Militarizing the Police: Battle-Dressed Cops Crack Down on Peaceful Protests

By talltom · Nov 15, 2011 · ·
  1. talltom
    What happens when a government builds a massive, unaccountable police apparatus to thwart infiltration by a foreign menace, only to see the society it's supposed to protect take to the streets for entirely different reasons?

    It looks as though we may be about to find out. The Occupy protests have been mostly peaceful, with a few fairly dramatic exceptions. But the sight of a huge police presence in riot gear is always startling, and tactics that have been honed in Europe (such as "kettling") against anarchist actions have not been as common in the United States as elsewhere. More standard forms of crowd control, such as the aggressive use of pepper spray and "rubber" bullets have so far been the outer limits of the police use of force. But it is hardly the outer limits of the possibilities.

    The US has actually been militarising much of its police agencies for the better part of three decades, mostly in the name of the drug war. But 9/11 put that programme on steroids.

    Recall that six short weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US congress passed the PATRIOT Act, a sweeping expansion of domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering capabilities. This legislation gave the government the ability to easily search all forms of communication, eased restrictions on foreign intelligence-gathering at home, gave itself greater power to monitor financial transactions and created entirely new categories of domestic terrorism to which the PATRIOT Act's expanded powers to police could be applied.

    It was one of the greatest expansions of government police power in history, an expansion which, after some tweaking, has been mostly validated by the congress and reaffirmed by the courts.

    A little more than a week after the PATRIOT Act was passed, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security to "develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks" and a year later, the Department of Homeland Security was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

    Today it is the third-largest government agency, after the departments of defence and veterans' affairs. Aside from the billions the federal government spent on its own agencies, it has disbursed many billions more to various state and local police agencies, ostensibly for the purpose of fighting the terrorist threat.

    Campus police with M-16s

    More often, it created new surveillance opportunities for non-terrorist activity. In one notorious case from 2006, it was revealed that Homeland Security had given the remote Alaskan village of Dillingham (population 2,400) $202,000 to purchase surveillance cameras in order to track alleged terrorist activity.

    Needless to say, Dillingham was not on any known terrorist's target list, so the only people the surveillance cameras were watching were the citizens. But surveillance wasn't the end of it.

    "It wouldn't be surprising to find that swaggering around armed to the teeth and dressed like RoboCop might lead some cops to adopt a more militaristic attitude."

    As reported by Radley Balko in the Huffington Post, a Pentagon programme - started in the 1980s - to give military equipment to local police escalated in the 2000s, with even university campus police receiving everything from M-16s to armoured personnel carriers. Balko quoted one county sheriff saying that he'd use his new Homeland Security-funded SWAT team "for a lot of other purposes, too ... just a multitude of other things".

    All over the country, police switched out their traditional uniforms for Battle Dress Uniforms, dubbed by one retired policeman in the Washington Post as "commando-chic" regalia. It wouldn't be surprising to find that swaggering around armed to the teeth and dressed like RoboCop might lead some cops to adopt a more militaristic attitude.

    Former San Jose chief of police Joseph McNamara raised these alarms as early as 2006 in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting in New York. He pointed out that the effects of the drug war and 9/11 had led to "an emphasis on 'officer safety' [where] paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed".

    Likewise, in the name of "officer safety", the Taser became a common tool in everyday policing, deployed with little knowledge of the effects, and a tendency to Taser first and ask questions later. But over the course of the past decade, the body count grew as it became more and more obvious that tasers were sometimes as deadly as the guns they purported to replace.

    'Pain compliance'

    And that's the most prosaic of the new policing toys that are becoming available. Reporter Ando Arick analysed the new generation of weaponry in an article in Harper's called "The Soft-Kill Solution - New Frontiers In Pain Compliance". He recounts a 60 Minutes investigation into a new weapon to be used for what the military said was "crowd control in Iraq".

    Yet in military exercises in Georgia, soldiers were dressed as protesters, carrying signs that say "world peace", "love for all" and "peace not war" for some reason. In what was presented as a choice between backing off and shooting into the crowd, the audience was then shown that a "ray gun" was on top of the Humvee.

    "An operator squeezes off a blast. The first shot hits them like an invisible punch. The protesters regroup, and he fires again, and again. Finally they’ve had enough. The ray gun drives them away with no harm done."

    Except for the repeated "invisible punches", of course. But like the Taser, the whole point of this "pain compliance" is to inflict short-term physical agony on human beings to "induce behavioural modification".

    They have developed plans for a flying drone that fires stun darts at suspects, a "Shockwave Area-Denial System", which blankets the area in question with electrified darts, and a wireless Taser projectile with a 100-metre range, helpful for picking off "ringleaders" in unruly crowds.

    Would the public balk? Probably not. After all, they've accepted the Taser to such an extent that it's now a staple of movie comedies and viral YouTube videos. The ground has been well-prepared. And after all, just as the government has expanded its police powers and built up its arsenal of "pain compliance" weaponry, the broader culture was lifting the centuries-old taboo against torture.

    It was an abstract and obscure debate that took on a surreal cast when it was revealed that early government brainstorming meetings about interrogation tactics at Guantanamo relied heavily on the question, "What would Jack Bauer do?"

    Jack Bauer, of course, was a fictional character in the then-popular television show "24", a secret agent who was known for his willingness to break any law and social norm in the pursuit of a ticking time bomb. He was specifically admired for his innovative torture techniques.

    This character was a great favourite of high-ranking members of the government - notorious torture memo author John Yoo cited him in his memoir, and even Justice Antonin Scalia once publicly exclaimed: "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?"

    The idea that sometimes the threat was so great that authorities had no choice but to set aside even deep cultural taboos was promulgated by the most powerful people in the nation.

    The lesson from that debate was that there are times when the government has to, as Vice-President Dick Cheney famously described it, "take off the gloves". What wasn't decided was the criteria the nation would use to decide when that "time" was.

    Today we are in a different world.

    Economic justice

    No longer is the nation obsessed with the terrorism threat. Guantanamo is rarely mentioned. Osama bin Laden is dead. The president has declared that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" have ended. A few stalwart civil libertarians are still fighting in the courts, but the nation's attention has turned to a new threat - economic injustice, income inequality and political corruption. And they are taking their grievances into the streets all over the country.

    So far, there have been few clashes between the Occupy forces and the police, although Oakland and New York have both seen some dramatic confrontations and the events at the UC campus in Berkeley last week were downright brutal. There have been many arrests, however, and some of the communities are starting to react unfavourably to the demonstrators, demanding that the occupations disperse. The big question for everyone is what will happen if they don't.

    Arick concluded his Harper's report with an ominous observation:

    "Each year, some 76 million people join our current 6.7 billion in a world of looming resource scarcities, ecological collapse and glaring inequalities of wealth; and elites are preparing to defend their power and profits. In this new era of triage, as democratic institutions and social safety nets are increasingly considered dispensable luxuries, the task of governance will be to lower the political and economic expectations of the masses without inciting full-fledged revolt. Non-lethal weapons promise to enhance what military theorists call 'the political utility of force', allowing dissent to be suppressed inconspicuously."
    The United States has never had fully militarised police before, armed with the kind of high-tech surveillance and weaponry that would never be allowed if the National Guard were called up in an emergency. And neither have we ever had such a malleable definition of what constitutes an emergency. At a time of increasing citizen unrest, it's a volatile combination.

    Certainly the government seems to have been preparing for such confrontations for some time now.

    Whether the people will accept high-tech "pain compliance" to "modify" dissent remains to be seen. If the attitude towards Tasers is any guide, many won't have a problem with it and "enhanced interrogation" of terrorist suspects has become, at best, a moral grey area for many in the US.

    We have essentially normalised torture and created a high-tech police apparatus with more capability than any military in history. Human nature suggests that if you build it, they will use it.

    Heather "Digby" Parton,
    Al Jazeera English
    November 14, 2011

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  1. talltom
    Another post on the same topic:

    SWAT Teams, Flash-Bang Grenades, Shooting the Family Pet: The Shocking Outcomes of Police Militarization in the War on Drugs

    In the forty years since Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” Americans’ perceptions of that war are finally beginning to shift.

    Receding support for Prohibition is happening in large part because of virally circulated news accounts and videos of law enforcement’s disturbingly harsh tactics in the drug war. My former colleagues are making clear that besides causing thousands of deaths worldwide and costing billions of taxpayer dollars, the drug war’s most serious collateral damage has been to undermine the role of civilian law enforcement in our free society.

    In one of the most widely viewed videos, a tiny single-family home is descended upon by a Columbia, Missouri Police Department SWAT team. After pounding on the door and announcing themselves, the cops waste no time. They smash open the door and charge into the unsuspecting family’s home.

    After what sounds like multiple explosions or gunshots, we hear the sound of a dog yelping sharply, as if in pain.

    We then hear several more gunshots or explosions amid the general pandemonium.

    The camera follows the heavily armed and armored officers inside. We watch as they order a woman and a small child, still woozy from being suddenly awakened, into their living room.

    As they are forced onto the floor, a young male is brought into the room. He is handcuffed and pushed against a wall.

    “What did I do? What did I DO?” he shouts, as the woman and the child cower on the floor nearby.

    We then learn the source of the dog’s pained cries.

    “You shot my dog, you shot my DOG!” the man suddenly shouts. “Why did you do that? He was a good dog! He was probably trying to play with you!”

    He, the woman and the child all break into pitiful sobs.

    As of late October, just five months after it was posted, the Columbia police raid video has been viewed nearly two million times on YouTube. The clip quickly ricocheted across cyberspace, generating emotionally charged, outraged calls for the officers to be fired and prosecuted. Or subjected to the same kind of treatment that terrorized their fellow citizens.

    Public indignation over the incident intensified when it was learned that the Columbia SWAT team was executing an eight-day-old search warrant, and that the only things seized were a pipe containing a small amount of marijuana residue. Since possession of small amounts of pot had long ago been essentially decriminalized in Columbia, the man was charged with simple possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor.

    The reaction of Fox Business Network’s Andrew Napolitano was telling. In a segment about the raid that also found its way onto YouTube, the retired New Jersey Superior Court judge says, “This was America – not East Germany, not Nazi Germany, but middle America!”

    Yet as former Cato staffer Radley Balko, who wrote about the Columbia video, has noted, what’s most remarkable about the raid is that it wasn’t remarkable at all. The only thing that made it unusual was that it was videotaped and made public, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper.

    There are more than 50,000 police paramilitary raids in the United States each year – more than 130 every day. Virtually all are for prosecution of drug warrants, the vast majority involving marijuana. Many jurisdictions use SWAT teams for execution of every search warrant for drugs.

    Just like in Columbia, these drug raids are typically staged in the middle of the night by officers equipped similarly to those depicted in the video: Darth Vader–style Kevlar helmets and body armor, black uniforms, military boots, night vision goggles. The officers are armed with automatic weapons and are sometimes deployed from armored personnel carriers or rappelling from helicopters. Doors are smashed open with battering rams or are ripped from their hinges by ropes tied to vehicles. And, to further disorient those inside, officers are trained to use explosives—“flash-bang” grenades—upon entry. The slightest provocation, including any “furtive” moments on the part of the residents, often results in shots fired.

    Since drug dealers sometimes use dogs to protect their stash, family pets are shot, kicked, or, in the recent case of a New York City raid, thrown out the window.

    At least in Columbia, no human was injured or killed in the crossfire, and (unlike dozens of cases every year across the country), the SWAT team got the address right—even if the huge stash of drugs and money they thought they’d discover was nowhere to be found.

    How did local police departments in a free society ever reach this point?

    Nixon’s use of the word “War” was no accident. From the outset, Washington’s approach to the problems of drug use and addiction has been overtly militaristic in nature.

    “It’s a funny war when the ‘enemy’ is entitled to due process of law and a fair trial,” the nation’s first “Drug Czar,” William Bennett, told Fortunemagazine. Never known for moderation, he later famously urged repeal of habeas corpus in drug cases and even went on to recommend public beheading of drug dealers.

    The federal government has instituted policies that have encouraged local law enforcement agencies to increasingly blur the roles of soldiers and police.

    SWAT, a specialized paramilitary force used in especially dangerous situations—think armed robberies, barricaded suspects, hostages, the Columbine school shootings—had been in existence before the drug war. But today, their mission is almost exclusively the execution of search warrants in drug cases.

    Criminologists Peter Kraska and Louis Cubellis have documented that, as of 1997, 90 percent of American cities with populations of greater than 50,000 had at least one paramilitary or SWAT unit, twice as many as the decade before.

    In the post-9/11 era, paramilitary police units have been formed in such unlikely places as Butler, Missouri (population 4,201); Mt. Orab, Ohio (2,701) and Middleburg, Pennsylvania (1,363). Even college campuses like the University of Central Florida have their own campus police SWAT units, operating independently from state and local police departments or civil authorities.

    The federal government has given local SWAT units access to highly sophisticated equipment, encouraging its use in an ever-more aggressive War on Drugs.

    Beginning with the Military Cooperation and Law Enforcement Act of 1981, the Pentagon gave local and state police access to surplus military equipment for purposes of drug interdiction. By 1997, local police departments around the country had stockpiled 1.2 million pieces of gear, including thousands of military-style M-16 automatic rifles, body armor, helmets, grenade launchers, night vision goggles, even armored personnel carriers and helicopters.

    But the military equipment transfers to local police for drug enforcement were just the first step in Washington’s intensification of the drug war.

    Throughout the 1980s, Congress and the White House together eagerly chipped away at the Civil War–era Posse Comitatus Act, which for more than a century had forbidden use of the military for civilian law enforcement purposes.

    Following Ronald Reagan’s 1986 National Security Directive declaring drugs a threat to national security, Congress ordered the National Guard to aid state drug enforcement efforts. The effect has been to order the American military to search for marijuana plants.

    By 2000, as the Cato Institute’s Diane Cecilia Weber documented, Posse Comitatus had been all but repealed with respect to drug interdiction. The first President Bush went so far as to institute a program of “regional task forces” to facilitate civilian-military cooperation in areas of intelligence sharing, equipment transfers, and training of local police in advanced military assault tactics.

    A police officer’s job is to preserve the peace, to maintain public order on the streets of America’s cities. A soldier’s job is to fight wars on foreign soil. These are two profoundly different roles.

    Tragically, the gradual evolution of local law enforcement into paramilitary units has, over a generation, dramatically changed the culture of police work—in ways the public increasingly and justifiably, finds objectionable.

    The shock-and-awe drug enforcement tactics now employed almost a thousand times each week have needlessly injected a high risk of violence into the prosecution of what are almost always non-violent, consensual crimes.

    For the innocent bystanders who get caught up in them, the paramilitary raids impose a traumatic and lasting punishment where none is justified. Even for the perpetrators, the raids constitute a reversal of the presumption of innocence (and, as evidenced so vividly by the Columbia raid, a grotesquely disproportionate response to a minor—or non-existent—offense).

    Fortunately, we are moving closer and closer to a tipping point in the effort to restore sanity to our drug laws and enforcement priorities.

    For the first time since Gallup began tracking the issue 41 years ago, fully half of Americans now support legalization of marijuana, with the issue now receiving actual majority support (55 percent) on the west coast.

    The changing public attitudes toward marijuana bode well for marijuana policy reform initiatives now being circulated in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio and Washington State, and for legislation now pending in several state houses to allow medicinal use.

    More and more Americans are coming to realize the staggering human toll—in lives, dollars, and civil liberties—of the drug war. Some of these awakening Americans are police officers—a rapidly growing minority of cops who realize the harm these tactics have done to the people they’ve been hired to serve, the risks to their own safety and wellbeing, and the erosion of public confidence and respect for law enforcement this policy has caused.

    We owe it to ourselves, and to those whose job is to help make our neighborhoods safe, to put an end to the drug war.

    Norm Stamper
    November 11, 2011

    Norm Stamper is former chief of the Seattle Police Department, and an advisory board member of NORML and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). He is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing (Nation Books, 2005).
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