as flash-bang grenades, which are designed to blind and deafen anyone nearby.

The idea is to “clear” a building.
Remove any threats and distractions, including pets, and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible.

Some are saying this is nothing but a response to bad guys who now arm themselves to the teeth and seem to have no problem shooting anyone in the area.

The argument from that side is these massive assaults on the bad guy are safer for the officer and any members of the public in the area.

What is clear to both sides is these armed assaults are being used too often, for minor offenses, such as growing pot in the back yard.

Today the U.S. has thousands of SWAT teams.

According to a study by Eastern Kentucky University, in 2005, number of police departs with a SWAT team was up to 80%.

A number of federal agencies also now have their own SWAT teams, including the Fish & Wildlife Service, NASA, the Consumer Products Safety Commission and the Department of the Interior.

Why would NASA and the Consumer Protection Agency need a SWAT teams?

In 2011, the Department of Education’s SWAT team bungled a raid on a woman who was initially reported to be under investigation for not paying her student loans.

Why would that agency need a SWAT team?

Americans have long been wary of using the military for domestic policing.

Concerns about potential abuse date back to the creation of the Constitution, when the founders worried about standing armies and the intimidation of the people at large by an overzealous executive.

This all started when President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs.

Among the law-enforcement measures he pushed was the no-knock raid—a policy that allowed drug police to break into homes without the traditional knock and announcement.

It seems too many bad guys were flushing the evidence down the toilet.

After much debate, Congress authorized no-knock raids for federal narcotics agents in 1970.

Over the next several years, stories emerged of federal agents breaking down the doors of private homes (often without a warrant) and terrorizing innocent citizens and families.

Congress then repealed the no-knock law in 1974, but the policy would soon make a comeback without congressional authorization.

During the Reagan administration, SWAT-team methods converged with the drug war.

By the end of the 1980s, joint task forces brought together police officers and soldiers for drug interdiction.

National Guard helicopters and U-2 spy planes flew the skies in search of marijuana plants.

When suspects were identified, battle-dressed troops from the National Guard, the DEA and other federal and local law enforcement agencies would swoop in to destroy the plants and capture the people growing them.

Supporters of these tactics said that drug dealers were carrying ever bigger weapons and the police needed to stay a step ahead in the arms race.

Yes, there were incidents in which police were outgunned.

The new century brought the war on terror and with it, new rationales and new resources for militarizing police forces.

The Department of Homeland Security has handed out $35 billion in grants since its creation in 2002, with much of the money going to purchase military gear such as armored personnel carriers for local police departments.

In 2011 alone, a Pentagon program for bolstering the capabilities of local law enforcement gave away $500 million of equipment, an all-time high.

When you have these highly trained and expensive teams, you want to use them.

And they do.

When the craze for poker kicked into high gear, a number of police departments responded by deploying SWAT teams to raid games in garages, basements and VFW halls where illegal gambling was suspected.

There have been dozens of these raids, in cities such as Baltimore, Charleston and Dallas.

Assault-style raids have even been used in recent years to enforce regulatory law.

Armed federal agents from the Fish & Wildlife Service raided the floor of the Gibson Guitar factory in Nashville in 2009, on suspicion of using hardwoods that had been illegally harvested in Madagascar.

In 2010, the police department in New Haven, Connecticut. sent its SWAT team to raid a bar where police believed there was underage drinking.

And this one – in 2006 some Tibetan monks had overstayed their visas while visiting America on a peace mission.

In Iowa, the holy men were apprehended by a SWAT team in full gear.

If you talk to a local officer, you’ll generally find a normal, decent person whose biggest interest is getting home safe.

That’s a good way to think in a very dangerous job.

It is also a sentiment that suggests that every interaction with a citizen may be the officer’s last and that can lead to the massive show of force whenever they need to go get someone.

Not every situation is a hostage or active-shooter.

The concern from some is there’s a big difference in raiding a suspected drug house and arresting someone for not paying student loans.

Is all this a response to the times or tipping the scales too far?

Most are saying SWAT teams have their place but they should be saved for those relatively rare situations when police-initiated violence is the only hope to prevent the loss of life.

We come from the era of the friendly, approachable cop on the beat and brute-force reaction to non-violent offenders is troublesome.

You now have the history and you need to make up your own mind.

2 Responses to “Cop or soldier?”

  1. Sue Perlative August 15, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    I totally agree. How can we correct this situation? Congress must step in. SWAT teams, violent entry, etc. should only be used in rare and dangerous situations where major offenses have occurred or where there is some specific reason to believe that the police could be in danger.

    • Honolulu Notes August 15, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

      The only way to change anything this “big” is to convince your elected officials to do something.
      Everything goes back to that.
      We put the same people in office and re-election becomes more important than doing the right thing.
      The political system will not change itself.

      Aloha,
      Honolulu Notes

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